PALO ALTO — "There are things that drive us all crazy," Marilyn Yalom says, "and there are things that are specific to men (such as war) and things that are specific to women." She has become convinced, too, that there is one specific to women writers: maternity, or the potential for motherhood.
Yalom, for the last decade deputy director of Stanford University's Center for Research on Women, does not share the conclusion of most feminist scholarship that women are driven to mental breakdown by the social constraints placed on them by a patriarchal society.
Rather, she adheres to the genetic predisposition theory and within that framework focuses on the external pressures that contribute to mental breakdown, among these aging and death, isolation, restrictions on freedom and responsibility. These are, of course, common to women and men but Yalom's research has led her to conclude, "The triggering agents are different."
Women writers she has studied include Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, Joanne Greenberg ("I Never Promised You a Rose Garden") and France's Marie Cardinal, all of whom endured a psychosis. From their composite experiences, she has identified as triggering agents the trauma of childbirth, motherhood and its entrapment and ways in which ability to procreate stirs memories of parents' deaths or creates fear of the death of one's own child.
"I don't want to end up giving the impression that all women go crazy because they have the potential of being mothers," Yalom said in a recent interview in her Stanford office, but she believes that "for the female artist the conflicting pressures of art and maternity can be of such intensity as to add overpowering stress to any fissure that already exists in the psychic structure."
One factor that sets women writers apart, Yalom thinks, is "their propensity for seeing their literary production as conflicting with, or substituting for, biological offspring." As an example, she cites the French writer Emma Santos, who had a stillborn child and perceived this tragedy as a kind of payment for the book she was writing, the price of words.
Yalom has set down her theories in "Maternity, Mortality and the Literature of Madness," published by the Pennsylvania State University Press.
In theorizing how maternity and motherhood form "a springboard toward madness," she differentiates between the two, defining maternity as conception, pregnancy, delivering and nurturing of infants and defining motherhood as daily care of children and the lifelong role of mother. A central theme is "the female body as proving ground for the adult woman."
Three 20th-Century Writers
Exploring mental breakdown in highly gifted women, her book focuses on three 20th-Century women writers--Plath, Cardinal and Canada's Margaret Atwood, all of whom helped to create the subgenre of the psychiatric novel and, as Yalom observes, have "given it a distinctly female cast."
Both Plath, who killed herself in 1963, the year of publication of "The Bell Jar," and Cardinal, whose works include "La Souriciere," a 1966 novel about a young mother whose depression ultimately leads to suicide, had long struggles with mental illness. "Les Mots Pour le Dire" ("The Words to Say It"), Cardinal's 1975 autobiographical novel, a confessional account of a woman's breakdown and her recovery through psychoanalysis, was a best seller in France (1.5 million copies). In his preface to the English-language edition, Bruno Bettelheim praises it as "the best" account of psychoanalysis as seen and experienced by the patient--"none can compare."
Much of the protagonist's analysis centers around her discovery, or remembrance, of being an unwanted child, one her mother had, in fact, tried to abort; this is the realization that helps her to go on to reform her relationships with her husband and children and, finally, to make peace with her mother.
Atwood's novel, "Surfacing," which traces the breakdown of a young woman alienated from herself and from society, represents the genre of what Yalom calls "visionary versions of derangement."
Yalom included Atwood, she said, because she believes that valuable literary visions of mental breakdown are not always grounded in reality (Atwood has no history of mental illness) and she perceives Atwood's use of madness less as "an artifact of personal experience than a symbolic paradigm of the quest for self-knowledge."
These and other women writers, Yalom writes, have overcome a prejudice against "most other forms of female creativity except motherhood," and "by dint of self-examination, self-torture, and an overriding desire to exorcise once and for all the demons of the mind" have re-created "worlds of suffering where no one who has been would go again by choice, worlds glimpsed only in nightmares by the rest of womankind.
"As artists, they unlock the madwoman within and give her voice, so that she speaks our hidden torments, our social indignations, our apocalyptic visions. . . ."