“You’re crazy!” He said to me, in the heat of battle, continuing to yell, threaten, and lunge at me menacingly.
We were fighting. I was crying. And I was crazy.
“Crazy?” I sputtered. “Wh-what am I doing that is crazy? I am crying!”
“Look at you—you’re crazy!”
I wanted to defend myself. My boyfriend—ex-boyfriend as of that very moment—had thrown me onto the floor and knocked me into a wall when I tried to get my things to leave. I pled with him. I sobbed. I was, therefore, crazy.
I must say it isn’t the first time that bomb has been thrown at me in love and war. And it’s a red letter I bear with my mother, my sisters, my best friends, my work companions, and my mentors. When women “misbehave,” they are labeled crazy, both by men and a system hostile to women and mental illness.
“Oh, we’re all crazy!” My lawyer laughed when I relayed the tale. My ex had threatened me—repeatedly—and I wanted to know my options, so I found myself in her office with a box of tissues on my lap. I was referred to this lawyer in particular because she is an avid defender of women and a longtime advocate for victims of violence. When I spoke, it was as if I were repeating song lyrics she knew by heart—she nearly finished my sentences. “Sadly,” she said slowly when I finished, “your story is very common.” To blame his partner for being crazy, she explained, is one of the most commonly-used weapons in an abusive man’s arsenal—hence her comment that we’re all crazy. The word is manspeak for, “You’re making me lose control. Excuse me while I degrade you.”
In her essay, “The Abused Mind: Feminist Theory, Psychiatric Disability, and Trauma,” feminist philosopher Andrea Nicki writes, “The derogatory label of ‘craziness’ serves to silence communication of differences in ideas or intensity of emotion. Calling someone ‘crazy’ keeps that person and her differences away, but it also reinforces the belief that “crazy” or mentally ill people are less than fully human and not deserving of respect.” Thus, when one wields the accusation of craziness as their weapon of choice, not only do they effectively invalidate the other person, they express the belief that, as Nicki puts it, “strong or intense emotion is devoid of meaningful, directive cognitive content; that people with mental illness are irrational; that they are cognitively impaired; and that they are frightening.” Oh, and that crazy people deserve abuse.
Wasn’t that the message my ex-boyfriend was sending me when, in between his verbal and physical jabs, he called me crazy? That my craziness excused—justified—his acts of violence?
I have a history of violence in my family and I have struggled with anxiety and depression throughout my life. I believe that my ex, like many abusive partners of individuals who experience mental illness, meant to strike me with the double-edged sword Nicki describes in her essay—calling me crazy both invalidates and dehumanizes me. It is victim blaming at it’s best and it typifies violence against women and the popular discussion of mental illness, both of which have long been intertwined.
A bit of feminist study proves Andrea Nicki—and my lawyer—right. There is a historical precedent for my boyfriend’s behavior. For centuries, women have been institutionally committed, imprisoned, tortured, and killed with madness as their crime. Remember the famous Salem Witch trials? They accounted for only a few of the scores taking place all over the world since the Middle Ages, when witchcraft, madness, and evil were seen as one and the same. These “witches,” whose character and integrity were raped publicly before their bodies were killed or shut away, were often midwives and healers or iconoclasts of some sort. They were mad because they were different.
Then came Victorian medicine, which explained away madness as a feminine condition. Women weren’t mad because they were different. Women were mad because they were women. (And if they were different, too, then they were totally nuts!) The myths of menstruation-born madness persisted—persist!—for nearly two centuries, the reverberations of which you can still detect when women run for political office and pundits bicker about whether women can manage to run the world in between tampon runs and hysterical crying fits. (As long as we have chocolate! Right, ladies? Insert laugh track.)
The notion that women are inherently emotionally inferior by virtue of being female falls perfectly in line with the patriarchal capitalist agenda that places the oh-so-fragile woman under the care of a strong, rational, male head of household. Why thrust ourselves into the big, bad, world with all our feminine vulnerabilities when we can enjoy the privacy and comfort of raising children and tending to the home? Any woman who would reject that deal must be crazy. And the woman who challenges other women’s ability to enjoy this fabulous social contract—or simply doesn’t show enough gratitude to the man/men who offer it to her—must be punished for her madness.
With violence, perhaps?
In Mexico, where I live, there is a popular feminist slogan, “Ni santas, ni putas, solo mujeres” (not virgins, not whores, just women) which challenges the Madonna-whore complex that plagues macho culture and nourishes violence against women throughout the world. I’d like to revise the phrase to read, “Ni santas, ni putas, ni locas” (not virgins, not whores, not madwomen). When my ex-boyfriend could no longer idealize me or degrade me in the typical ways—and when I had misbehaved just enough by repeatedly challenging his authority—he proceeded to “commit” me, making me a madwoman, a witch, a crazy feminine fool in need of reform. His violent words and actions are historically supported by a litany of similar oppressors on large and small scales who used “madness” to defend femicide in all its forms.
A feminist approach to mental health necessarily takes into account, not a woman’s acts of “rebellion,” but her socioeconomic background, her race, and the trauma she has experienced as a result of systemic violence, both in her public and private life. Andrea Nicki analogizes the development of mental illness to pollution-related ailments that arise out of living next to a toxic waste dump. In the toxic dump of the neoliberal state, emotional cancer—mental illness—is not probable, it is inevitable. But millions of people continue taking their Prozac instead of organizing to change this reality.
Macho men like my ex-boyfriend would have me believe that any emotional obstacles I face are indications of my inherent evil, or, feminine madness when, the reality is that the depression and anxiety I suffer are products of the culture that calls me crazy. If I am ill, it is from breathing the carcinogenic vapor of sexism and violence that surrounds me.
So, I guess you could say that I am mad. In fact, I am livid! And I feel saner than ever. The same voices that call women crazy hope to threaten us into submission. Earn your social certificate of mental health! Be quiet, cross your legs, and check your lipstick. I choose to do something crazy. I choose to misbehave. I choose to acknowledge my system-inflicted scars—to show them to you, instead of taking my patriotic dose of anti-depressants and robotically repeating, “I’m fine! You?” I choose to cry out in despair or shout with jubilation—not because I am loca but because I am alive and emotions are a part of the human condition. I choose to risk being called a witch as I speak out against real evil—the violent kind that encourages men to call women crazy and, in doing so, slowly drives a whole society mad.
About the Author: Rachael Kay Albers is a freelance writer, English teacher, and theater facilitator working to educate and empower indigenous women in Central America. You can find Rachael blogging about art, action and adventure in Latin America on RKA in LA or about multilingualism on Multilingual Mania.