Despite the strides that have been made in recent decades toward understanding mental illness, we’re still uncomfortable admitting that women can be violent—a discomfort that may have dangerous consequences.
“In a rage I pulled the bathroom lamp off the wall and felt the violence go through me but not yet out of me … I bang my head over and over against the door. God make it stop, I can’t stand it, I know I’m insane again … ‘I can’t leave you like this,’ but I say a few truly awful things and then go for his throat in a more literal way, and he does leave me, provoked beyond endurance and unable to see the devastation and despair inside.”
In this passage of clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison’s 1995 memoir “An Unquiet Mind,” the author describes a full-blown psychotic episode that brings an evening with a lover to a harrowing conclusion. Shortly after her companion flees the scene, she takes a massive overdose of lithium, the drug used to regulate her manic brain, with every intention of killing her inner demon once and for all.
Jamison’s seminal chronicle of life with manic depression is as much about the world’s perception of the disease as it is about her personal struggle. She points out that while depression is twice as common in women as in men, manic-depressive illnesses are equally spread between the sexes. Due to the focus on women and depression over women and mania, often women go misdiagnosed, their violent or suicidal tendencies overlooked. Depression, she writes, is more fitting with society’s view of women as “passive, sensitive, hopeless, helpless, stricken, dependent, confused, rather tiresome, and with limited aspirations” than mania’s more virile, vigorous profile. This misperception is both false and dangerous: it’s what leads medical professionals to underestimate the threat patients can pose to themselves and others.
Perhaps it’s because even the most benign signs of aggression or violence in women under stress are so reluctantly acknowledged. Though postpartum depression (or the less clinical “baby blues”) is known to afflict a fair number of women, new research suggests that postpartum anxiety or OCD may be even more prevalent. A 2013 study on new mothers at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital found that while postpartum OCD often took the form of a normal maternal worry turned obsessive—women washing their hands and their children’s hands over and over again to stave off germs, for example—mothers also reported harboring violent images and fear of harming their babies. Paralyzed by these disturbing, intrusive thoughts, women who suffer from postpartum OCD or anxiety may become reluctant to be left alone with their children. As one mother, stricken by obsessive thoughts about dropping or drowning her infant son, explained to researchers at Yale: “You get to this point where you don’t trust yourself because the self you knew would never have that thought.”
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Researchers theorize that postpartum anxiety and OCD are byproducts of a woman’s hyperaware, hormone-driven state following childbirth. When this genetic protection instinct goes too far, it can lead her to obsess over her own mental state and start to believe that she is a threat to her child. While there are very rare examples of postpartum psychosis, a delusion-driven state that, in even rarer cases, can end in suicide or infanticide, the vast majority of mothers will never harm themselves or their infants. The conviction that the feeling isn’t “normal” only perpetuates the anxiety. As with violent fantasies in manic depressives, fear of being stigmatized as a potential “baby killer” can be enough to prevent women from seeking help.
The societal discomfort with women suffering from manic states, both chronic and postpartum, crystallizes in the myth that surrounds Sylvia Plath: a writer whose startling poems are often overshadowed by the macabre image of her self-inflicted death-by-gas-oven. Male critics can’t seem to resist reading her poems as omens and painting Plath as both priestess and victim at the altar. Critic Denis Donoghue wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Plath’s early poems “offered themselves for sacrifice” and “showed what self-absorption makes possible for art, and the price that must be paid for it, in the art as clearly as in the death.” Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky wrote that the violence of her work “returns to that violence of imagination,” implying that Plath’s demise was the result of her ego-driven pursuit of an “ideal self.” These critics break the Poetry 101 rule of critical analysis by conflating Plath’s performative, poetic “I” with Plath herself. “Doomed from the start” seems to excuse them from dwelling in the complex, ambiguous, and often uncomfortable world of her poetry.
Today, we see this discomfort with a “violent” female writer played out before our eyes with the attempts to unmask Elena Ferrante, the anonymous bestselling Italian author of the Neapolitan novels. The novels center around women who both suffer from and perpetrate emotional and physical violence in their poverty-blighted neighborhood. Why the obsession with outing the woman behind the Ferrante penname—one that threatens to eclipse thoughtful criticism of her work and its impact on society? Perhaps the wish to know the author’s real identity is really a desire to control the all-too-realistic women—alternatingly victims and cheats, damsels and dictators—that Ferrante has released unto the world through her novels.
In popular culture, violent women become extreme archetypes: a slickly dressed Uma Thurman swinging nunchucks on a stylized Tarantino set, the crimes of real-life serial murderer Aileen Wuornos brought to Oscar-winning life by Charlize Theron in “Monster.” Even the nuanced conversations we could be having about these women, both real and fictionalized, tend to be cut short. Google “Charlize Theron Monster” and you mostly get analyses of how the beautiful, lithe Theron transformed into a sallow, overweight prostitute for the silver screen—not critical examinations of her portrayal of a profoundly disturbed woman. Our society is still not comfortable with the ambiguity of violence wrought by the hands of women, without glamorizing, fetishizing, or tempering it.
For women fighting manic illnesses or postpartum anxiety, the potential for violence is not cool, composed, or easily cordoned off as antisocial outlier. The brilliant but manipulative Lila of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels has her own struggles with mental instability—what she names “dissolving margins,” an alarming sensation of the tangible world losing its solidity. Ferrante said in a 2016 interview with The New Yorker that she is drawn as a writer not to stories of salvation, but to “images of crisis, to seals that are broken.” The constantly shifting, mutable boundaries of the interior world—a manic episode, an unbidden thought, a swell of angry creative energy—shouldn’t have to be labeled or explained away, but discussed and explored, in life as in art.
Artwork by Anja Niemi
In her latest series, Short Stories, Anja Niemi presents 140 sheets of peel-apart Polaroids. For 12 months she worked solely with a 1970s Polaroid Press camera. In an effort to work on something that would be slow to make and time-consuming to look at, she produced around 500 Polaroids, and from them edited down and created eight short stories containing fictional characters, objects, landscapes, and interiors—all in some way connected to each other.