Image: The Kawaii Kollective
I’m happy to be back with another post in my feminist reading journey (here’s hoping I can start posting more regularly again). This time I’m focusing on Marge Piercy’s ‘Woman on the Edge of Time’, which is actually something I read in my undergraduate degree, but decided to revisit for this series. Not only because I didn’t have enough money to buy a new book but also because it is a real interesting book in terms of gender.
The novel follows Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, an Hispanic woman who is forcibly committed to a mental institution (somewhere she has been in the past for drug fuelled child abuse, which caused her to lose custody of her daughter) for fighting back against the man who was trying to force her niece Dolly to have a ‘backstreet’ abortion. In her time in the mental institution she is visited (it is never revealed if this is imaginary or not) by someone from the future called Luciente. Through Luciente Connie is able to visit the future, which a communal community where the prejudices of Connie’s time are seemingly eradicated.
I won’t gave anything more away from that but let me just say there is a reason this is a classic utopian fiction novel. Though I think utopian fiction somehow doesn’t always shock as much as dystopian fiction. Something maybe, which is indicative of how we don’t notice problems until the worse happens. Hence, the increased amount of social and political commentary and criticism since Donald Trump has become President (which, I’m not saying is a bad thing). The reality of Connie’s life though is incredibly brutal and the dystopia in itself (though tragically just reality), although another dystopian future alternative to Mattapoisett (this is the residence that Connie visits in the future through Luciente) is also explored.
The future world basically plays out the core ideas of the women’s movement at the time, which we know widely have moved on to from in order to incorporate not just one perspective, and is what you will probably know as intersectional feminism. However, the novel does not ignore issues of racism, classism, homophobia or issues surrounding the destruction of the environment so is more intersectional than a lot of the critique from the era (and still that appears today).
Also, to understand Connie’s experience of the mental institution better and the concept of different experiences I think its useful to compare Connie experiences with the experiences related in Girl, Interrupted. Both woman suffer from a lack of privacy, and their agency removed. However, Susanna (played by Winona Ryder) in the film adaptation comes from what appears to be a middle class background and is white (at least this is the case for the film- I have read the book but can’t remember if there was any direct references to financial background). While her experiences in the mental institution are far from therapeutic if something happened to Susanna there would be people that would care, and it would not be as easily dismissed. However, it is important to note in the 1960s in general using psychiatry to control women was still commonplace (and actively criticised by the feminist movement) with Diazepam (Valium), which became known as ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ regularly prescribed to woman to cope with the pressures of being a housewife.
Themes, which were present in Season 1 of the popular show Mad Men, where Donald Draper (Jon Hamm) is told by his wife’s (Betty Draper portrayed by January Jones) psychiatrist what they discuss during their sessions. The way it is framed suggests that this behaviour is most definitely commonplace, and all it did was serve to infantilise Betty even further (which, was arguably contributed to her needing to seek help in the first place).
Image: Mad Men/ AMC/ Lionsgate Television
However, there are fewer narratives of what the experience of being a mental institution is like for a woman of colour (this novel being the first I have personally come across), with the general psychiatric patient presented to us by the media as thin, white and generally ‘misunderstood’ (thereby trivialising mental illness). Even depictions in film that are regarded as doing a good job at exploring mental illness, I have not personally seen show the experiences of a woman of colour experiencing mental illness (if there are examples, please direct me to them).
This is why Piercy’s novel is refreshing, and although as far as I can tell the experiences in the novel do not come from her personal biography, for the novel Marge Piercy was careful to talk to, “past and present inmates of mental institutions who shared their experiences with me” (taken from the acknowledgements page of the novel).
One other important theme within the novel is family, and the expectation that a woman should live only for her family. Connie is a primary example of this, as she is expected by members of her family (especially her brother) to be subservient and grateful no matter what. Because she’s a woman. She also carries the guilt of what happened with her daughter during the time she was going through the grief of losing someone dear to her. Everything Connie does is tied to family, and all the blood, sweat and tears she has lost because of them is dismissed. It is what she is supposed to do.
Hence, why I chose this quote from the novel for this blog post, which has been illustrated by the lovely Caroline from The Kawaii Kollective:
“You’ll do what women do. You’ll pay your debt to your family for your blood.”
Image: The Kawaii Kollective
‘Woman on the Edge Of Time’ is heartbreaking, defiant and hopeful all at once and that is why it is a classic piece of both feminist and utopian literature. Whether you are living in a situation where the prejudices against you are depicted still exist entirely or not this is an important novel to remind yourself that preventing these experiences is something that has been fought for a long time, and we should not let ourselves revert back.