Book #5 is here
In my thirties, people told me that you would never make it as a writer unless you made it onto one of those “thirty under thirty” lists. My first book didn’t come out until I was 36, basically an ancient crone in publishing years. At fifty, I’m about to release my fifth. I guess you can now add me to “sixty under sixty,” or at least to “arbitrary age lists for writers are ageist crap.” But I had a dirty secret. I wanted to write five books before I turned fifty. Against a lot of odds, that has now happened.
The Defiant Middle is my pandemic book. I hate saying that, but that’s just how it happened. I signed the contract in February of 2020 and you are aware of what happened and has been happening to the world ever since. Needless to say, it took me a while to getting around to telling people I wrote it. Then it felt weird and wrong talking about it in the face of the pandemic. Then it was suddenly time to promote it, and it still feels weird and wrong. So many people have died, and so many are still getting sick, and books, contrary to what some people believe, don’t change any of that.
What they do, however, is help us to understand our lives if we’re lucky, when the right books find us as the right readers. My book may be that book for a few of you. For some others, it might not be, and that’s okay. The book that needs to find you is out there somewhere. Maybe it’s even inside your head, waiting to be set down, one key pressed at a time, one day survived during a pandemic not just of Covid but of depression and anxiety.
We’re here, together, still talking about things to read. In some ways, that’s remarkable. And it’s also remarkably ordinary.
In the next few months I’ll be doing some podcast appearances, some guest speaking, a trivia event, and maybe even some in person events, Omicron depending. Some other excerpts will appear in other places. But this Thursday I’ll be having a live book launch event on YouTube, and you’re invited to join in. The best way to find out about upcoming events is to check out my Twitter or Instagram feeds. You can find links to all of these on my website.
Until then, I can’t promise this newsletter will arrive with any greater regularity but I wanted to offer you something for being here, so here is an excerpt from The Defiant Middle. If you see any weird numbers, those are end notes that carried over from the PDF. It’s a bit long, so if you get bored, delete, save for later, or do whatever you need to. You’re still here. We’re still here. That alone is pretty amazing.
In 1943, the philosopher and mystic Simone Weil died at the age of thirty-four. As with many dead women, there is both consensus and disagreement about what led to her death, but the method of it is clear: she deliberately starved herself. Weil, who was raised in an agnostic Jewish family, had a powerful religious experience in 1937. In the tiny chapel known as the Portiuncula in Assisi, Italy, the same chapel where Saint Francis heard God’s voice telling him to rebuild the church, she experienced what some scholars call a “religious ecstasy”—the kind of transcendent, out-of-body experience people have tried to put words to for centuries.
For the few years that remained of her life, Weil tried to balance her powerful religious impulse with her work as a covert operative during World War II and her writings in philosophy. It’s been rumored but never confirmed that Weil was baptized as a Catholic. Her religious interests were too wide-ranging for her to be entirely comfortable being pinned to one tradition, so she remained religiously defiant and in-between. She was Catholic-attracted at any rate, and part of that attraction was deeply embedded in her desire to understand the suffering of Jesus, in large part because she lived in an era when suffering was all around her. This moved Weil to try to physically embody the world’s suffering, to experience its deprivation and pain. Like many women mystics, Weil understood the relationship with God as a quid pro quo. In Gravity and Grace, she wrote that “love of God is pure when joy and suffering inspire an equal degree of gratitude.”
But why did she deliberately starve herself? Part of it was a desire to align her own suffering with the poorest of the poor during the war. A part also bears similarity to what medieval people knew as anorexia mirabilis, holy anorexia, where they attributed a miraculous loss of appetite to a person’s religious fervor. Many male medieval saints undertook physical punishments (often self-inflicted) and vows of chastity in order to grow closer to the sufferings of Christ, while some female medieval saints went to extremes in fasting instead. At the time, the church fathers attributed this loss of appetite to God’s grace, but many of these women died painfully and young as the result of this “miraculous” lack of appetite. Today, holy anorexia, like other eating disorders, would very likely be classified as a form of mental illness.
In fact, the life stories of any number of women mystics can sound to the modern ear like a catalog of entries in the DSM-5, the manual mental health professionals use to diagnose patients. Weil and other mystics saw their lives as a battle between good and evil, with their minds and bodies enduring sufferings they translated as self-sacrificial offerings to God. Describing something of her experience that sounds to the twenty-first-century ear like severe depression, Weil tells us that that which is “gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring” is evil.
