Women, ‘Hysteria,’ and Leonora Carrington as Cautionary Tale

Leonora Carrington/Photo: Wikipedia

It is a terrifying truth that the diagnosis of mental illness has been used as a means of institutionalizing “difficult women.” What makes this history even more troubling is that mood disorders and mental illnesses are real, and when left untreated, they can cause torment to those inflicted by them. Even today, stories abound of how undiagnosed or unrecognized mental illnesses have led to death or the death of others, such as in the case of Alice Gibson-Watt, A British antiquities expert whose postpartum psychosis led to her death, or Andrea Yates, whose postpartum depression resulted in the deaths of her children.

Yet the stories of women who were institutionalized or treated for the women’s disease of “hysteria” abound in historical literature. Often, the symptoms of hysteria arise from a life of being denied the right to exercise one’s talents or abilities, when, instead, a person is forced to operate within the narrow margins of a life restricted by a straitjacket of cultural expectations. Hysteria itself assumes that the very essence of having been born female leads women to a skewed way of being in the world. If femaleness is located in the possession of a uterus, then the wandering womb of the hysteric confirmed the male expert’s view that to be born female made one susceptible to mental illness from the start of life.

When Sigmund Freud invented psychoanalysis, the truths that patients like “Dora” reported to him, and which he presented to his Austrian colleagues, threatened his reputation. He therefore decided that her reports in therapy that she had been molested by a male member of her family could not be reality, but were instead fantasy, thus contributing to the common perception that women are liars, especially when they are reporting the violence that is done to them by men. Freud told Dora that she had fantasized being raped by her father, and that her “hysteria” had been caused by her attempts to repress the fantasy, rather than a traumatic reaction to having been sexually abused by the man in her life who was supposed to protect her.

Leonora Carrington was a celebrated artist in the Surrealist movement. She died in 2011 at the age of ninety-four; the past week has seen celebrations of the centenary of her birth, in addition to the reissue of the memoir she wrote of her experiences in World War II-era France and Spain. Down Below is a remarkable but harrowing document, detailing as it does her parents’ decision to institutionalize her for depression.

The account begins in 1940, when Carrington’s lover, artist Max Ernst, was arrested by the Gestapo in Vichy France and sent to a concentration camp. Carrington recounts how in the immediate aftermath of her lover’s arrest, she wept for several hours, and then induced vomiting for twenty-four hours in hopes that the spasms would ameliorate some of her emotional pain.

“I had realised the injustice of society,” she wrote. “I wanted first of all to cleanse myself, then got beyond its brutal ineptitude.” She saw her stomach as the locus of society, and, by voiding her stomach, she thought to cleanse society.

This series of actions gives the reader a sense of Carrington’s somatic response to society. It will not be the last time that a perception of a diseased culture shows up in Carrington’s body as some form of sickness.

After several weeks, a friend persuades Carrington to flee France by crossing the Pyrenees through Andorra and into Spain, itself under the control of the fascist Francisco Franco but officially neutral during World War II.

Spain had endured a horrendous civil war as many had fought against Franco. Carrington immediately began sensing the suffering that people had endured, and again, she felt a lot of anxiety. “I realized my anguish – my mind, if you prefer – was painfully trying to unite itself with my body; my mind could no longer manifest itself without producing an immediate effect in my body – on matter.”

While this bodily effect of political suffering was seen as being a symptom of disease by those around her, Carrington’s reactions were a direct result of the trauma of Ernst’s kidnapping by the Gestapo and, then, her presence in a country where she perceived that the red clay of Spain was actually dyed with spilled blood. If the physical reaction was bad, however, what followed for Carrington was worse. She attempted to pass papers to someone and was apprehended by Spanish Requetes officers, who forced her into a room where she was brutally gang raped. Carrington said that while she was being attacked, she continued to fight the men. Eventually, the men grew so tired of her fighting them that they released her in a large park, her clothes torn.

After the attack, Carrington kept trying to wash herself clean, and she performed these actions in front of witnesses. Convinced that she is “mad,” the British Consul turned her over to a doctor who evaluated her and agreed that she was insane. Without her consent, she was injected with high-powered drugs and taken to a sanatorium.

When Carrington died in 2011, the Telgraph (UK) featured an obituary that misstated the nature of Down Below. It identified a problem with the memoir that some of the events appear to be “magical realism,” and implied that the story of the gang rape should be included in these stories that were works of imagination and not fact. The only explanation for the obituary writer’s doubt that doesn’t presume some level of “all women are liars” misogyny is that Carrington reports the rape in flat, matter-of-fact details. It is devoid of emotion in the recounting, and, unlike later details in the memoir, it is not told in the sorts of technicolor paint splashes that she used to tell of the monsters that appeared to her as a consequence of the drugs she was injected with.

Rather than accepting the diagnosis that Carrington had become insane (and the drugs she was injected with were used for treatment of schizophrenia), it seems much more likely that the trauma caused both by the Gestapo raid that took Ernst away followed by the horror of her rape may have induced a black depression. Some kind of intervention may have been necessary to prevent Carrington from resorting to suicide. But what was done to her in the sanatorium is yet another reminder that the for-her-own-good history of the treatment for mental illness is fraught with methods that seem more appropriate to the torture chamber.

Despite the fact that Carrington had been raped, one of the modalities used on her involved being strapped to a bed. She recounted the treatment:

“At Covadonga, they tore my clothes off brutally and strapped me naked to the bed. Don Luis came into my room to gaze upon me. I wept copiously and asked him why I was kept a prisoner and treated so badly. He left quickly without answering me. Then Frau Asegurado appeared once more. I asked her several questions. She said to me: ‘It is necessary that you should know who Don Luis is; every night he comes and talks to you; standing on your bed, you answer him according to his will.”

I can’t imagine a worse treatment for a rape survivor than one in which she was expected to surrender all of her power and autonomy to the male doctor who was supposedly treating her. Prior to strapping her down, however, the hospital had tried another method to keep her from wandering from her bed. They punctured her thigh with a needle and induced an artificial abscess: the idea being that the wound would make it too painful for her to walk.

It was while she was strapped down to the bed and possibly suffering from infection-based delirium that she recalled meeting people ranging from the Prince of Monaco to the Archbishop of Santander. She recounts fantastic tales of wandering the campus with these characters, even driving in a car. These events seem unlikely.

It turns out that, during this time, the sanatorium was treating her depression with a drug called Cardiazol. Injected into the spine, the drug causes such violent convulsions that they mimic electroshock therapy. In addition, the drug seems to have induced a sense of such intense hopelessness that Carrington told her doctor, after awaking naked on the floor:

“I confessed to myself that a being sufficiently powerful to inflict such a torture was stronger than I was; I admitted defeat, the defeat of myself and of the world around me, with no hope of liberation. I was dominated, ready to become the slave of the first comer, ready to die, it all mattered little to me. When Don Luis came to see me, later, I told him that I was the feeblest creature in the whole world, that I could meet his desires, whatever they were, and that I licked his shoes.”

Even though this was her first experience with Cardiazol, the treatment continued, each time leaving her feeling that she had endured grand mal seizures and an emptying out of her self.

The happy news, of course, is that Carrington did not die in the hellacious sanatorium. The story of her escape, recounted in the memoir, is well worth reading. And Carrington went on to produce art for sixty-plus years after her imprisonment.

Carrington’s story is a painful reminder of the ways in which normal emotional reaction to a violent culture that denigrates women’s bodies becomes the excuse for new methods by which culture can persecute women, especially those who are creative and intelligent and who are conscious of wanting more than the proscribed lives they are offered.