Comparison of the Treatment of Schizophrenia in the 1880’s and 1960’s concerning “The Yellow Wallpaper” story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman analysis by Ray Cates

This is about a disease which I believe is schizophrenia. In Gilman’s story she reports her husband tells her, “…there is nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency…” (1)  I contend that this is not just a slight depressed state, or something caused by dominant men, who are overbearing and pushing women down but a disease that both men and women get.  It is not something that happens only to women after they give birth, but something that affects about one percent of the world’s population in 2011 and was probably about the same in the 1880’s when Charlotte Gilman’s fictional stand-in went to the hereditary estate for the rest cure.  The best brief definition of schizophrenia is “..a severe mental disease characterized by unpredictable disturbances in thinking…withdrawing from reality and thinking in illogical, confused patterns.  Schizophrenia is one of the most common mental disorders.  It afflicts about 1 percent of the world’s population.  Most patients develop the disease from their late teens to mid -20’s.  Men tend to develop it earlier than women and often more severely.” (2)

Much of the literature about “The Yellow Wallpaper” story is located in the Woman’s Studies or Feminist Section of libraries.  That is because women have tried to demonize men by clubbing men over the head with this roll of yellow wallpaper.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman does not in the least seem to hate her husband John in the story.  She does not like the treatment for her disease, but she knows something is wrong.  She does not follow her husband or her brothers plan for her recovery — she does write in the diary, on the sly.  Of course she lives in a period of time where doctors (of sorts) were still bleeding patients to get the bad blood out of them.  Women had lots to gripe about in the 1880’s but John did not send his wife off to some place to rot with the insane, in fact she tells us in the story, how much he says he loves her.  I think that the fact that he calls her “little girl” , page 212 (1) and “a blessed little goose” (page 207) rouses the ire of feminists.  Mahinur Aksehir says, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is a multilayered and richly meaningful story that narrates a traumatized middle-class woman’s acting out the symptoms of trauma caused by the social imposition of reductive models of femininity on her.  Her traumatizing experiences as a woman repeat themselves in the form of the hallucination of a woman enslaved in the yellow wall-paper of the room she is closed in.  Even though we are not told about a specific event that has traumatized the young woman, it is apparent that even her everyday experiences with her husband or within the established set of social norms are traumatizing enough. “(3)  The situation of trauma was tied to schizophrenia during the First World War when doctors started treating trauma patients who became catatonic in war, because of fear, what they saw or loudness, crashes, booms.  Schizophrenic people often go into a catatonic state.  This is where they seize up and often do not speak or move much at all.  It is hard to believe that John in “The Yellow Wallpaper” caused his wife to become to suffer trauma.  Now during and after WWI, shock treatments were experimented with by doctors to cause the person to emerge from their cocoon and become a person again.  This worked well for schizophrenics.  They also emerged from their frozen states, sometimes.  Some clues to what is going, the process that has started in “The Yellow Wall-Paper with the not-named diary writer are found in the mental handbook today under the chapter, “Schizophrenia and Other Psychotic Disorders on page 300.  “Grossly disorganized behavior (Criterion A4) may manifest itself in a variety of ways ranging from childlike silliness to unpredictable agitation….Catatonic motor behaviors include a marked decrease in reactivity to the environment, sometimes reaching an extreme degree of complete unawareness (catatonic stupor) maintaining a rigid posture and resisting efforts to be moved (catatonic rigidity), the assumption of inappropriate or bizarre postures.” (4)

In pointing out my thesis that Gilman (or Sears at the time of her treatment) had schizophrenia, and the symptoms were very similar in the 1960’s when my wife had it, and was treated for it, similar to the 1880 when the lady in “The Yellow-Wallpaper” had the disease.  The hullinications, the process of descent, and the end results were very much the same. 

                                           THE PROCESS

Gilman’s Lady                                         My Wife

Works too hard needs to rest         Works too hard needs rest.

diet: raw meat & wine                     Eat liver, spinach

nervous condition -temporary        nerve problem -hospital

made worse by childbirth                horrible birth -pre & post

little interaction child                      very little interaction child

Husband doctor                                  Husband teacher

husband knew about disease            husband knew nothing about it

wife left husband divorced                 wife stayed with husband

started newspaper                               legal field, Haldol 1980 

The Gilman diagnosis by doctors was about the same for my wife from 1961 to about 1980.  It was diet, do less work, when sick go to the hospital.  She would go in the hospital and then she would always get very bad.  Creeping on the floor was one of the less dangerous things she did.  In the catatonic state the doctor would say to me, “Do you want her to say like this from now on, or have shock treatments.”  Those treatments would make her like new again.  Until in 1980 she used the drug Haldol.  That was the cure!  A physician from Kansas said in a letter to Gilman about the story, “…the best description of incipient insanity he had ever seen”.(5)



 (1) Gilman, Charlotte Perkins “The Yellow Wall-Paper”  American Literature Vol 2 edited by William E. Cain  copyright 2004 by Pearson Education Service

(2) The World Book Encyclopedia S vol, 2004 Chicago Ill

(3) Aksehir, Mahenur  “Reading ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ as a past-tramatic Writing, Interaction 17.2 (2008): +4.Academic OneFile Web 4 Apr 2011

(4) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders fourth edition copyright 2000 American Psychiatric Association

(5) Gilman, Charlotte Perkins “Why I Wrote the Yellow WallPaper”  7 Oct. 1913 issue of The Forerunner,  New England Magazine 1891

(6) Scott, Heidi “Crazed nature ecology in the Yellow Wall-Paper” The Exlictor 67.3 (2009) 198+General OneFileWeb4 Apr. 2011

(7) Tulsa Studies in Women’t LIterature 1984 University of Tulsa page 61

(8) Thrailkill, Jane F. “Doctoring The Yellow Wallpaper” DLH copyright 2002 The Johns Hopkins University Press

(9) Essay of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” Yahoo! Contributor Network March 5, 2008

(10)  Voth, Lori  “Literary Analysis The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman ” Nov. 21, 2005 Yahoo Contributor Network

(11) Dillon, Connie Postpartum Depression and Psychosis, “From the Yellow Wallpaper to Now Sept. 17, 2007

(12) Free Yellow Wallpaper Essays Schizophrenia in the Yellow Wallpaper 123 1 April 2011 htp://www.123HelpMe2011View.ASP?id=6175>

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