Weil’s equal attractions to God, social justice, and philosophy have made her, whom many regard as a genius, an increasingly fascinating subject for feminist scholars in the years since her death. Like many women, her work was not much known during her lifetime, which also relates in part to a larger problem: Why are so many gifted women battered by their own minds, trapped in a liminal space between the demons of their own imaginations and the hope for their mental suffering to reach an end through treatment, medication, or even death?
Fifty years after Weil died, something much less interesting happened. I earned a bachelor’s degree in English. Four years later, I added an MFA in creative writing. Back then, my writing was focused on poetry, and with the encouragement of professors who saw me as a potential big fish in the minuscule pond of my Catholic liberal arts college, I’d planned on riding the academic wave all the way through a PhD. This did not happen. Within three years of graduating, I was permanently soured on writing poetry, had declined admission to the doctoral programs where I’d been accepted, and was even miserable browsing bookstores, something that—much to my embarrassment as a writer who’s supposed to love them—I’m still unable to do with any kind of pleasure.
The story of the person who drops out of academia is commonplace. The job market is dire, the prospects for humanities PhDs negligible, and “I quit academia” essays and books have become a genre unto itself: quit lit. However, I am, technically, an academic. Without a doctorate, I worked and published my way into a job teaching writing full-time at a well-regarded public university, and today, I regularly attend conferences where I present papers and give invited talks, occasionally advise grad students on their theses, and review essays for academic journals.
But I’m not “Doctor Oakes.” That’s my oldest sister, who’s an MD. To my students and people at conferences who call me “Doctor,” I reply, “Call me Kaya,” because that’s who I am: Kaya, an under-credentialed writer who lucked into a career. Like many other women, I experience impostor syndrome daily, and thus, I don’t really qualify as an academic. I don’t really belong at my job, and I certainly don’t deserve it, because I failed the Credentialism Olympics.
The roots of that failure can be traced to those under- grad intro-to-lit courses every English major takes. Like so many other students who fell into this trap of believing we were meant for greater things, I loved the whispery thin pages of the Norton Anthologies; loved how I could read three, four, five times the assigned length from classes and never tire of it; loved how easily I earned As and how my professors, for the most part, treated me like an intellectual peer rather than the irritating, pretentious undergrad I really was.
But those Norton Anthologies were full of secrets, ones that it would take a long time to fully understand. There were, of course, not many women writers included in them, and even if many of my professors were women, they struggled to assemble syllabi that reflected back the demographic makeup of their classes. In the 1990s, more than half the students at my college were female, but we were also in the thick of the canon wars, with half the faculty sticking up for the dead-white-guy syllabus and the other half battling to include more women and writers of color. But the women writers in the Norton Anthologies had one thing in common, aside from their gender. They were all crazy.
As it turns out, so am I.
The patron saint of mental health in the Catholic church is Saint Dymphna. Did we learn about her in my years of Catholic school? Probably not. I text two Catholic women friends who are also writers and ask, “Can you think of women saints who were mentally ill?” Within seconds, my phone screen fills up, a litany of the crazed. Saint Agnes. Saint Angela of Foligno. Bernadette. Margaret of Cortona. My old hero Joan of Arc. My friend Jessica mentions Saint Dymphna, but says she never really learned why she was assigned as patron to the men- tally ill. So I start digging in, and I learn this:
Once upon a time in the seventh century, when Ireland was partially populated by Catholics who had been converted by missionaries and partially by Celtic pagan polytheists still clinging to their native religion, a pagan king of a region called Oriel fell in love with a devout Christian woman and married her. Their daughter Dymphna took a vow of chastity at fourteen, and shortly after, her mother died. Her father was urged to remarry, but because Dymphna looked so much like her late mother, the king began to exhibit signs of madness and decided to sexually pursue his own daughter. Dymphna fled to what’s now Belgium, where she used her family money to establish a home for the poor and sick. Her use of Celtic coins helped her father trace her to her new home, so he traveled there and cut off her head. She was fifteen years old. The end.
Why did the church fathers decide that a victim of incest would make a good patron for people struggling with anxiety, depression, and everything else on the spectrum of mental health? Because, of course, the church is so terrified of women’s sexuality that it would rather appoint someone who successfully guarded her virginity but was a victim of another’s mental illness as the patron of the mentally ill than a person who actually struggled with mental illness.
