I have been looking for someone like me all my life. A representation. A character in a novel or TV show. Someone whose insides depicted in their story look like mine. So I've studied "crazy" women since college. I read Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I read The Yellow Wallpaper and The Summer Before the Dark. I pulled stories of my great-grandmother's time in a mental health facility from my Aunt and imagined it looked more like Penny Dreadful than the Bell Jar. But in all those stories, I still couldn't find my crazy. I knew it was there, but couldn't identify it. I couldn't write it. So I joked about it.
Stories of female "craziness" seem to fall into two styles until recently. The first is the Normal Woman whom society deems crazy for her lack of following its rules, and the women who struggle with their inner selves against the rules of womanhood. This is highlighted in the Book Girl Interrupted (not the movie), which juxtaposes the prose with excerpts from the DSM that calls promiscuity a mental disorder. The second is the decent into madness: the crazy-eyed, straightjacketed, cackle-in-your-face, dispossession of self and control and often disassociation. It's the sexy kind we love to write about, make into movies ala Mad Love, and most importantly diagnose. It is this second type that really drives psychology and our obsession with true crime. See Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century by Peter Graham.
But now that Millennials have given us language for and demanded treatments for mental health, and sociologists have identified attachment styles, and psychologists have expanded PTSD beyond war injuries there is a new kind of "crazy" woman. She is the one I've been looking for. She struggles with the cultural norms that cage her true self like her grandmothers, she is a little wild like her mothers, bucking the rules, and looking for a place that is safe. But this new "crazy" woman knows where her depression comes from. And she knows most in the medical community are still like the doctors in Charlotte Perkins Gillman's time—unwilling to see her as a whole person and therefore unable to help. She must deal with the traumas in her genes and those caused by the people in her life, the chemical fuckery of having babies, and the constant belittling and caging of society.
As an historical novel writer I often wonder, what did that look like? What did it look like when Charlotte Gilman Perkins left her family? Left her daughter to be raised by her husband? The Yellow Wallpaper depicts a fiction of her decent into madness. But it lacks emotion. It is descriptive of obsession, and even trying to advocate for yourself, which so many women can still understand. But it doesn’t put us in her emotional shoes. But Claire Vaye Watkins puts us in her emotional shoes. In doing so, she reveals the truth within her readers. I can see myself in her story. I carry my mother's troubles. I am dealing with the legacies of my childhood. I had postpartum depression. I struggle with my cultural/economic worth in opposition to my personal value.
I Love You, But I've Chosen the Darkness joins a long list of women's work that shares our experiences in the language of their times. It deepens women's history. It's a translation of women's lives from Charlotte Perkins Gilman to now. If working through our shit heals seven generations back, in sharing I Love you, Watkins has to have healed exponentially more.
Back of the Book:
A darkly funny, soul-rending novel of love in an epoch of collapse--one woman's furious revisiting of family, marriage, work, sex, and motherhood.
Since my baby was born, I have been able to laugh and see the funny side of things. a) As much as I ever did. b) Not quite as much now. c) Not so much now. d) Not at all. Leaving behind her husband and their baby daughter, a writer gets on a flight for a speaking engagement in Reno, not carrying much besides a breast pump and a spiraling case of postpartum depression. Her temporary escape from domestic duties and an opportunity to reconnect with old friends mutates into an extended romp away from the confines of marriage and motherhood, and a seemingly bottomless descent into the past. Deep in the Mojave Desert where she grew up, she meets her ghosts at every turn: the first love whose self-destruction still haunts her; her father, a member of the most famous cult in American history; her mother, whose native spark gutters with every passing year. She can't go back in time to make any of it right, but what exactly is her way forward? Alone in the wilderness, at last she begins to make herself at home in the world.
Bold, tender, and often hilarious, I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness reaffirms Watkins as one of the signal writers of our time.