December 05, 2012
It isn’t until much later, after her second child is born, in those early months of little sleep, or short deep sleep punctuated by a scream, rolling over to offer her breast to this baby, trying to fall back to sleep but unable to do so until he finishes eating, until she knew he was asleep first, that she has the dreams.
In the first dream she is back in a hospital. She is in a group meeting. There are three others in the meeting. Others who were there. The group leader says something, and she answers. She says that she has a lot of feelings about having been there for such a long time. She tells the group that she found it terribly stigmatizing, if maybe in some ways helpful. She tells them that there have been studies, that this is now considered a very bad idea. Experts agree, she is explaining to the other patients in the dream. Experts agree that this kind of extended hospitalization, institutionalization, she calls it now–though it was never spoken of in this way, save for on the hospital letterhead used as scrap paper in art group or writing group, letterhead with the imprint of a building and in gothic font: ROCKLAND STATE PSYCHIATRIC INSTITUTE—is now considered to in fact impede recovery.
Do you remember lobotomies? Did you see Frances? Jessica Lange who would have won the Oscar that year if it weren’t for Meryl Streep, equally stunning, in Sophie’s Choice. And who could forget the look on Sophie’s face?
But so lobotomies were considered good ideas once, too, she is telling them in the dream. She has so much to say now. She didn’t speak much back then. The group leader moves her mouth as if in a smile, a look of tolerance, a way of saying Come now, or Let’s not go overboard here.
The group leader is named Laura—she does not recognize Laura but there is a nametag—Laura tilts her head to the right and makes a non-smiling smile.
There is an instability of knowledge! She has raised her voice now; she is nearly screaming. It’s terrifying! The group leader lifts an eyebrow, looks around the room. The others don’t say anything. In the dream she is articulate and focused. She is all language and all voice, in a way that she never was. She looks to the group leader again—it is neither
Roger nor Laura; it is a woman she doesn’t recognize—she is calm now. She tells her that that it has taken her a long time to move on. One of the women in the group looks upset; she is going to cry. She recognizes her: Beatrice, a young overweight woman with frizzy hair. She wears cotton short sleeve shirts, men’s shirts, jeans. She smokes. She had wanted Beatrice’s respect once, in the way that she always found herself wanting the respect of strong silent types. Wanting to be liked. The horrid feel of that desire. Beatrice often sat with Tracy–they seemed to be friends, in the way that psych patients can become friends, with a fleeting intensity that staff watch carefully but generally consider a healthy adaptation to institutional living. Neither Tracy nor Beatrice ever spoke. Beatrice cut herself stealthily, deeply. Beatrice was deeply sad, removed. It was as if she wasn’t there. And then, you look down at the arms. Scars. It became a habit: looking, noticing, understanding something.
Later a woman she loved said this was the first thing she did when she met a strong woman, an intense powerful woman, a woman who seemed unable to handle her own power: “I look at their arms. I look for scars.” This woman had lost a baby, too. They formed their own support group.
In the dream Beatrice becomes upset by what she is saying, as if it hadn’t occurred to her to be critical of the place. It is hard to know when Beatrice is upset, but the group leader has noticed. The group leader is talking to Beatrice, who has asked to be excused. The group leader is asking her to stay. To talk about how she feels.
In the dream, she realizes that she is back within this system and again not quite sure how she got there. The moment she realizes it, Roger is there and he is asking her,
“Why did you come back?”
She explains to him that she just needed structure of some kind, that she has a baby at home and that the baby is making her crazy. She regrets it immediately,
“I don’t mean that the baby is making me crazy! I love the baby,” she says. “The baby is just difficult, and I wanted to get out of the house a bit.”
Roger nods, smiles. He sits forward in the chair, holding his coffee in a Styrofoam cup.
“When I said crazy, I meant it in a pedestrian way,” she tries to explain.
She knows it is too late.
The group meeting ends; there is a break; there is another meeting. An art group. The group leader reads a poem and asks the group members to draw a response to the poem. Every one is drawing.
Suzanne Scanlon’s first novel, Promising Young Women, was released this fall by Dorothy, a publishing project. It was chosen as the October pick for the indie Emily Books. Her story, “Her 37th Year, An Index” was chosen by Allan Gurganus for The Iowa Review fiction prize and she is currently developing this into a novel. Suzanne lives in Chicago where, among other things, she writes about theater for Time Out and teaches writing in the English Department of Columbia College Chicago.
Photo by Jacob Knabb
Adapted from Promising Young Women by Suzanne Scanlon. Copyright © 2012 by Suzanne Scanlon. With the permission of the publisher, Dorothy, a publishing project.