Dymphna is often depicted holding the same white lilies that all chaste saints hold as a visual symbol. But even if her father was mentally ill and even if mental ill- ness is at least partly hereditary, there’s no evidence that Dymphna was mentally ill herself. So why her, and why not any of the mystics and visionaries and women hold- ing their plucked-out eyes on a plate like Saint Lucy or their severed breasts on a plate like Saint Agnes, or Christina the Astonishing flying into the church rafters, or any of those holy mad fools for God? Because the church loves women who are victims. And the same is true in college English courses, but instead of plucked-out eyes and flying saints, we got syllabi full of women writers who were anxious and depressed.
By the time I finished my MFA, I told my advisor, a brilliant poet whom I looked up to like you do when you’re young and meet someone whose life you wouldn’t mind stepping into, that if anyone ever brought up Sylvia Plath in a classroom again, I would probably explode. It was the nineties, we had played in the fields of feminism for decades, Riot Grrrls were stomping around in boots and bras with no shirts worn over them, and yet, my class- mates still invoked Plath with a regularity that made me queasy. The problem wasn’t Plath herself or her writing. It was the way we were taught to talk about her, which always centered on her depression and the fact that she died by suicide. We weren’t talking about her husband Ted Hughes’s infidelities, or the letters to her psychologist that would turn up years later revealing Hughes had beaten Plath while she was pregnant, causing a miscarriage, and told her he wished she were dead. We were instead talk- ing about how she gassed herself with her children in the room next door, leaving them milk and bread to eat. We knew those details, acutely. We talked about Plath as a victim of her own mind. Our conversations about her in classes were exhausting, demoralizing, and dangerously contagious.
We said the same things about Virginia Woolf and the rocks in her pockets, Anne Sexton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and the Beat writer Elise Cowan, who is best known for typing out her ex-boyfriend Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Kaddish” before Ginsberg came to terms with being gay and rejected her. She jumped out of a seventh- floor window.
Then we talked about women writers who might have been crazy. How did Mary Shelley manage to think up Frankenstein? How did Emily Dickinson cope with her self-imposed isolation? Why did Marina Tsvetaeva return to Russia from a life in Paris when she knew the Russian government would make her life so unbearable she’d end it by hanging herself? We talked about this so impartially, with a mind to finding evidence in “the work,” prying apart poetry and fiction and essays to look for clues, trac- ing a trail of breadcrumbs that led from troubled child- hoods to the inevitable breakdowns, stints in mental hospitals, night terrors, broken relationships, abandoned children, death. It was our job to explain that this is what it meant to be a woman writer: you had to be crazy. All of them were.
In 2001, the psychologist James C. Kaufman described this phenomenon as “the Plath effect” (there she is again). Female poets, according to Kaufman, are more likely to experience mental illness than women who write in any other genre. Women writers, generally, are more likely than any other professional class of women to experience mood disorders, drug addiction, panic attacks, eating dis- orders, and general anxiety disorder. They are also more likely to have experienced abuse during childhood. And as academics studying them, we were plunged into their stories of pain, despair, and suffering over and over and over again. It was just what you did in grad school. You read about women who went insane, and you wrote about women who went insane. And some of us went insane ourselves, writing about their insanity.
The alarm on my phone buzzes daily at eight a.m. It just says “P,” but I know what this means. It’s time to take Prozac. At night, I often need half an Ativan if it’s been a panic-attack day, but I try not to take it unless I “feel like I am actually going to die,” as my psychiatrist advises, because benzos have killed lots of writers. My sleep is infrequent and erratic, and my moods zip around unpredictably but mostly settle either in a zone of constant agitated worry or a lead blanket of a mood that presses me into inertia. I have wished, hoped, and many times prayed to simply turn my mind off, as much as I have been driven creatively and professionally by its wild expanses.
Unofficially, however, I’m just another crazy woman who writes.
The Catholic writer, poet, and civil rights activist Fanny Howe says that what being religious gives her is “an opportunity to examine one more completely insane vision of the universe.” She adds that the church, for all its obvious flaws, “has managed to accept the maddest among us,” and “has a huge margin for visions.” Whether a per- son believes in God or not, what all seekers have in common, according to Howe, is that sense that “to be saved only means to matter. You matter. Your life has meaning.”
