Fetishizing Mentally Ill Women

Amour 9

Beauty sometime, in all her glory crowned,
Passing by that cleere fountain of thine eye,
Her sun-shine face there chaunsing to espy,
Forgot herselfe, and thought she had been drowned.
And thus, whiles Beautie on her beauty gazed,
Who then, yet liuing, deemd she had been dying,
And yet in death some hope for life espying,
At her owne rare perfections so amazed;
Twixt ioy and griefe, yet with a smyling frowning,
The glorious sun-beames of her eyes bright shining,
And shee, in her owne destiny diuining,
Threw herselfe, to saue herselfe by drowning;
The Well of Nectar, pau’d with pearle and gold,
Where she remaines for all eyes to behold.

Michael Drayton’s poem from 1594 describes with love the allure of the suicide of the beautiful woman.  We love to see beautiful women who are sad and fetishize their deaths, which often occur at their own hands, and this poem is a great example.  Another example is the persisting image of Ophelia, who is the perfect suicide: she is beautiful, and her beauty enhanced by her death (think of her hair flowing in the water, wet dress seeming to cling to her despite the original play describing a ballooning effect in the river, flowers adorning her as the most beautiful marker of madness, eyes glistening with tears); though her madness was, briefly, loud and strange (as mental illness often is), in the water and in death she is silent and becomes a quiet submissive beauty rather than a raving lunatic (her death prevents the irritation that comes when women are allowed to talk).  And this is how she is so often immortalized in art: the image we recall of Ophelia is one of beauty, silence, flowers, and the glorious moments before death — we don’t not think of her triggered by cruelty, or loudly condemning men.


There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

emphasis mine

Alexandre Cabanel, 1883

By no means is  Ophelia made ugly in the play, but her death is different from its popular depiction: her clothes bloat around her like an inflatable raft rather than body-hugging wet fabric; she is out of touch with reality and sings gleefully rather than the image of her mournful expression we see in paintings; when she finally drowns, her death is muddy — characterized by filth, dirt; it is not the beautiful floral bath of her popular depictions.  The mentally ill woman is made from the already fetishized psychotic suicide to be even more fetishized: more palatably psychotic (that is to say: less vocal, more silent) and more beautifully dying.  We don’t see her die in the play but one can imagine the effect of her death on her body: bloated from drowning, hair tangled from the water, swampy from the river mud — not likely: flowing waves of hair, glowing pale skin with flushed cheeks, flowers neatly arranged about her clean dress and face.

Alexandre Cabanel, 1872 & 1883

Death, and suicide, are ugly.  The corpse is an ugly thing, the act of dying lacks beauty, and there is nothing attractive about decay.  But women have one value, and that is their beauty.  Even in death and sickness, they are only valued for their beauty — mental illness or suicide only serve to make a beauty more exciting.  So in the case of Ophelia, the problem of ugliness is avoided by depicting her pre-suicide, or depicting her death as a fantasy with little bearing on reality.  And it is disgusting that we would want to, and almost always do, turn a tragedy and illness into a fantasy.

John Everett Millais, 1852

When we think of mental illness and suicide in women, we have images of youth, thinness, pale skin, cleanliness, and above all, natural beauty.  We love women who die by suicide, especially young ones.  Their youth and beauty is  forever preserved and they will never grow old.  They are made different from other girls because of their sadness: a depth that is there only for appeal, rather than discussion, introspection, examination; of course, you can’t go into the effects of mental illness when the person who is ill is now dead.  We love when self-destruction is fun and seems to damage no one but the girl who self-destructs: for everyone else, her life is just a sexy party; for her, she’s slowly dying and will end in a death that silences her before her self-destruction becomes less than fun and before age can claim her beauty.

