‘Psychotic Fictions and Terrible Truths’ Reading Madness, Femininity and Excessive Speech

Laura Deane 2005, Antithesis Journal: Excess, vol.15 no.1, pp. 74-90.


Many women, not matter what their particular case structure is: depressive, hysteric, or obsessional – complain that they experience language as something cold, foreign to their lives. To their passion. To their suffering. To their desire. As if language were a foreign body. And when they say this we are given the impression that what they question is language as a logical exercise … There may be a refusal to submit to communication.

Julia Kristeva

And what if, for women, the dichotomous oppositions did not make sense the way they do for men, unless they radically submit to the phallic make world, leaving themselves mute, or reducing themselves to mimeticism, the only language, or silence, permitted them in this discursive order.

Luce Irigaray

Madness has long been a theme of women’s literary production. One need only think of Plath’s The Bell Jar, or Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water. In the case of women writers who have documented their experiences of mental illness either in fiction or in literary modes such as memoir, it has been romanticised as a prerequisite for literary production—and here, of course, Virginia Woolfe, amongst others, springs to mind. Feminist interpretations of women’s madness, whether as a literary theme or whether as a source of inspiration, are split on the question of the madwoman’s intelligibility and on the efficiency of madness as a strategy for feminist protest. Despite this split, the motif of the madwoman continues to fascinate feminist critics interested in the ways that women writers voice protest.

Madness can be read as a trope for women’s positioning in cultures that privilege men, and the madwoman is often read as a motif of structural inequality. The paper considers the madwoman’s relationships to systems of language and meaning through an analysis of excessive speech and silence in literature. Madness can be read as a form of excess that may be either generative or destructive for the subject because the experience of madness exceeds meaning, logic and sense; indeed, it is an experience in the realm of non-sense. In considering accounts of women’s madness, this paper charts the linguistic disturbances that occur in depressive and psychotic episodes in Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story, and in Stephanie Luke’s memoir of a psychotic episode Harm: A Memoir of Dark and Glorious Days. Grenville’s novel is concerned with the ways that a woman born of a respectable family in 1901 can end up a ‘bag lady,’ estranged from her family of origin. Luke’s memoir, set in Adelaide at the end of the twentieth century, investigates the genesis of a psychotic episode, brought on by familial conflict and relationship breakdown.

In reading the linguistic disturbances that ‘code’ this excess, this paper investigates symbols of fluidity and displacement, arguing that overdetermination is one of the markers of this excess. But when a word, a code, or a symbol becomes so overloaded with meaning that is collapses, excess has become lack. Both Luke’s and Grenville’s writing about madness circulates around the twin poles of excess and lack, understood either as the failure of language as a result of this overdetermination, or as a withdrawal into silence and away from language as a system of communication. My interests are in applying feminist poststructuralist accounts of the subject to text of women’s madness and to the speech acts and linguistic disturbances that women writers chart in their accounts of madness. I use the term ‘madness’ to discuss mania (psychosis) and melancholia (depression). These episodes occur in Lilian’s Story and its companion and counter-narrative Dark Places, and in Luke’s Harm: A Memoir of Dark and Glorious Days. Clearly, my analysis of women’s madness is neither diagnostic nor therapeutic; rather I am concerned with the intersections between language and gender. [Pg. 75].

This is just an excerpt. To read the full article, download the PDF below: psychotic-fictions-and-terrible-truths-reading-madness-femininity-and-excessive-speech

“We Shall Take Her to a Clinic.” Sleeping Beauty and Angela Carter’s “The Lady of the House of Love.”

“Sleeping Beauty” has, like all fairy tales, undergone many metamorphoses. In a folk version, recorded in 1534 by the Italian writer Giambattista Basile as “Sole, Luna e Talia,” a king rapes the sleeping Talia because he cannot resist her beauty. Talia then gives birth to two children, Sun and Moon, and is awakened when one of them sucks the splinter from her finger. When the queen discovers the liaison, she attempts to cook the children for the king’s dinner and to burn Talia to death. But the king arrives just in time[i].

