Which Reminds Me of My Childhood: Postpartum Depression in “Eraserhead”

6 Feb

I just watched the David Lynch film Eraserhead for the first time in over ten years. This latest viewing made me think of my own family, specifically the severe postpartum depression my mother suffered after my younger sister was born.

Eraserhead is possibly David Lynch’s least watchable film. If you aren’t accustomed to viewing postmodern art house cinema, it can be a painful experience. But if you commit to it, and you’re familiar with psychological trauma, it may resonate with you. If you have any experience with postpartum depression, it will definitely strike a chord.

A sense of acute alienation permeates the film. It’s shot in grainy black-and-white. The setting is a filthy urban industrial landscape under perennially overcast skies. The claustrophobic soundtrack consists of howling winds and groaning, clanking machinery, and it plays continually, muted when the characters are indoors but still very much present, reminding them that there’s no reprieve from their surroundings.

The scene that stays with me is the first time the “baby” appears on camera. We see the character Mary, played by Charlotte Stewart, struggling to feed the baby. The baby is tightly swaddled; only its bovine head and elongated neck are visible. It lies on the dresser gazing blindly at the ceiling, fussily wiggling its head from side to side, refusing to accept the spoonfuls of food its mother grimly shoves at its mouth. Mary’s shoulders are slumped and her mouth pulls into an exaggerated  frown. Her body is rigid, her repulsion obvious. Her face betrays the brutal exhaustion of someone who’s already cried all the tears they can muster and has no option but to endure.

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My sister was born in December 1981. We were living in a suburb of Milwaukee called Wauwatosa. I was two and a half years old. My father was in his medical school residency and was often away at the hospital for days at a time. He had moved to Milwaukee to attend medical school and had no family there. My mother had lived in Milwaukee all her life, but she was an only child whose father had died of a heart attack before I was born. Her mother was ruthlessly abusive, emotionally and physically, and my mother had stopped speaking to her years ago.

Winters in Milwaukee are harsh. They are long, they are dark, and it never stops snowing. In nineteenth and early twentieth century rural Wisconsin, the winters were notorious for causing a devastating brand of cabin fever that compelled people to set their homes on fire and throw their babies down wells. There’s a book about the subject called Wisconsin Death Trip that features collages of news clippings documenting these cases along with photos of the afflicted families. My mother had family up there. One of my great-grandfathers hanged himself in his barn after his infant daughter died during a particularly long winter.

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So: it’s winter in Wisconsin. Snow drifts have piled up against our house to the point of completely burying the first floor windows, blocking out all light. My parents have no family to help them. My mother bears the psychic wounds of an abusive childhood at the hands of my grandmother. My father is working long hours, often away for two or three day stretches. And I am a burden–at two years of age I’ve already been diagnosed with a hyperactivity disorder. Specialists tell my parents that I have the energy level of three children my age. This is before Big Pharma began peddling Ritalin to schoolchildren, so I’m not tranquilized. I’m running amok indoors, literally climbing bookcases and curtains, bursting with energy and unable to expend it outside.

And then my sister was born.

The pregnancy was trying. My mother retained a lot of water and couldn’t fit into her shoes. She was constantly nauseous and dizzy. She wasn’t prepared for this because her first pregnancy had been relatively easy. The birth was likewise difficult. My sister was born in distress. Blue-eyed, she came into the world with blue sclera, which made her eyes look like blank pools.

My mother had breast-fed me, and she intended to do the same with my sister, but she wouldn’t latch. My mother tried and tried to feed her, but she refused. And the snow never stopped falling, and the drifts blocked the windows, and my father was gone for days and exhausted when he was home, and I was running circular tracks into the carpet of our tiny house. And she was alone.

I was very young, but I do have some memories of the period following my sister’s birth. I remember being constantly told to be quiet because my mother needed her rest. I remember creeping upstairs, peeking through a crack in the door and seeing her sitting on her bed, her head bowed, convulsing with sobs, and my father shooing me downstairs.

