Scheherazade Khan | 20th February 2017.
TW: assault and mental illness.
What is it like to come across descriptions of trauma and mental health in academia as a survivor of assault? I’ve been thinking about my experience regarding this a lot recently. The University of Edinburgh held this year’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Week the first week of February, which coincided with the sixth anniversary of my assault, an event that initiated my own awareness of my mental health.
A lot of discussion surrounds the issue of being a student with mental illnesses, but there is noticeably less on the expression of mental health in the classroom. A subtle distinction but one that requires more attention.
As a student of English and History, coming across graphic descriptions of violence was common in my undergraduate years. Now, as a postgraduate with a focus on gender in postcolonial literature, it feels like those confrontations have exponentially increased. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea are just two of the texts that one might frequently find on university curriculums.
Undoubtedly, it can be uncomfortable and difficult for survivors of trauma to participate in classes that contain violent content. However, I noticed that talking about my personal trauma in classroom settings tended to make others more uncomfortable than it made me. My classmates found it easy to talk about characters in fiction who portrayed mental illnesses, but when faced with a first hand account of it, it was considered irrelevant to the academic discussion. I was often met with a heavy silence that seemed to say, “Truthfully, we don’t want to talk about it, we don’t want to hear about it, we don’t want to see it.”
It seemed to mirror the way literature has so often hidden away the victims of mental illness. Gilman’s narrator was practically forced into social isolation by her husband, into the room with the yellow wallpaper that bears witness to her decline into insanity. Similarly, Rhys’s protagonist, Antoinette Cosway, has her identity taken away when she is renamed Bertha by her husband and hidden away in the attic for the remainder of her life.
The first few years after my assault, I refused to talk about it. I felt a pressure to stay silent that I wished to resist, but could not. I believed my silence about the injustice I suffered was the price I had to pay to be a valued member of society. This carried over into my academic experience.
In academia, conversations about trauma can sometimes perpetuate a negative understanding of the “victim” label. Once someone has been deemed a victim, it is easier to file them away as “damaged”. The notion of the delicacy and hysteria of women is a common theme in canonical literature. Gilbert and Gubar’s seminal text Madwoman in the Attic (1979) brought attention to the binary depiction of women in Victorian literature as either angelic and perfect or rebellious and monstrous, and nothing in between.
While we have moved past such reductive representations, strands of it still exist in contemporary discourse. As such, being a victim can become the all-encompassing feature of a character. I feared that this would happen to me were people to know about my experience. I was also apprehensive of the unwittingly reductive commentary on victims. The discussions often centred on what has been taken away from these victims, rather than what they have worked to build since.
Eventually, I started talking about it. It was both terrifying and cathartic. I no longer froze at the mention of any kind of violence directed at females, fearing that I would see myself in those descriptions. Or, even worse, that I would not recognize my experience in the fictional depictions of depression and PTSD. I worried that would invalidate the tribulations of my mental health. I feared being told that my experience could not have been “that bad” if I was “fine” now. I looked fervently for opportunities to speak about trauma and to say that not all trauma is the same – there is no textbook way to depict mental illness.
While I have unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, had some bad experiences, I have been pleasantly surprised at the willingness of some of my classmates to engage in a conversation regarding my mental health and its relevance to mental health in literature. Most importantly, however, I have come to understand that I have valid opinions and perspectives that could lend a lot to productive conversation of academia and mental health.
I recognize that it can be difficult for students to come face to face with the reality of mental illness outside the pages of the book, particularly if they are victims themselves, and whilst discussing personal trauma might be cathartic for one, it could be difficult for another to hear. I am not suggesting that all victims must explain their experiences or engage in discussions around personal trauma. However, while depictions of mental illnesses in fiction can start the conversation, it arguably must be continued in the real world by those who can offer personal accounts. With the age of New Criticism behind us, it is impossible to deal with an objective, text-only analysis of literature. The personal relationship with fiction is front and centre of contemporary criticism. When sensitive material is discussed in classrooms it is a part of a broader historical context. By definition, it is never simply abstract. As such, it is beneficial to all that the conversation not reduce the complexity of mental health issues by relying on portrayals from fiction alone.
This may even result in new ways of reading the text that offer some agency to the characters with mental illnesses rather than remaining eternal victims. New readings, such as Rula Quawas and Gilbert and Gubar’s have allowed Gilman’s narrator to overcome the suppression of her mental illness and achieve “a superior sanity and at least a relative liberty in the assertion of a self” (Quawas 40). Wide Sargasso Sea deliberately rewrites Jane Eyre’s ‘madwoman in the attic’ myth to keep Bertha’s (Antoinette Cosway) “humanity, indeed her sanity […] intact” (Spivak 249) rather than the tragic label of madness that Brontë gave her.
The voices of victims and survivors are often taken away by trauma. So, when given the opportunity to talk about it, it should be a moment of empowerment. That begins by talking and listening without fear of stigma.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from mental health issues, the University of Edinburgh offers the following services:
University of Edinburgh Counselling Service for Students: http://www.ed.ac.uk/student-counselling/students
University of Edinburgh Student Disability Service: http://www.ed.ac.uk/student-disability-service
Edinburgh Nightline: http://ednightline.com/ or call 0131 629 7101 from 8pm-8am, every night of term
An alumna from the University of Toronto with a BA (Hons) in English, History and Fine Arts, and undertaking a MSc in Gender and Culture, my interests lie in uncovering the complexities of identity politics in postcolonial fiction. Novels that allow me to dislike the protagonist(s) are my preferred choices.
Article edited by Aran Ward Sell, Michelle Mackie, and Matthew Tibble.
Quawas, Rula. “A New Woman’s Journey Into Insanity: Descent and Return in The Yellow Wallpaper.” AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Modern Language Association. May 2006, Iss. 105: pp 35-53.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Critical Inquiry, 12:1, 1985: pp. 243-261.