Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Common Theme, and More on Zelda

Some of that promised extrapolation:

To expand upon a theme introduced in the narrative of Zelda Fitzgerald: the involuntary institutionalization of women, past and present.

Required reading: Dr. Catharine MacKinnon's "Sex, Lies, and Psychotherapy" in the anthology Women's Lives, Men's Laws, available in excerpt form here and discussed here.

To save the blog author from unnecessary stress, summary is given thus: Psychiatric medicine has long been used to the detriment of women. If a woman spoke up about domestic abuse, sexual abuse, childhood molestation, or simple dissatisfaction with her expected role of wife/homemaker/mother, she was usually forced into psychotherapy and often into involuntary institutionalization. Diagnosis: hysteria.

The longstanding trope of woman-as-inferior-flighty-and-stupid was used to place women into genuine harm's way. Many 'therapeutic' methods were in fact quite torturous and did little to no help, often exacerbating the woman's trauma until she did in fact require hospitalization.

Once hospitalized, women were subjected to more mistreatment. Forced lobotomies, "which [were] performed on thousands of women mere decades ago, with the surgeons themselves concluding after followup with lobotomized women that the procedure made these mutilated women 'good housekeepers'" (source, here). "Hydrobath" (being restrained in a bathtub full of ice and cold water). Electroshock treatment. Insulin shock treatment. Physical restraints. Sexual assault by guards, doctors, other patients (often under the guise of 'treatment' when perpetrated by doctors).

Some of the women in question were genuinely "mentally ill" and perhaps acted out inappropriate or violent behaviors upon themselves or others. Many had eating disorders and/or self-harmed. Many were what would now be considered transgendered, or even simply not compliant with society's view of an appropriately feminine, submissive woman. Some didn't want children. Some talked back to their husbands. Some murdered their domestically abusive husbands because of a lack of legal recourse to otherwise escape their situations. Some murdered their children due to postpartum depression, which was thought not to exist and for which there was thus no proper support. Some were artists. Some had "too much sex", "thought too much about sex," didn't want to have sex, or didn't want to have "enough sex". Many upon many had been raped, often repeatedly, by different people.* Perhaps most were simply depressed about their limited power in society, and felt 'out of sorts' being stuck in the kitchen all day.

None of them deserved the 'treatment' they were given in the institutions.

Whether Zelda Fitzgerald was abused or mistreated in the institution is unknown. Regardless, she was certainly imprisoned, both literally by her husband and metaphorically by society.

The fact that she died in a survivable fire is reminiscent of another entirely survivable fire: that of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where women were imprisoned by their bosses and either burned or leapt to their deaths because they could not escape the building. Like Zelda, they were restrained by people they should have been able to at least trust**, and also by the society at large. Had all of these women escaped their physical bounds and the fires which ended their lives, they would have still been at large in a society where their options were limited, socially, intellectually, economically, emotionally.

Have we really come that far?

* The cycle of sexual abuse often begins with childhood molestation, and can make victims more vulnerable to repeat attacks, often by trusted intimate partners.

** Discussions of capitalism and the radical-feminist and primitivist implications of marriage aside.

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