John William Waterhouse, 1894

We reduce mentally ill women to flat extremes, where they become nothing but sexy and sad.  We forget they had problems and lives outside their illnesses.  We love Marilyn Monroe but don’t talk about how troubled she was and how much help she really needed.  We love Jean Seberg but think of her as the French-chic pixie with a sad end rather than a supporter of the Black Panthers who struggled with her acting career.  Vivien Leigh is a beautiful, young glamour icon, not someone whose illness destroyed her marriage and aged her prematurely.  Edie Sedgwick is a wide-eyed party girl who’s a bit deeper than your regular party girl because she was sad; we don’t think about histories of trauma or drug addiction.  We love Sylvia Plath but broadly her work isn’t taken as seriously as men poets, and we love to remember her blonde, all-American good looks while diminishing her writing talent.

Arthur Hughes, 1863

Plath is a good example of the most willful ignorance that surrounds mentally ill and suicidal women.  The Bell Jar is reduced to school-girl nonsense that only naive, uneducated girls seem to enjoy because they are not smart enough to read something with more depth or value.  It is seen as self-indulgent.  It is seen as shallow.  It is seen as simply not as good (complete the sentence: as the work of men).  A gross double standard: we rarely discuss the self-indulgence of, for instance, Hemingway, nor do we discuss his beauty or looks when talking about his suicide.  Yet we love to look at Plath, images of her in a bikini, in a cute dress, in a sweater looking straight at the camera, bangs curled, hair loose or up, smiling or smouldering.  We can fetishize this.  We can take her and give her a certain value.  We can consume her and her death in a way that doesn’t apply to someone like Anne Sexton, who is rarely fetishized or consumed, or Virginia Woolf, who is often mocked for her ugliness — both writers who have perhaps gained more respect for their work and talent than Plath, but who are not quite so strangely beloved.  They are loved for their skills, Plath is loved for her tragedy.  Because she fits into our model of the perfect suicide, and when we can diminish women we will.  This is not to say that she was oppressed by her good looks or that Woolf and Sexton being taken seriously rather than being thought of as primarily beautiful is a bad thing.  This is to say that the way we love to consume the deaths of beautiful women, the way we reduce women to their beauty, is disgusting.

Marcus Stone, 1887

An issue is that there is no shying away from the reality of women’s mental illness — it’s not like the grotesqueness of it all is hidden.  The Bell Jar describe how the protagonist becomes so ugly after her suicide attempt that she is not permitted a mirror.  We have descriptions of weight gain and loss, bruised skin, bad haircuts; deaths in dirty basement crawlspaces, deaths of characters described as looking like horses.  For another example, Anne Sexton describes suicide as:

I have rested, drooling at the mouth-hole.

I did not think of my body at needle point.
Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.
Suicides have already betrayed the body.

Jules Joseph Lefebvre, 1890

But we never think of how mental illness betrays the body.  We do not think of illness preventing someone from caring for themselves and descending into filth and clutter and stench.  We do not think of the scars of self harm.  We do not think of weight gain or loss from disordered eating, nor the effect on the body that substance abuse can have.  We do not think of how lack of sleep can impact appearance.  We do not consider how all of these things, going on for years, can age you prematurely, and how unsexy that really is.  Nor do we think about deaths.  Bodies bloated from drownings, faces bruised and filled with blood from hangings.  The woman covered in her own vomit after an overdose.  The exploded head from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  None of this matters when women’s mental illness and suicide is a fantasy: in that fantasy, everything is clean, no one ages, no one talks about their illness, and death is a preservation of beauty and a confirmation of an emotional depth that you never have to deal with because you don’t have to deal with problems that are dead.

The grotesque and painful reality of mental illness is unacceptable.  Sickness is unacceptable.  Women will never meet up to the standards of the fantasy, especially when things are bad.  We will never be Ophelias, and we will never be understood.  We will only be shamed more and more for not being fantasies in real life.

Elizabethan Sadness

Amour 14

Looking into the glasse of my youths miseries,
I see the ugly face of my deformed cares,
With withered browes, all wrinckled with despaires,
That for my mis-spent youth the tears fel from my eyes.
Then in these teares, the mirror of these eyes,
They fayrest youth and Beautie doe I see
Imprinted in my teares by looking still on thee:
Thus midst a thousand woes then thousand joyes arise.
Yet in these joyes, the shadowes of my good,
In this fayre limned ground as white as snow,
Paynted the blackest Image of my woe,
With murthering hands imbru’d in my blood:
And in this Image his darke clowdy eyes,
My life, my youth, my loue, I here Anotamize.


