The arrival of a new edition of The Yellow Wallpaper and Selected Writings
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman before Christmas had me eager to read that familiar story once more and plenty more of interest in this volume too.
I lose count of the number of times I have read The Yellow Wallpaper but every time the effect is the same, it's magnificent, it's utterly tragic and I am left inwardly crying with rage.
For those who may not have read it, and if you haven't it's very short, twenty pages is all it takes to get you to boiling point. The nameless young wife accompanied by her doctor husband John, arrives at a house in the country for some rest and recuperation from what is clearly a case of post-natal depression and minus the baby who is being cared for elsewhere,
This time round I thought I'd try and read with a difference, suppress the rage and look at the actual condition of Wife of John because post-natal depression is in the news again this week
Nowadays the NICE guidelines require that all women are asked specific questions post-natally in the hope of identifying post-natal depression and we'd then usually ask anyone who expressed an inkling to complete the Edinburgh Post - Natal Depression scale.
The EPDS is one of those helpful tools made available which, as well as offering a means of quantifiable assessment, also enabled professionals to bring the whole subject of post-natal depression out into the open, permission to express feelings without fear of being judged to have somehow failed at motherhood. Ten questions, three possible answers to each and a maximum score of three for each question, a score higher than thirteen indicating depression and the higher the score out of thirty the more profound that depression.
It has had its critics and needs to be used with care.
There's no point in offering the EPDS without support systems in place to take referrals...a score of 30/30 and you need to move very fast, scores in the twenties and you need to be ensuring adequate services are available as necessary. If you are asking staff to provide regular counselling support then you must provide supervision for them and so it goes on.
Years ago we never really knew what to say or how best to treat post-natal depression and many women suffered in silence thinking they were alone. Today we should be identifying and talking about it openly and honestly and with appropriate follow-up assessment and carefully managed treatment, outcomes are very good. To have a measurable means of initial assessment is invaluable as a starting point and I have used it effectively in the workplace for many years.
I wondered if it was possible to score Wife of John on the EPDS.
If you can bear to do it try reading The Yellow Wallpaper as I did with a copy of the EPDS questions and answers alongside and see for yourself how Wife of John scores even in those first few pages of the story.
I've read the story through very very slowly at least six times now and have been very careful not to take quotes out of context to try and make them fit the questions. It's still a textbook case, Charlotte Perkins Gilman unwittingly answers all the questions and even amid the confusion of John's controlling influence over his wife's thinking it's still possible to pick out the evidence,
1. I have been able to laugh and see the funny side of things
"It does weigh on me so not to do my duty in any way!"
2. I have looked forward with enjoyment to things
" We have been here two weeks, and I haven't felt like writing before, since that first day."
3. I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong
" I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparitive burden already"
4.I have been anxious or worried for no good reason
" You see he does not believe I am sick!
And what can one do?"
5. I have felt scared or panicky for no very good reason
"I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes. I'm sure I never used to be so sensitive. I think it is due to this nervous condition"
6. Things have been getting on top of me
"I don't feel as if it was worth my while to turn my hand over for anything, and I am getting dreadfully fretful and querulous"
7.I have been so unhappy, I have had difficulty sleeping
"He thought I was asleep first but I wasn't, and I lay there for hours"
8. I have felt sad and miserable
"These nervous troubles are dreadfully depressing"
9. I have been so unhappy that I have been crying
"I cry at nothing and cry most of the time"
10. The thought of harming myself has occurred to me
"I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try."
Separated from her baby and
effectively imprisoned by the constraints of the ghastly rest cure, in
the end Wife of John's condition can only get worse, it's that old battle with the wallpaper because that's all
there is to look at. Lonely and isolated from virtually all human
contact in an attic room as she yearns for the pretty little chintzy room downstairs, the inconsolable madness is inevitable and utterly tragic to
I suspect Wife of John moves from an initial score of 23/30 towards 30/30 in the space of about six pages.
This new reading of The Yellow Wallpaper did however have one interesting outcome.
Feminist readings condition a harsh response to John but I think I have managed to read him slightly differently, not a lot but I've given a bit of ground this time round. Whilst acknowledging that his treatment of his wife undoubtedly made her far worse and many's the time I have wished much evil to befall him, we do only have Wife of John's side to the story...reliable narrator?
Reliable unreliable narrator?
Whilst the Woman in the Attic has been given a voice how can we possibly interpret that voice accurately?
Wife of John is very unwell, eventually psychotic, at which point I did have to acknowledge that for husbands and partners the whole post-natal depression scenario can be very frightening and very difficult to handle.
But in the end it was only a partial attack of sympathy, my rage over The Yellow Wallpaper still burns strong especially given the very personal context within which Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote it.
To make comparisons with how we aim to handle post-natal depression these days, a non-stigmatised non-judgemental approach, with compassion, empathy, reassurance, drug treatments as necessary, listening and supportive therapies, a containment of anxiety and above all else keeping and building that essential bond between mother and baby, whatever it takes, and The Yellow Wallpaper then becomes a book that you realise must never be allowed to go out of print.
Just in case we ever need reminding, heaven forbid but just in case.
(If reading this has raised any issues surrounding post-natal depression or you want any further information start here)