Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness.
Ed. Rose Yndigoyen.
New Lit Salon Press, 2014.
Review by Sarah-Jean Krahn, Managing Editor, don’t die press
This quirky, ultra-readable collection, riffing off the quintessential madness fiction by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, opens with a piece that alludes to madness as an act of defiance for women. There is something appealing about madness when it means you tear your body out of the current realm and present it to The Gaze as unintelligible. Each remaining story tampers with this motif via some unique twist that confuses the spectrum of feeling, from insidious numbness in “The Safety Pin Patient Test” to traumatic intensity in “The Color of Nothing.”
When emotional ferocity seizes women consumed by husband or children, at first glance some feminist readers may be turned off. However, with careful consideration we can see that, for the most part, this is the choice that has been presented to the characters as most meaningful. For example, in “Waiting for Jordan,” the single sentence “This is all her fault” reveals the double-bind of women locked into a nuclear family life, yet who themselves earn the blame for apparently locking men into the same patriarchal ultimatum. Meanwhile, the protagonist’s dreams of the 72 virgins calling to her hint at an unfulfilled queer curiosity that won’t allow the reader satisfaction with the suggestion that she is irreparably depressed at being separated from her husband on military tour.
The stories that recreate women characters responsible for murder reveal a frantic need in the feminist imagination to destroy the smelted, inflexible and punishing casts of patriarchal rule. Still, some readers may find these, like some of the photographs depicting the bloody saturation of madness, disturbing. The allure of the photographs is that they have been designed to match each story, and so reflect the desperation, obsession, downfall; the grit, ingenuity, sincerity of the characters. So, keep reading, and notice the overlay of trip wires and drone strikes that drive the characters to their betrayal or brutality. The later story “Thread,” while starring a character of innocence in action but acumen in human agony, unwinds these stealthy tricks of the patriarchy and lays them bare for reckoning.
The collection would not be complete without those pieces which implicate, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman does, the noose that madness itself can be when it is fastened to women by men. Men who doctor, men who mind-doctor, men who dictate women’s futures; men who abuse, men who slut-shame, men who extol women’s obedience—they are the origins of true madness, and the patriarchy benefits when women comply with lobotomized tranquility. In “Behind the Yellow Wallpaper,” women find comfort in a madness all their own when the straitjacket of patriarchy fails to conform to their bodies. Madness is a homecoming, a relief, a joy, as the characters alter not their bodies but the time-space around them to provide habitat that better suits their needs.
Excerpt by Colleen Donnelly — read more in Issue 4.3, coming soon!
Felicia momentarily pulled her glasses down, seeming to stare dutifully, sympathetically, peering into Ms. Levine’s heart. She made her voice waver just a tad, as she lowered her tone to utter the always terrifying edict, “You have cancer.” She could hear the whistle as Ms. Harding gulped back air. “Colorectal cancer. Stage III. I’m sorry to say the prognosis is not good.”
She watched Ms. Levine intently as she delivered the sentence. Ms. Levine seemed to shrink in the chair, head dropping, shoulders caving, as she tried to draw herself into a protective ball. Felicia held her hand out across the desk, Ms. Levine took it. Felicia squeezed and then gently stroked it – limited tactile contact indicating compassion. The desk was the court they’d play across. Sitting in adjacent chairs or together on a couch next to the fountain would invite soulful pats, perhaps a reaffirming hug or two that could complicate the negotiations. Collaboration was a necessary tightly-controlled, staged illusion.
Ms. Levine withdrew her hand, took a moment to compose and draw herself more upright once again and asked, “And what exactly are my options?”