After abandoning religion in my teens when my father died and life felt gray and flat and devoid of meaning, I rediscovered Catholicism in my late thirties—yet another period when I did not feel like my life mattered. This cycle is familiar to people with major depressive disorder. Depression appears on the horizon in small ways, small personal stings that pile up, a few bad days at work, the news cycle, the pounds that pile on without you noticing them because your body is just a sack to be dragged around. And then, all of a sudden, there’s a day when the full mass of depression presses down, an anvil of emotional pain, and the cycle begins again. Social withdrawal. A self-hatred so deeply rooted it can’t be extricated from who you have become. Days that drag and nights that never end.
What religion offered was less a message of personal salvation and more a message that none of us, no matter how sick, angry, filthy, or unwanted, is truly alone. What faith gave me was a reminder that the ordinary world, even the world of depression, is still charged with grace. Gerard Manley Hopkins, the tubercular, closeted gay Victorian Jesuit who also suffered from depression himself, wrote that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,” full of “the dearest freshness deep down things.” That’s what I found in Catholicism, as ill of a fit as it often was: it handed me an explanation for being in awe, a liturgical framework, a love for the poor, a link to my family history, and a community of saints, living and dead. But it could not take away my depression.
Anxiety, for those who’ve unfortunately experienced it, is more of a familiar, unwanted daily companion. It’s always there, needling and prodding the mind to tumble into endless “what if” scenarios, all of them ending in catastrophe. People who live with overlapping anxiety and depression often feel guilty—so guilty, so repentant for things we have failed to do, so sinful, so unworthy.
We are, in other words, picture-perfect Catholics.
Here are some of the ways women through history have been treated for mental illness:
Having holes drilled in their skulls (trepanning)
Burning at the stake/drowning/hanging
Bleeding and forced vomiting
Forced insulin coma
Injected with viruses to cause a fever to “burn out” hysteria
Unnecessary hysterectomy and oophorectomy
Here are some side effects of medications taken for mental health today (just imagine this in the rapid voice-over of a TV advertisement): nausea, dry mouth, drowsiness, insomnia, lack of sexual desire, dizziness, weight loss, weight gain, indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, blurred vision, heavy sweating, hallucinations, seizures, suicidal thoughts.
These medications are what keep us alive.
Centuries before Simone Weil died from anorexia, Saint Catherine of Siena had a vision of her mystical marriage to Christ, during which he gave her a wedding ring made from his foreskin. Yes, that’s correct. Many medieval saints received mystical rings in mystical weddings to Christ, and some of those saints were male (told you gender transgression is nothing new in religion), but only Catherine got a foreskin ring. She was that kind of special.
Catherine was one of those holy, mad women the church wasn’t sure what to do with. When she fasted, she fasted to the point that she would only drink pus from the wounds of sick people (yes, it’s gross; and yet another reason I wound up returning to Catholicism is probably because I’m fascinated by the grotesqueries of the human body, but also, Catholicism is very goth). When she spoke up to the men who led the church, she did so with a righteous anger that still resonates in her writing six centuries later. When her parents tried to stop her from becoming a nun, she shaved her head. God, according to Catherine, was the sea, and human beings were the fish. Her submission to God was extreme, even by the standards of her era. But was she mentally ill? By today’s standards, absolutely. But this is more complicated when we look at the intersections of women, religious experience, and mental health.
In the times when they lived, mystics like Simone Weil, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard von Bingen, and Margery Kempe were understood to be vessels of God. Their visions came from God, the ability to translate those visions into prose or poetry or song came from God, and their deaths were things they fervently prayed for so that they would be united with God. If they suffered from madness, they understood this as God’s will.
To most secular people and progressive religious people today, that kind of prayer can be disturbing. Do people really hear the voice of Jesus, feel God’s touch, and understand that the Holy Spirit is moving among us? Yes, they do. But we no longer have folk saints like Christina the Astonishing, who arose out of her coffin at her own funeral in the twelfth century and flew up into the rafters because, it was said, she could smell the sin in the congregation. Christina, who we’re told would also throw herself into furnaces, curl up into a ball on the ground and pretend to be a stone, and stand in frozen rivers for weeks on end, saw her actions (whether they were really this extreme or not) as a way of suffering on behalf of souls trapped in purgatory. Did she actually do these things? We can’t know, but she believed she did them, and people who believed in her holiness looked past what others called madness and saw something else, something that might be closer to what might happen if a person really did hear the voice of God.