Charles Perrault, a royal bureaucrat of the Sun King Louis XIV, published his version of the tale, “La Belle au bois dormant” (“The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods”), in 1697.[ii] Perrault’s tale adheres closely to Basile’s, although he added a few details, such as the curse on the princess, and omitted the hero’s sexual activities. He also replaced the king with an unmarried prince thus avoiding the problem of adultery – though not of rape – and relocated the queen as the prince’s ogress mother who craves to eat the children herself.[iii]

It is significant that the translation of Perrault’s title, ‘The Sleeping Beauty,” is the one most familiar with readers today, for it reinforces two of the major prerequisites for the archetypal fairy tale heroine: extreme passivity (in this case, sleeping) and beauty. It is equally significant, though, that the version of the tale we are most familiar with is the Grimm’s “Little Briar-Rose” (“Dornröschen”), first published in 1812.[iv] In this version, there is no rape and no cannibalism. The heroine is depicted, as Andrea Dworkin describes her in Woman Hating, as that “beauteous lump of ultimate, sleeping good,”[v] dreaming away the one hundred years in her rose-covered castle until she is awakened with a kiss from the prince. The lovers a promptly married. End of story.


In Angela Carter’s contemporary reworking of the “Sleeping Beauty” narrative, “The Lady in the House of Love,”[vi] fairytale enchantment meets gothic high camp. This Sleeping Beauty is the somnambulant queen of the vampires; a Countess cursed with inhabiting the margin between life and death, wake and sleep. The tale has received very little critical attention, and perhaps this is because it does not adhere closely to any of the previous versions. Rather, Carter deconstructs fairy tale motifs, particularly the central motif of the beautiful, sleeping girl. In doing so, she examines the ideological messages the tale conveys about the socialisation of women: that is to say, about how women ought to look and how they ought to behave.

The “House of Love” was published in the 70’s when roles for women were being radically revised. It is appropriate, therefore, that the tale has a great deal to say about the pressures fairytale archetypes have exerted upon women to conform to stringent models of beauty and behaviour. The influence the earlier tales continue to have on women today is highly apparent; industries such as fashion, cosmetics and advertising have all commodified the fairytale heroine for their own commercial purposes. This is not to say that these tales are beyond redemption, but that we need to read them, as Carter does, in the context of their construction.

For example, Carter’s Sleeping Beauty is trapped by her own representation. She is as archetypal as the figures on her tarot cards, and she is unable to reconstruct herself in any other fashion than the one assigned to her. “Everything about this beautiful and ghastly lady is as it should be,” the narrator tells us, “except her horrible reluctance for the role.”[i] The young officer from the British Army who stumbles upon the castle (Carter’s stand-in for the prince) sees her as “a ventriloquist’s doll, or, more, like a great, ingenious piece of clockwork. For she seemed inadequately powered by some slow energy of which she was not in control.”[ii] Her beauty is displayed as curiously artificial, like that of the mechanical Olimpia with whom Nathaniel falls in love in ETA Hoffmann’s “The Sandman.” Carter’s Sleeping Beauty:

…is so beautiful she is unnatural; her beauty is an abnormality, a deformity, for none of her features exhibit any of those touching imperfections that reconcile us to the imperfection of the human condition. Her beauty is a symptom of her disorder, of her soullessness.

This article excerpt is taken from our Thinking Identities, Anxious Bodies, Unruly Texts print journal from 1995 and is by Lisa Jacobson. For the full article, along with the references download the PDF from below.

We Shall Take Her to a Clinic. Sleeping Beauty and Angela Carter’s The Lady of the House of Love

Guest Contributor: Edward Tanoto

Antithesis is pleased to welcome a new blog contributor: Edward Tanoto.

