Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a semiautobiographical short story, in which Gilman gives us an idea about the nineteenth century’s very famous and most popular treatment for women’s nervous illness and depression, which is called “The Rest Cure.” It is a special term of treatment where a patient, especially a woman, spends a specific amount of time in inactivity or leisure with the intention of improving their physical or mental health (Rest Cure). The Narrator of the story is a new mother who suffers from mental illness. Her husband takes her to, as she describes it, “a colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house” (76) to get the proper rest and get well soon. But the process of the rest cure literally follows the term of “do nothing” which is actually harmful for women’s mental and physical health. After using the term of “the rest cure” for a long time, medical scientists and researchers found that “the birth of a baby can trigger a jumble of powerful emotions, from excitement and joy to fear and anxiety. But it can also result in something you might not expect – depression” (Postpartum Depression). Most of the new mothers experience the common depressions which disappear in a few days. But there are some new mothers who experience more severe and long lasting depression, which is called “Postpartum Depression.” Pam Belluck writes a case study “After Baby, an Unraveling” in Maternal Mental Illness which connects the idea of rest cure with postpartum depression. The excessive practice of rest cure can turn postpartum depression to major mental illness which can be harmful for the new mother and her child.
In Belluck’s case study about “Postpartum Depression” where the new mother Ms. Cindy Wachenheim is a lawyer. She dreamed of having a child, seemed fine after the birth of her son until he was about four months old. Then she became obsessed with the idea that she had caused him brain damage. Six month later, she straps her ten month old son to her chest in a baby carrier and jumps to her death from the eighth-floor window of her Harlem apartment. “I became so low,” she wrote in the thirteen page long letter before she jumped, “thinking that if I had unknowingly caused brain damage to my beautiful, precious baby, I didn’t want to live” (Belluck). Her story is familiar to Gilman’s story except the death part. Ms. Wachenheim was a normal mother with her normal child. But the postpartum depression makes her crazy and she commits suicide. She knew about the “Postpartum Depression” but didn’t believe that she was suffering from it. Her friends and family member also took her mental situation normally. Doctors advised her not to take everything seriously about her own thoughts and her son. But the severe depression kills her normal process of understanding. When the baby turns ten months, she becomes more mentally ill. After all, she decides to write everything in a letter and commits her death. Belluck finishes his case study by saying that “Cindy Wachenheim would never know that in her last act, her body cushioned the fall for her son and saved his life. Weeks later, the healthy little boy took his first steps.” From this case study, it gets clearer that postpartum depression can cause a negative effect on a mother and her child.
In Gilman’s story, the Narrator’s controlling husband, who is a physician, follows the same strategy of rest cure. The Narrator talks about Dr. S. Weir Mitchell (1829 – 1914) who was an American neurologist and advocated “rest cures” for nervous illness. She adds him in her short story by saying that “John says if I don’t pick up faster he shall send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall. But I don’t want to go to there at all. I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!” (80). In her autobiography “The living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman,” the Author describes her real experiences of rest cure. She becomes a new mother and suffers from depression after her daughter’s birth. She travels to Philadelphia to see the previous mentioned Dr. Mitchell and later writes her experiences with him. She says, “I was put to bed, and kept there. I was fed, bathed, rubbed, and responded with the vigorous body of twenty-six. As far as he could see there was nothing the matter with me, so after a month of this agreeable treatment he sent me home with this prescription: Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. . . . Lie down an hour after each meal. Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live” (96). After following the prescription of Dr. Mitchell, she says “The mental agony grew so unbearable that I would sit blankly moving my head from side to side” (96). By saying that she actually shows us her mental situation and the big picture of what really happened with the nineteenth century’s new mothers when rest cure was applied to them.
In other words, Gilman draws the image of Dr. Mitchell as a villain. But actually he is not a villain. During the Civil War, Mitchell serves as a contract surgeon in the U.S. army (Silas Weir Mitchell). Nancy Cervetti wrote a book “S. Weir Mitchell Representing ‘a hell of pain’: From Civil War to Rest Cure” where the author says, at Turner’s Lane Military Hospital in Philadelphia, Mitchell treats battle veterans with serious nerve damage caused by bullet wounds. He observes that the most men become helpless and suffer from hysteria (77). He realizes that sufficient amount of rest and proper nutrition can improve the process of their treatment. As Cervetti observes, Mitchell’s treatment of injured soldiers involved the four major components that would later constitute the rest cure: “rest, a fattening diet, massage, and electricity” (74). A medical historian David Schuster has studied Mitchell’s relationships with his women patients and came to a conclusion that his reputation has been unjustly damaged by Gilman’s story and modern critiques based on it. Schuster studies the letters between Mitchell and three of his women patients named Amelia Gene Mason, Sarah Butler Wister, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Rest Cure and Dr. Weir Mitchell). Schuster successfully come to a point that Gilman writes to Dr. Mitchell depending on her situation. Based on her latter, Mitchell prescribes her a proper rest cure which does not help her at all. But at the same time, Mitchell prescribes other women depending on their situations and they get well by following his prescriptions. Gilman later realizes that she was under depression when she wrote the letters to Dr. Mitchell. So, he is not guilty as Gilman describes in her short story and autobiography. It was the severe depression which makes her feel like a crazy woman.
In conclusion, Gilman and Wachenheim are two characters who are the victims of rest cure and postpartum depression. There are a large number of women around the world who are currently suffering from the Postpartum Depression and treating by the process of rest cure. Experts find that the women, who are suffering from postpartum depression, are only one or two in 1,000 mothers. About four percent of those hurt their children; about five percent kill themselves (Belluck). Still it is a large number and Wachenheim is one of them. There are some other cases in the United States about postpartum depression where the mothers took similar approaches like Wachenheim. Andrea Yates was a new mother who suffered from postpartum depression and as a result, she drowned her five children in a bathtub (Belluck). Dena Schlosser was suffering from same kind of depression, and she cut off her infant’s arms (Belluck). These are the most discussed case studies about postpartum depression. The main point learned from this research about the rest cure vs. postpartum depression is that we should take proper care of a new mother whether she suffers from postpartum depression or not. It may not show any symptoms before any harmful act of the mother. So we should take proper care of every new mother and support them if any of them suffers from postpartum depression. The idea of rest cure is not a vague idea of treatment. It helps new mothers to prevent postpartum depression. In a New York Times article “Don’t Take This Lying Down,” Sarah Bilston says that “Women on bed rest feel they have little choice but to follow the advice they are given by their doctors. They may wonder if the prescription is founded on much more than superstition, dubious assumptions and unexamined tradition, but their doctors have experience and expertise and they do not” (Bilston). It is always a choice to make for the sake of the health of the new born and also for the mother.
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