Postpartum depression is different from “the baby blues,” which is a short period of PMS-like mood fluctuations 80% of women experience after giving birth. Postpartum depression is less common, affecting about 15% of recent mothers. It’s a moderate to severe depression including some or all of the attendant symptoms: anhedonia, lack of energy, anxiety, despair, agitation, suicidal ideation, and inability to concentrate or complete quotidian tasks. Factors that heighten the risk of postpartum depression include a personal and/or family history of mental illness; trauma; alienation from emotional and social support; physical changes and pain resulting from pregnancy or birth; and personal problems such as financial troubles or marital friction.

Postpartum depression can cause mothers to resent or feel emotionally disconnected from their babies. They may have thoughts of hurting, or even killing, themselves and/or their children. Severe postpartum depression can develop into a break with reality called postpartum psychosis that can cause hallucinations, delusions, severe paranoia, and mania. One to two percent of recent mothers experience postpartum psychosis, usually within three months following childbirth.

The most famous case of postpartum psychosis in recent memory is that of Andrea Yates, a fundamentalist Christian who in 2001 methodically drowned her five children in her bathtub. Andrea, who’d been valedictorian of her high school class, had no history of violence, and everyone who knew her said she was a devoted wife and mother. She experienced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her fourth child, during which time she twice attempted suicide, hallucinated, and become so depressed she was sometimes catatonic. She was hospitalized twice and her doctors warned that having another baby would be dangerous. After her arrest, Andrea explained that she had to kill her children because they were damned and it was the only way to save their souls. She later testified in court that she had been tricked and possessed by Satan.

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In the wake of Andrea Yates’s case, people became more aware of the dangers of postpartum depression. It’s now routine for doctors to educate pregnant women and their partners about it: what it is, what factors increase its likelihood, and how to intervene when it manifests. There are classes for pregnant women and their families and virtual communities online. But it wasn’t freely discussed in 1981. With the benefit of hindsight, the looming certitude that it would strike is painfully obvious: the time of year, the family history of mental illness, my mother’s abusive childhood and maternal issues, the isolation and lack of emotional support.

I don’t know the exact progression of events. All my mother told me was that she was afraid she was going to hurt me and my sister, so she tried to kill herself. She was institutionalized for three months.

My sister was a colicky, fussy baby and I was a Tasmanian two year-old, and now my father was left to care for us. One night, I accidentally locked myself in the bathroom and became hysterical. I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, unlock the door. He  had to go outside and break in through the window. Once inside, what began as a disciplinary spanking devolved into unbridled rage; I don’t know to what extent he hurt me, but he refused to corporeally punish either of us after that. My sister did only two things: sleep and cry. If she was awake, she was crying, and absolutely nothing would placate her. My father once described looking down at her while she incessantly bawled in her crib and imagining how easy it would be to crush her throat just to silence her, just to experience a moment’s peace.

I hadn’t thought about any of this in a long time, but with this most recent viewing of Eraserhead, it all came together in my mind. I don’t know if David Lynch had any experience with postpartum depression (he’s infamous for refusing to provide any exegesis, insisting that such commentary from directors interferes with the audience finding their own meanings in films). But it speaks to me: the cruelly oppressive setting, the deadening alienation, the mother’s wretched disgust. I imagine my mother bent determinedly over my sister, struggling to feed this miserable little creature who did nothing but cry and reject her. I picture my father coming home after a three-day shift to find my sister wailing in her crib, demanding yet refusing to be comforted.

The film ends when the protagonist, played by Jack Nance, attempts infanticide only to see the baby mutate and grow until it blots out the room and the world within the film collapses. Thankfully, our story didn’t end that way, but the trauma etched itself into my family’s consciousness. It is always with us: in the palpable silences my father erects, in my sister’s rage, in my mother’s determined martyrdom. Like the film’s dystopian soundscape, it is inescapable, omnipresent. Were we to face it, I have no doubt that our world would likewise implode. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This isn’t a world one should want to preserve.

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