Edward Tanoto is an Indonesian, full-time student at The University of Melbourne studying for his Bachelor of Commerce degree. He is also a freelance writer and blogs’ guest writers. Before Australia, he was a debate coach and an English teacher in Indonesia. Currently, he is an active participant for Feeding Australia, a non-profit organisation with the aim of providing affordable food to Australians. He is also collaborating with Professor Kenji Kanno from Tokyo University of Science and his team in creating a documentary on Australian refugees, and is working on an article for “Aktivis” Magazine – an Indonesian magazine published annually by PPIA (Perhimpunan Pelajar Indonesia Australia or The Indonesian Students Association of Australia).

We hope you enjoy Behind the Pen.

As a writer, I tend to question things – ‘What if the world is different?’ or ‘How can I voice the cries of the homeless?’ or ‘Why has Trump gathered so many supporters to his campaign?’ More often than not, the answer does not come easily, but requires hours of imagination, thought and research. The writing process is often mentally exhausting, frustrating, even!

Eventually you come to ask yourself, ‘What’s the point?’ After all, it is just a bunch of letters. There is no guarantee anybody is going to read it anyway.

It’s a question that every writing enthusiast may ask. I mean, put yourself in my shoes – my native language is not English. I am Indonesian and my English may not even be good to begin with! Faced with doubt, we dig deeper into our wounds, rubbing salt into them and wallowing in self-pity. What comes after? Well, you decide.

I believe many of us have doubted our writing. There is nothing wrong with questioning what you are doing, in fact, it’s a sign of critical thinking at work. Similarly though, it’s also important to acknowledge the value of your writing. No matter what you have written, know that you have crafted a piece of yourself into words. The words represent your thoughts, your beliefs, you! We become our own artist, our canvasses are paper and our colours are words. Just for this, how is writing not worth it?

‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’ It’s no mystery that people take offence to what writers say. Genghis Khan waged war with the Shah of Khwarezm, Muhammad II, after merely receiving an unfavourable reply to a trade negotiation. Your word holds power. It is one of the many weapons you are born with. Mastery of words is a common trait of charismatic leaders, successful novelists and famous gurus. Writing can function as a power tool when used correctly. It is the one asset that will remain useful even when time goes by. Why would you not wish to equip yourself with a powerful tool that will serve you for life?

‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’ This idiom, in its simplest form, shows us the richness of a single image. Similarly, I believe the reverse holds as much truth – A word is worth a thousand pictures. Think of life, or love – each word evokes different imagery in our psyches. The word life can conjure images of a fun hangout with close buddies in a café just as it can trigger thoughts of travelling the world, experiencing new memories and recalling good times. Love can mean accepting the unchangeable or even changing the unacceptable for your significant other.

Take the simplest word, I. The word consists of only a letter, and yet people relate differently to it. What constitutes an individual’s identity? What constitutes my identity? Will I define who I am based on my successes, failures, goals or even missed opportunities? How ironic, yet how beautiful, that it takes so few words to suggest so many pictures of you. Know that when you write, you are gently touching each reader’s psyche, each with its own take on what you write.

Ultimately, the exploration goes on. Psychological, emotional and personal benefits can all be found through writing. I wish I have been able to offer a glimpse of the story behind the pen, the reasons why people write. Find your motivation and write what you will. After all, it is yours to craft.

Guest Contributor: Harriet Clare Cunningham

Antithesis is pleased to welcome a new blog contributor: Harriet Cunningham.

Harriet Cunningham is a freelance writer, journalist and musician best known as classical music critic for the Sydney Morning Herald. She is currently studying for a DCA at the University of Technology, Sydney, writing a collection of short stories inspired by the archives of Dartington International Summer School of Music. In a previous life she was a copywriter, arts administrator and arts marketing expert and has been known to play the violin.

We hope you enjoy Truth and Fiction and Archives.

I’ve been working with the archive of the Summer School of Music, a festival held at Dartington Hall since 1953. My father built the archive from the ground up, from public and private collections, and now I’m sitting on the floor in his study, surrounded by boxes, story-hunting. Examining this archive is a rich experience because Dartington is a big part of who I am.