Amour 43

Why doe I speake of ioy, or write of loue,
When my hart is the very Den of horror,
And in my soule the paynes of hell I proue,
With all his torments and infernall terror?
Myne eyes want teares thus to bewayle my woe,
My brayne is dry with weeping all too long;
My sighes be spent with griefe and sighing so,
And I want words for to expresse my wrong.
But still, distracted in loues lunacy,
And Bedlam like thus rauing in my griefe,
Now rayle vpon her hayre, now on her eye,
Now call her Goddesse, then I call her thiefe;
Now I deny her, then I doe confesse her,
Now I doe curse her, then againe I blesse her.


Sonnet 12
To Lunacie

As other men, so I my selfe doe muse,
Why in this sort I wrest Inuention so,
And why these giddy metaphors I vse,
Leauing the path the greater part doe goe;
I will resolue your; I am lunaticke,
And euer this in mad men you shall finde,
What they last thought on when the braine grew sick,
In most distraction keepe that still in minde.
This talking idely in this beldam fit
Reason and I, (you must conceiue) are twaine,
‘Tis nine yeeres, now, since, first I lost my wit
Beare with me, then, though troubled be my braine;
With diet and correction, men distraught,
(Not too farre past) may to their wits be brought.

I hope Persephone is OK

It’s June but it’s been getting so cold out and storming, and my first thought was “Something must have happened to Persephone.  Demeter is unhappy.”

Sometimes I find online posts about how we must honour Persephone’s choice to go to the underworld, and the aggressive insistence is somewhat disturbing.  To think of Persephone’s kidnapping as violent is sexist… because we have to allow women the choice to be kidnapped.  We have to allow women to enjoy being brutalized or kept from their loved ones.

tumblr_o8lsa8o1x91vt9xyco1_540 (1)

My favourite depiction of Persephone comes from Louise Glück’s Averno.  In it, she tackles how no matter what, it seems that we never care about Persephone, who’s story is far too complicated.  Instead we think about how Demeter feels and project Demeter’s feelings onto her daughter, or we think of how Hades feels and project Hades feelings onto his wife.  So here is Glück’s Persephone:


Persephone the Wanderer

In the first version, Persephone
is taken from her mother
and the goddess of the earth
punishes the earth–this is
consistent with what we know of human behaviour,

that human beings take profound satisfaction
in doing harm, particularly
unconscious harm:

we may call this
negative creation

Persephone’s initial
sojourn in hell continues to be
pawed over by scholars who dispute
the sensations of the virgin:

did she cooperate in her rape,
or was she drugged, violated against her will,
as happens so often now to modern girls.

As is well known, the return of the beloved
does not correct
the loss of the beloved: Persephone

returns home
stained with red juice like
a character in Hawthorne–

I am not certain I will
keep this word: is earth
“home” to Persephone? Is she at home, conceivably
in the bed of the god? Is she
at home nowhere? Is she
a born wanderer, in other words
an existential
replica of her own mother, less
hamstrung by ideas of causality?

You are allowed to like
no one, you know.  The characters
are not people.
They are aspects of a dilemma or conflict.

Three parts: just as the soul is divided,
ego, superego, id.  Likewise

the three levels of the known world,
a kind of diagram that separates
heaven from earth from hell.
You must ask yourself:
where is it snowing?

White of forgetfulness,
of desecration–

It is snowing on earth; the cold wind says

Persephone is having sex in hell.
Unlike the rest of us, she doesn’t know
what winter is, only that
she is what causes it.

She s lying in the bed of Hades.
What is in her mind?
Is she afraid? Has something
blotted out the idea
of mind?

She does know the earth
is run by mothers, this much
is certain.  She also knows
she is not what is called
a girl any longer.  Regarding
incarceration, she believes

she has been a prisoner since she has been a daughter.

