There are few writers whose name creates as immediate and profound a sense of recognition among my students as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s. I would be surprised if it were any less the case. It’s not just that nearly every one of my teaching colleagues includes “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman’s disturbing tale of a young woman suffering from postpartum depression and her steady decline, in their sophomore English syllabi. It’s how the text opens up conversations about interpretation, and character stakes, and (most importantly) the struggle of women to be heard and believed, even about that most sacrosanct of things: their knowledge of themselves.
Often, I tell my students to start by reading the article “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper?” from Gilman’s landmark feminist journal The Forerunner (published from 1909-1916) before they read the short story itself. Here. Take minute to do that. I’ll wait.
What stuns my students about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s writing — not just this story, but her essays on economics, social policy, and yes, her utopic fantasy Herland — is how much of it springs from personal experience and private conviction turned public. That she herself suffered from depression misdiagnosed as a symptom of “hysteria” and needed to endure the so-called rest cure, a frankly madness-inducing enforced isolation and mental lethargy, shakes them deeply because it reminds of them the very arguments we have today about victims, abusers, power, and the powerless.
It’s easy to lapse into thinking of authors as largely separate from what they write (it is, after all, a tent pole assertion in the debate about how to deal with the wrongs artists commit when one is a consumer of their work). The idea that something so wrenching could be in some measure autobiographical alarms my students, and motivates them to see their world differently. Most especially and most importantly, it motivates the young men in my classroom.
Consider Joanna Russ’ brilliant How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Russ’ critical treatise covers eleven key rhetorical poses adopted by those in a position to influence the landscape of publishing and criticism surrounding women writers. It’s the second of these poses that Gilman herself speaks to in “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper?”: “Such a story ought not be written…; it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it,” one of her critical contemporaries claims. Or, put in Russ’ language, “She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have.”
Or, put in the language of 2018: Charlotte Perkins Gilman was one of America’s first #MeToo voices. The “problem” with Gilman’s writing, her career, her actual voice and existence itself, according to a critic of the type Russ warns us against, is that she’s alarmist, solipsistic, divisive, even (arguably) vengeful. She doesn’t understand the difference between the way things have to be and the way she wishes they were. No one involved in her care meant her any harm, surely. She just failed to cooperate in her own best interests. Ultimately, she’s the problem.
I value Gilman’s work for how it affects the young men I teach because the young women are already painfully aware of what it’s like to be denied authority to explain their emotions, their wellness, their lives to the adults — especially the men — around them. But the young men? They’ve grown up in a world that tells them “gender politics” is basically over (or should be) and the playing field has been leveled. That the women around them experience no differences. That when oppression and dismissal did happen, it was not just in the past, but many hundreds of years ago, continents away from their present world. Doctors are experts. They are sensible people, driven by data and reason.
Many of them want to be doctors.
The conversations that open up surrounding “The Yellow Wallpaper” touch on women’s health, including abortion and birth control; parental and government intervention; gender identity; and mental health. Each of these conversations circles back to the importance of empathy in believing people’s stories and, frankly, in the business of being human, period. They talk about giving each other the space to be heard. Everyone needs to be reminded of how important that praxis is; the population with the most power to enact change, once they hear it and believe it, though, are young men. They’re the ones whose voices will ultimately move the needle, because there are still more people in the world who will believe a man before a woman, no matter what topic is at hand.
In remembering Charlotte Perkins Gilman on her birthday, we should remember her work as an author and activist was an ongoing battle against the bad faith of willful ignorance: the toxic peddling of the lie that “these bad things aren’t happening,” becoming “you shouldn’t treat these things as if they are bad,” and then “they’re not happening all that often,” before finally arriving at “you shouldn’t point out these bad things because they make us uncomfortable and that’s unfair.” Her goal was to rattle the scales off her readers’ eyes, particularly those of the men in her world. Perhaps Russ, again, describes the system Gilman tries to break apart best:
“To slide into decisions without allowing oneself to realize that one is making any, to feel dimly that one is enjoying advantages without trying to become clearly aware of what these advantages are (and who hasn’t got them), to accept mystifications because they’re customary and comfortable, cooking one’s mental books to congratulate oneself on traditional behavior as it it were actively moral behavior, to know that one doesn’t know, to prefer not to know, to defend one’s status as already knowing with half-sincere, half-selfish passion as “objectivity” — this great, fuzzy area of human ingenuity is what Jean Paul Sartre calls bad faith. When spelled out, the techniques used to maintain bad faith look morally atrocious and appalling silly.”
Celebrate the Notorious CPG today by finding that convenient self-deception around you. Ask questions. Demand answers. Agitate. Use your voice.