Every summer my family would spend four magical weeks there. The photos and letters drip with significance and I am here to coax some stories out of this archive. My first story is set in 1957, the year when Igor Stravinsky – one of the great iconoclasts of the twentieth century – came to visit. I’ve found some wonderful resources: autobiographies and a gossipy diary; photos showing the great man sporting sunglasses and a beret; programs and running sheets and even a shopping list. I find myself hearing conversations with the angular, ascetic chords of Stravinsky’s music in the background. The words pour out onto the page, and it’s colourful and rambling but something is not quite right. Why doesn’t it work as a story?

The answer lies somewhere within the torrid relationship between archives and historical fact. I must step back and observe how the archive affects me and how that conflicts with storytelling.

First up, my response to the period-feel of many elements in the archive. The contrast between then and now is, simply, beguiling – all those 1950s fashions and the ever-so-English speech. Does this fondness for the past, however, become an indulgence? Is my inclusion of period details adding a zing of period-colour? Or is it just historical point-scoring? I think it’s the latter.

Second, a narrative is more than a collection of facts spliced together. It needs to be curated. I have already made up conversations, attributed emotions to characters for which I cannot possibly claim a documentary source. I can, in fact, I should leave things out for the sake of the story. It’s time to kill some darlings and not just words.

Third, I need to be honest about the voices which I am splicing together. The many anecdotes are only moments in time, captured and packaged and retold from a distance. So, too, are the photos – intensely evocative, full of clues, but just another captured moment. My narrative is one more layer of artifice.

My starting point was naive fascination. My endpoint, I hope, is to bring some meaning to what I’ve found. It’s time to step away, to stop stumbling on the detail and instead hear the overarching message. I go to Stravinsky’s music and, in particular, the music that was played in the summer of ’58, which included a staged performance of The Soldier’s Tale. It’s a work close to my heart with its catchy, jagged rhythms. I can still feel that shiver down my spine as the devil enters to claim the soldier’s soul. So now I listen to the music. I listen to Stravinsky’s voice as recorded by his assistant, Robert Craft. I begin to hear a story.

It’s not the story of a soldier who sells his soul to the devil. It’s the story of an artist and a man, living in troubled times, torn between art and reality, between beauty and truth. Stravinsky does not suffer fools. He tells it how it is. And yet he is an artist, filtering reality through his imagination to try and make something beautiful, something meaningful. It’s that juxtaposition between beauty and truth that I will try to capture in my story – what might have been and what was. The story has moved a long way from dog-eared photos and jolly anecdotes. It makes no claims to contain the whole historical truth. But there are shards of truth tucked in there, all wrapped up in what I hope is a rattling good yarn.

Guest Contributor: Michael Overa

Antithesis is pleased to welcome a new blog contributor: Michael Overa.

Michael Overa was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. After completing his MFA at Hollins University in 2010, he returned to Seattle where he currently works as a writing coach and is a writer-in-residence with Seattle’s Writers In The Schools program. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in the Eastbay Review, Across the Margin, Writers’ Block, Fiction Daily, and the Portland Review, among others.

We hope you enjoy his piece: Why I Like Rejection Letters

It’s often difficult to explain to non-writers the series of events that lead up to a rejection letter, partly because that series of events tend to be rather nebulous. Hollywood would have us think that it works like this: a writer wakes up in the middle of the night and scribbles down some ideas which are an instant hit. Now, as romantic as that sounds, it’s a myth. But that well-established myth is hard to debunk.

In reality it works something more like this: a story idea wanders amorphously into our minds; we brood over the idea for days, weeks, or months; we write the story, agonising over word choice and sentence structure. Perhaps we spend time researching. Then, at least for many of us, begins a prolonged period of revision. Revision that may take more days, more weeks, more months. Sometimes years. And then only after we have nursed this story until we feel it is ready to face the world do we send it out.

Ah, but once the story is sent out we may not hear anything for days, weeks or months, There are times I have received rejection letters from magazines I completely forgot I submitted to.