The terrible reunion in store for her
will take up the rest of her life.
When the passion for expiation
is chronic, fierce, you do not choose
the way you live.  You do not live;
you are not allowed to die.

You drift between earth and death
which seem, finally,
strangely alike.  Scholars tell us

that there is no point in knowing what you want
when the forces contending over you
could kill you.

White of forgetfulness,
white of safety–

They say
there is a rift in the human soul
which was not constructed to belong
entirely to life.  Earth

asks us to deny this rift, a threat
disguised as suggestion–
as we have seen
in the tale of Persephone
which should be read

as an argument between the mother and the lover–
the daughter is just meat.

When death confronts her, she has never seen
the meadow without the daisies.
Suddenly she is no longer
singing her maidenly songs
about her mother’s
beauty and fecundity.  Where
the rift is, the break is.

Song of the earth,
song of the mythic vision of eternal life–

My soul
shattered with t he strain
of trying to belong to earth–

what will you do,
when it is your turn in the field with the god?


A Myth of Innocence

One summer she goes into the field as usual
stopping for a bit at the pool where she often
looks at herself, to see
is she detects any changes.  She sees
the same person, the horrible mantle
of daughterliness still clinging to her.

The sun seems, in the water, very close.
That’s my uncle spying again, she thinks–
everything in nature is in some way her relative.
I am never alone, she thinks,
turning the thought into a prayer.
Then death appears, like the answer to a prayer.

No one understands anymore
how beautiful he was.  But Persephone remembers.
Also that he embraced her, right there,
with her uncle watching.  She remembers
sunlight flashing on his bare arms.

This is the last moment she remembers clearly.
Then the dark god bore her away.

She also remembers, less clearly,
the chilling insight that from this moment
she couldn’t live without him again.

The girl who disappears from the pool
will never return.  A woman will return,
looking for the girl she was.

She stands by the pool saying, from time to time,
I was abducted, but it sounds
wrong to her, nothing like what she felt.
Then she says, I was not abducted.

Then she says, I offered myself, I wanted
to escape my body.  
Even, sometimes,
I willed this.  But ignorance

cannot will knowledge.  Ignorance
wills something imagined, which it believes exists.

All the different nouns–
she says them in rotation.
Death, husband, god, stranger.
Everything sounds so simple, so conventional.
I must have been, she things, a simple girl.

She can’t remember herself as that person
but she keeps thinking the pool will remember
and explain to her the meaning of her prayer
so she can understand
whether it was answered or not.


A Myth of Devotion

When Hades decided he loved this girl
he built for her a duplicate of earth,
everything the same, down to the meadow,
but with a bed added.

Everything the same, including sunlight,
because it would be hard on a young girl
to go so quickly from bright light to utter darkness.

Gradually, he thought, he’d introduce the night,
first as the shadows of fluttering leaves.
Then moon, then stars.  Then no moon, no stars.
Let Persephone get used to it slowly.
In the end, he thought, she’d find it comforting.

A replica of earth
except there was love here.
Doesn’t everyone want love?

He waited many years,
building a world, watching
Persephone in the meadow.
Persephone, a smeller, a taster.
If you have one appetite, he thought,
you have them all.

Doesn’t everyone want to feel in the night
the beloved body, compass, polestar,
to hear the quiet breathing that says
I am alive, that means also
you are alive, because you hear me,
you are here with me.  And when one turns,
the other turns–

That’s what he felt, the lord of darkness,
looking at the world he had
constructed for Persephone.  It never crossed his mind
that there’d be no more smelling here,
certainly no more eating.

Guilt? Terror? The fear of love?
These things he couldn’t imagine;
no lover ever imagines them.

He dreams, he wonders what to call this place.
First he things: The New Hell. Then: The Garden.
In the end, he decides to name it
Persephone’s Girlhood.

A soft light rising above the level meadow,
behind the bed.  He takes her in his arms.
He wants to say I love you, nothing can hurt you

but he thinks
this is a lie, so he says in the end
you’re dead, nothing can hurt you
which seems to him
a more promising beginning, more true.


