As new research indicates that post-natal depression is more common than was previously thought, now seems as good a time as any to talk about Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
Gilman, born in Connecticut in 1860, had a poor, fairly lonely early childhood with an unaffectionate single mother. It’s probably not unreasonable to suggest those experiences contributed to her poor mental health, which culminated in a serious bout of depression after her daughter Katharine was born in 1885.
She endured ‘continuous nervous breakdown’ for two years before seeking help from a specialist who prescribed total bed rest – a common ‘cure’ for female ‘hysteria’. She recovered physically, but then she was sent home with advice to follow what sounds like an utterly horrific treatment programme. She was supposed to live as domestic a life as she could, with a maximum two hours ‘mental stimulation’ per day, and absolutely no writing, reading or drawing. Forever.
“I went home,” wrote Gilman in 1913, “and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.”
She made those comments in a rather wonderful article explaining why she wrote her classic story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, published in 1892. The story documents her experiences, with ’embellishments and additions’; on completion, she sent it to her doctor. He never responded, but Gilman heard later that he changed the way he treated ‘neurasthenia’ after reading it.
Doctors now steer clear of prescribing deathly boredom, in favour of drugs and talking therapy.
Not content with being a prolific author, social theorist and leading feminist who advocated female economic independence, Gilman was an advocate of euthanasia. Diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer in 1932, Gilman committed suicide in August 1935. Her husband had died a year earlier. In her suicide note she explained:
“When all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one. I have preferred chloroform to cancer.”