The problem is that today, the religious right has hijacked the conversation about how God talks to people. The language of white evangelicalism, particularly the politicized American version, rooted in its history of Calvinistic ideas of sin and predestination, emphasizes a person hearing Jesus or God speak to them not for the good of the community or the salvation of humankind like those mad women saints did, but for selfish, power-driven, and dangerous reasons.
The faith of prosperity-gospel preachers, gun-rights advocates making rosaries out of bullets, and “pro-life” men who assassinate doctors who perform abortions or plant bombs in clinics is, for many of us, what really feels like madness. Watching the increasingly tightly bound ties between nationalism and religion, white supremacy and religion, and homophobia/transphobia and religion and the stripping away of the health care mentally ill people rely on is like witnessing a collective episode of mental illness in light of what the gospels actually preach. If the purpose of religion is to make us better people, more concerned with others, and participants in the liberation of all of humanity, the religious right has foresworn belief in the opposite.
The hatred, suspicion, and fear of visionary women is real, too, including in the Catholic church, which has transformed its wild and untamable female saints into squeaky-clean, obedient, silent enigmas bereft of personality and representative of not much more than purity and piety. It is easier for religious or political institutions to point the finger and dismiss a woman as “crazy” than it is to unpack the overlapping social, cultural, and religious forces that exacerbate so many women’s mental health issues in the first place. If those saints were just more crazy women littered throughout history, they’re also easily erased.
Here are some things women were not allowed to do in 1971, the year I was born:
Have a credit card in her own name
Be guaranteed they could not be fired for getting pregnant
Serve on a jury, depending on which state they lived in
Fight in combat
Go to Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, or Columbia
Report her husband for marital rape
Pay the same amount for health insurance as a man
Take birth control pills, depending on which state she lived in
Fifty years later, some things have changed for women in America. Certainly, we can at least be more vocal about issues, but fifty years after the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) failed to be ratified, only half of the fifty states have equality amendments in their state constitutions. We have yet to elect a woman as president, and we still regularly tell and hear #MeToo stories. Women are statistically still more likely to be raped, abused, or killed by men than are men likely to be harmed by women. As I was writing this chapter, an older white, male member of Congress referred to a younger Latina female member of Congress as a “fucking bitch,” was overheard saying it by a reporter, and refused to offer an apology. He in fact used his religious beliefs as an excuse for his “passion.”5
The last I checked, Jesus never referred to a woman as a “fucking bitch.” He did, however, minister to many women who were cast off by the society they lived in because of what would today be labeled mental illness. Mary Magdalene, wrongly described by men for centuries as a reformed prostitute, was actually someone from whom Jesus cast out demons, and in the time when this took place, people who were thought to be possessed by demons were often likely suffering from mental illness or some form of epilepsy. The woman who is hemorrhaging blood so badly during her periods that she actually tries to grab Jesus in order to be healed has visited doctor after doctor searching for solutions, wanting to be believed.
Today, when many women who present with symptoms of heart attacks and other life-threatening issues are brushed off by doctors as suffering from anxiety, the story of the woman with the hemorrhages might seem far too familiar. It’s not unlikely that she, too, would be considered mentally ill by the same doctors. And if perhaps she is, that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be listened to by medical professionals. For women, menopause, puberty, cancer treatments, and thyroid issues can throw off our biological chemistry so much that anxiety and depression are listed as side effects during treatment for any of those things. Take away the language we now have, the medications, the therapy, and the too-slow erasure of social stigmas around mental illness, and what you have left are suffering women no one listens to or believes. No wonder we were stigmatized as demonic, uncontrollable, possessed.
But in a Venn diagram between the holy madness of the saints and the ordinary madness of women, perhaps there is some overlap that’s still relevant today, even with our sheaves of knowledge that former centuries lacked. Part of it is that we have not shaken off the stubborn yoke of patriarchy, which seeks to control women by label- ing us as “crazy,” whether that means we have something like bipolar disorder or are just having a bad day. What “crazy” means in a patriarchy is a woman who cannot be controlled, and a woman who cannot be controlled is ultimately a threat. That was true in the medieval era, and it remains so today.
After the medieval era, in the Renaissance, madness was the subject of both fascination and disgust. In Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, written in 1621, madness is not extraordinary but part of the everyday violence and shock of life, like much of what we experience today: “those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken [and] cities besieged.”