Persephone the Wanderer

In the second version, Persephone
is dead.  She dies, her mother grieves–
problems of sexuality need not
trouble us here.

Compulsively, in grief, Demeter
circles the earth.  We don’t expect to know
what Persephone is doing.
She is dead, the dead are mysteries.

We have here
a mother and a cipher: this is
accurate to the experience
of the mother as
she looks into the infant’s face.  She thinks:
I remember when you didn’t exist.  The inant
is puzzled; later, the child’s opinion is
she has always existed, just as

her mother has always existed
in her present form.  Her mother
is like a figure at a bus stop,
an audience for the bus’s arrival.  Before that,
she was the bus, a temporary
home or convenience.  Persephone, protected,
stares out the window of the chariot.

What does she see? A morning
in early spring, in April.  Now

her whole life is beginning–unfortunately
it’s going to be
a short life.  She’s going to know, really,
only two adults: death and her mother.
But two is
twice what he mother has:
her mother has

one child, a daughter.
As a god, she could have had
a thousand children.

We begin to see here
the deep violence of the earth

whose hostility suggests
she has no wish
to continue as a source of life.

And why is this hypothesis
never discussed?  Because
it is not in the story; it only
creates the story.

In grief, after the daughter dies,
the mother wanders the earth.
She is preparing her case;
like a politician
she remembers everything and admits

For example, her daughter’s
birth was unbearable, her beauty
was unbearable: she remembers this.
She remembers Persephone’s
innocence, her tenderness–

What is she planning, seeking her daughter?
She is issuing
a warning whose implicit message is:
what are you doing outside my body?
You ask yourself:
why is the mother’s body safe?

The answer is
this is the wrong question, since

the daughter’s body
doesn’t exist, except
as a branch of the mother’s body
that needs to be
reattached at any cost.

When a god grieves it means
destroying others (as in war)
while at the same time petitioning
to reverse agreements (as in war also):

if Zeus will get her back,
winter will end.

Winter will end, spring will return.
The smal pestering breezes
that I so loved, the idiot yellow flowers–

Spring will return, a dream
based on a falsehood:
that the dead return.

was used to death.  Now over and over
her mother hauls her out again–

You must ask yourself:
are the flowers real?  If

Persephone “returns” there will be
one of two reasons:

either she was not dead or
she is being used
to support a fiction–

I think  I can remember
being dead.  Many times, in winter,
I approached Zeus.  Tell me, I would ask him,
how can I endure the earth?

And he would say,
in a short time you will be here again.
and in the time between

you will forget everything:
those fields of ice will be
the meadows of Elysium.


Perhaps the issue is that Persephone, even when we focus on her perspective, is reduced to her status as prize, as meat, thrown between the mother and husband, torn at and bleeding till it’s nothing but shreds on either side.  She is: sex, love, marriage.  She is not allowed to be more.  Her agency, her whole self, is only that.  And that’s why it’s a sad thing to focus on, because she is not allowed to be anything but “Was it rape or was it love?” which itself is a product of misogyny, rape culture.


Poems for the earliest moments of April 21st

From Sara Teasdale’s Rivers to the Sea


  THE roofs are shining from the rain,
The sparrows twitter as they fly,
And with a windy April grace
The little clouds go by.

  Yet the back-yards are bare and brown
With only one unchanging tree—
I could not be so sure of Spring
Save that it sings in me.

Deep in the Night

  DEEP in the night the cry of a swallow,
Under the stars he flew,
Keen as pain was his call to follow
Over the world to you.

  Love in my heart is a cry forever
Lost as the swallow’s flight,
Seeking for you and never, never
Stilled by the stars at night.


  I LIFT my heart as spring lifts up
A yellow daisy to the rain;
My heart will be a lovely cup
Altho’ it holds but pain.

  For I shall learn from flower and leaf
That color every drop they hold,
To change the lifeless wine of grief
To living gold.


 I WENT out on an April morning
All alone, for my heart was high,
I was a child of the shining meadow,
I was a sister of the sky.

  There in the windy flood of morning
Longing lifted its weight from me,
Lost as a sob in the midst of cheering,
Swept as a sea-bird out to sea.


