“What are you reading?” A classmate asked me one day in the nursing building. Half forgetting what I was actually reading, I turned the old hard cover over.
“A Farewell to Arms,” I replied. “Ernest Hemingway. One of my favorite authors.”
“Oh, he wrote that one about the old man and the sea right? Cool!” She replied enthusiastically.
I could tell she didn’t actually think it was cool at all. Then, an idea popped into my mind.
“Do you know how Ernest Hemingway died?” I asked carefully. She shook her head “no”.
I reopened the page where I had left off and shook my head.
“He killed himself.”
I always find it interesting to observe how people interpret mental illness by gender. Whether you notice it or not, you may have your own bias.
If a male has a mood disorder, depression, anxiety, etc., he is broody.
But if a female has a similar problem, she is crazy.
A drama queen.
I’ve coined this the “Hemingway Effect”. Hemingway, an alcoholic with a very prominent mood disorder, is perceived as a tortured artist whose brooding genius is incomparable. And this is a truth. He’s one of my favorite authors, he’s a literary genius, and I think his mental illness aided in his writing. I really do.
However, this is usually how we perceive men who battle mental illness. We extend grace to them that women deserve as well. He refuses to get help? Oh, he’s just being a man: stubborn and noncompliant. She refuses to get help? She’s selfish and doesn’t care about those around her. It’s cool to like the guy with that touch of madness. It’s not cool to like the crazy girl. I’m not implying that having a mental illness is “cool” (it’s not, it’s horrifying), but there is intrigue trotting at the coattails of a man who seems to be under a dark rain cloud.
The Hemingway Effect.
Where does that leave women? It leaves women to be perceived so negatively. It leaves women with little support and little love. It leaves women feeling helpless, hopeless, and discarded. I feel like I can’t be my whole self because I know what people would say behind my back. I’ve heard people’s perception of my illness right in front of my face. And when I do discuss my mental illness to a larger audience it is not to get attention, but to bring attention.
We are failing our women. We are failing them by labeling them hysterical. We should never romanticize mental illness (and in that aspect we are failing males as well), but we should never demonize it either.
So we retreat to the shadows, often not revealing our whole struggle for fear that we will be ridiculed. No one feels the Hemingway Effect around us, because they have their Plath glasses on; we’re not a talented poet and author who struggled with an illness, we are the woman who stuck her head in an oven.
The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.