Go to Homepage   Elayne Clift (Ed.): Women's Encounters with the Mental Health Establishment -- Escaping the Yellow Wallpaper


Crescent Blues Book ViewsHaworth Press (Trade Paperback), ISBN: 0789015463

If for no other reason, I would be glad that Elayne Clift published this collection of stories, essays and poems because it includes a hard-to-find gem of a short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1892. The story's main character -- a delicate, young, doctor's wife -- narrates "The Yellow Wallpaper" in a genteel way that belies, although not for long, the immense frustrations of the life she must live. Her story draws the reader gently, inexorably into the head of a woman as she suffers a mental breakdown. So gently that its climax chills all the more for being so unsuspected if not, in retrospect, unforeseen.

Book: elayne clift, somen's encouters with the mental health system - escaping the yellow awllpaper

But Clift's anthology offers much, much more. Mental illness touches most of us, either directly or through the people we love. Yet it seems that few of us know much at all about it, except that it carries a stigma. The world lumps the many kinds and varying degrees of mental illness together, and stashes them all beneath a not-to-be-talked-about blanket. Too often this attitude causes the mentally ill to feel alone, guilty and ashamed.

The contributions to Women's Encounters with the Mental Health Establishment -- Escaping the Yellow Wallpaper run the gamut of illness and recovery. Some stories share with the reader the terrifying experience of wondering whether one will be able to withstand a growing compulsion to kill oneself. Another explains to those who never needed to know, how the pain of self-mutilation can provide a welcome relief from the suffering of one's tormented spirit.

Other narratives rant about the crass insensitivity of inept, uncaring mental health practitioners who do more harm than good to their patients. In contrast, one writer thanks the special someone who helped her to survive and leave behind everything about her illness except the memories.

All these memoirs, painful recollections, and cathartic outpourings point to one common theme: the mental health establishment in the United States, the clinics, the procedures, the nursing staff and the psychiatrists and counselors do an inadequate job in the treatment of their female patients. Sick women -- sick young girls even -- need to be acknowledged as human beings and to be treated in a respectful manner. Too often, this anthology shows us, we deny this fundamental courtesy to women when they become mental health patients.

The forty or so women who contributed to Escaping the Yellow Wallpaper argue for the understanding and empathy of those of us who care for or live with someone suffering mental illness. They also serve to assure those who must wage a lifelong battle with mental illness or suffer a mercifully short bout of depression, that they are not alone. Regardless of one's mental health, a human being remains worthy of dignity and deserving of respect.

Moira Richards

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