Dark-Eyed Sleep

Dark-eyed Sleep, child of Night,
Come in thy shadow garment to my couch,
And with thy soothing touch,
Cool as the vesper breeze,
Grant that I may forget;

Bestow condign release,
A taste of rest that comes with endless sleep;
Lure off the haunting dreams,
The dire Eumenides
That torture my repose.

For I would live a space
Though Phaon has forsaken me, nor yet
Be found on shadow fields
Among the lilies tall
Of pale Persephone.

On Being Ill, Part 2.

“I can’t sleep. I can’t read.” I tried to speak in a cool, calm way, but the zombie rose up in my throat and choked me off. I turned my hands palm up.

— The Bell Jar/Sylvia Plath
I can’t make decisions
I can’t eat
I can’t sleep

I can’t think

— 4.48 Psychosis / Sarah Kane

I have been trying to read The Castle for months.  I like Kafka normally.  Amerika/ The Man Who Disappeared is my favourite, probably, of what I’ve read.  But all I can really consume lately has been poetry or plays or books I’m rereading.  Things that are fragmented or familiar, easily consumed and quickly understood.  A page long poem with 90 words in it, all about feelings and pretty words (not to be reductive) is much easier to take in.  And though I know I love Kafka, I look at the page and it feels like the words are slipping through my fingers like water.

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“You’re sitting down, squished between the bench and the bar, a book open on your knees; you haven’t read in a long time.”

I watch Un Homme qui dort recently and it has the same theme: I can no longer read.  Or write or study or eat.  Then the contradictions: I can’t sleep or wake up, I can’t go out or stay in.  I can’t eat (as I finish  half a round of camembert at 2 am).  I can’t read (as I go through volumes of poetry).


I can’t function and Virginia Woolf reassures me that for many, this means that prose is too much to swallow.  Food has become a constant theme of my reading, for some reason.  I am fascinated and compelled to document it.  So to continue with the food metaphor: literature is food.  Even if you can’t stomach prose, you need some sort of sustenance.  Poetry won’t upset your stomach, maybe.

“And death took root in that sleep.” : The Death Notebooks, 2.

The Fury of Rain Storms

The rain drums down like red ants,
each bouncing off my window.
These ants are in great pain
and they cry out as they hit,
as if their little legs were only
stitched on and their heads pasted.
And oh they bring to mind the grave,
so humble, so willing to be beat upon
with its awful lettering and
the body lying underneath
without an umbrella.
Depression is boring, I think,
and I would do better to make
some soup and light up the cave.

Depression is boring, and monotonous, but Anne Sexton can write a decade’s worth of poems about being depressed and all I do is consume them greedily!  Why?

I read so much literature by and and about sad women.  I’m in a phase where I refuse to read about sad men, since their sadness is so unimportant and without real sting (the stuff written by greasy 50-something philosophers who drink cognac and sleep with 20-year old college girls with amazing breasts — but they still fear death).

So: I cannot stand this patriarchal existentialism, and I will only consume the purest form of sadness.  But sadness is boring.  It’s the same thing over and over: “I am in pain.  You hurt me.  I hurt myself.”  And I won’t take just any sadness, only the most raw, real, bleeding sadness (it’s the difference between touching a scab and sticking your finger into a canker sore).  On a certain level there’s an element of relatability, an acknowledgment of humanity (you’re no longer the object of desire of the sad aging male poet, nor the woman he rejects for her/your ugliness and abjection — you’re real, central, have consciousness).  And in its rawness (and I guess the shock that comes with it), it’s this kind of writing that makes for better reading.

Part of me feels like to enjoy Anne Sexton is to fetishize women’s sadness, or perhaps to fetishize sadness in general.  She wrote great poems about being sad, and why should we enjoy that, beyond the thrill of recognition or encounter with the strange?  I’m not trying to say that Anne Sexton was nothing but her sadness — we all know she was skilled and covered numerous topics and was exceptionally complex — but my main thought is: how do we enjoy and consume sadness and what does it mean.