In those same college English classes where I learned that all women who write will eventually go crazy, we also read a lot of Shakespeare and talked a lot about Ophelia. Ophelia—always handed to us as “poor Ophelia,” the victim of an overbearing father, a terribly flaky and narcissistic boyfriend, a manipulative brother, and all of the expectations of sweetness and obedience that were piled onto teenage girls in her era. But like the medieval saints who came before her, Ophelia is also a visionary, a person possessed by ideas about guilt and shame that she may not actually be responsible for.
Ophelia’s guilt, in other words, is a kind of religious guilt, guilt about sin and suffering that she shares with centuries of other women, which she takes on as a bur- den and which drags her down to her death. The medieval saints who preceded her believed their ailments were miracles sent from God. Ophelia gets one “mad scene” onstage, but her death occurs offstage, a footnote in a man’s story. And the other mad women and girls of literature, from Anna Karenina to Madame Bovary, from Jane Eyre’s “woman in the attic” to the authors of the landslide of memoirs about women’s mental illness in the late twentieth century, had to combat that same guilt and shame, and are still struggling to throw it off even today.
Literature and religion may have shaped my view of madness, but when seven women are disabled by depression for every man who experiences the same thing, we are not just talking about religious-leaning women or women writers being caged by centuries of social stigma. We are talking about women in every occupation, in every part of the world, who are considered to be crazy. It might be easy to say that we are past the point when women who were mentally ill were killed or encouraged to kill themselves, that our world is more civilized, more aware. But this is not the case. At all.
In 2015, Sandra Bland, a twenty-eight-year-old Black activist, was pulled over by Texas state trooper Brian Encinia for failing to use her turn signal. He yanked her out of the car, threw her to the ground, and took her to jail, where she hanged herself. Bland, who seems to have struggled with depression, was not placed on suicide watch in prison, and the FBI later found that the guards were not adequately trained in working with mentally ill people. Her family said she had recently been excited about a new job, but friends also talked about Bland’s ups and downs, and some of her downs were apparently dire. Based on what she told a prison guard, she had been “very depressed” for the past year.8 It was clear that she needed help. She got nothing.
Following her death, her family eventually settled a wrongful-death suit, and the Sandra Bland Act went into effect in 2017. The act requires jails to collect information to determine if a person is mentally ill. Whatever the truth was about Sandra Bland’s mental health, from the cop who arrested her to the wardens where she was incarcerated to the media afterward, she was portrayed as a woman who was crazy, and that image was used to explain her suicide, when in fact it’s not unlikely that violent and racist treatment at the hands of police played an outsized part in the premature end of her life. What if Sandra Bland was mentally ill and died because of it, or because law enforcement officers didn’t know how to deal with mental illness? What if she wasn’t mentally ill, and she died because cops and wardens thought she was?
Perhaps Sandra Bland is a better patron saint for the mentally ill than Dymphna. Or we could choose Carrie Fisher, who harnessed her bipolar disorder into a career as an actor and writer, or Billie Holiday, whose addictions were a side effect of the racism and sexism she also experienced, or the painter Jay DeFeo, who dealt with anxiety and depression as one of the few abstract expressionist women artists in a very macho art world, or even Mother Teresa, who spent decades sunk deep into depression, hiding it from public view the entire time. We can choose from so many women who heard what the saints called the voice of God and what doctors now call mental illness and channeled it into care for others, creative life, deep empathy, and transformative compassion. And we can understand that the threat posed by mentally ill women is the same threat posed by any woman who listens to her own mind.
When I began thinking in the framework of faith and madness and the expectations piled on women, I thought again about Sylvia Plath and what she stands for, and about “Lady Lazarus,” Plath’s poem about her suicide attempts and the persistence of her desire to bring an end to her suffering. Lazarus, so beloved of Jesus that he was raised from the dead, never has the opportunity to tell us what that felt like, or whether he even wanted to come back, so Plath tells us. It “feels like hell.” And the survivor of madness that she becomes is not a waifish ghost like Ophelia, or an elliptical mystery like Simone Weil, or able to survive on the eucharist alone like Catherine of Siena. The communion Plath takes becomes an act of devouring her own suffering and using it to set the world around her on fire. “Out of the ash,” she writes, “I rise with my red hair / and I eat men like air.”