A Case of Hysteria

She Must Be Mad

In the nineteenth century, psychiatrists falsely diagnosed depression and other ailments as neurasthenia—a kind of weakness of the nerves, like hysteria. The usual remedy was bed rest. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins, published in 1892, is a semiautobiographical short story about the hazards of the rest cure. It highlights the plight of women who were seen as more susceptible to mental breakdown simply because of their biology. Sylvia Plath’s lone novel The Bell Jar was published one month before her suicide. While fictional, the protagonist shares many of Plaths’ experiences, including psychiatric treatment, hospitalization, and crises of identity and sexuality. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, mental illness plays a critical role with one of the characters facing the same bipolar disorder as the author. Woolf received treatment at various asylums before committing suicide by drowning. Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald had a notoriously unconventional marriage, filled with infidelity, heavy drinking, and toxic fights. In 1932, while undergoing treatment for schizophrenia, she wrote Save Me the Waltz—a semiautobiographical account of their unraveling marriage. Following its publication, Zelda spent the rest of her life in and out of mental institutions. Sadly, she perished in a hospital fire, locked in a room while awaiting electroshock therapy.

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