With all of that said, what masochistic tendency leads me to like rejection letters? I’d like to think that it isn’t masochistic at all. Considering the amount of time and energy I have devoted to a story, I am, naturally, disappointed by rejection letters. However, I don’t tear up the letter proclaiming that the editors must be out of their minds. After all, a complete stranger’s aesthetic preference is impossible to ascertain. Nor do I curse other successful writers – I don’t believe I’m really in competition with them. Finally, to blame myself and question my writing ability would be fatal to my writing life. Writers learn to be rather thick-skinned about rejection letters; we also learn to maintain a certain amount of healthy pride in our work.

So, here are, for what it’s worth, the three things I like about rejection letters:

1. Rejection Letters remind us of the amount of work we have done.
Each rejection letter is a little reminder that not only did we have an idea for a story, but we sat down and wrote it. We agonised over it. We found the right literary magazine and sent off the story, spending more time in the search for the right journal to submit to. Sending the story out was the last box we could check in things within our control.

2. Rejection Letters remind us that we need to keep working.
If we’re not yet at the place where everything we send out gets snapped up immediately then we still have some work to do. It’s Sisyphean to be sure. The task will never be completed. But each time we get a rejection letter we’re reminded we still have a goal to strive towards.

3. Rejection Letters remind us that the writing process is not finite.
There is no clear place that delineates when a story is done. That’s a particular Spidey-sense we all have to develop. It’s more intuition and guessing than it is a science. Rejection letters remind us to sit down with that story again and see what we can do to edit or change it.

Ultimately we write because it is something that we can’t imagine not doing. But people write for very different reasons. I remember meeting a retiree at a writing conference in Iowa who said he really didn’t plan to send his stories out for publication. I was awestruck. The stories were entirely for himself and his family, and he wanted to write them to the best of his ability. I was similarly awestruck with advice from the writer Cathryn Hankla, who cautioned only to send out the best work I was capable of. A crappy story, even if published, is still a crappy story.

Guest contributor: Jade Raykovski

Antithesis is very pleased to welcome another amazing guest contributor to the blog: Jade Raykovski!

Jade Raykovski is studying writing and editing part-time while working as a full-time graphic designer. She dreams of one day writing children’s books like the ones that made her fall in love with reading. Her fiction has been previously published in Mindfood magazine and 1000 Words or Less Flash Fiction Collection 1. You can find her online on Twitter (@JadeRaykovski), or on Medium (medium.com/@jade.raykovski).

Below is her piece: The Importance of Like-Minded People.


I just sat down to write this article today, but it’s been burning inside of me for a week.

Last weekend I went to my first writing workshop, hosted by Writers Victoria in Melbourne. The day was tailored for young writers under the age of twenty-five, and at twenty-four I scraped in.

I felt doubtful when I walked in. I was definitely one of the older ones there and I didn’t fit in. The group seemed like quirky high school and uni students; people who spent their time writing, editing or reading their own work, student publications or the local lit mags (I didn’t know all of this for sure, but it seemed like a safe assumption). And there I was, a full-time corporate worker, looking the opposite of quirky with my blue jeans, grey knit, matching brown leather boots, watch and bag, and a frequent reader of traditional fantasy and classics. But I was there to mingle, so I made small talk with others who were there on their own (I confess, I targeted the older ones).

We were discussing the elements of fiction at the start of the first session, which was a topic that had already been covered in my writing course. But then my doubtful feeling returned after doing some writing exercises that were shared with the group. I was impressed by the writing of everyone in the room, particularly the youngest participant, who was only in year eight for crying out loud!

That was when I started feeling a different kind of doubt. Over half of the group were much younger than me, and here they were already aware they wanted to be writers, already honing their craft and even having some of their work published. Was I behind? What difference would it make if I had studied writing straight out of high school? What level would I be at now?

In hindsight I know it’s silly to think these things. I made a choice to study graphic design, to go straight from my design course into full-time work, and as a result I’ve been able to save money, to travel and to pay for my online writing course, which is full-fee (but definitely worth it). I took a break from writing and I can’t compare myself to people who have been writing longer than I have.

But back to the workshop. As the speaker discussed the publishing industry and her experiences, my interest skyrocketed and I listened eagerly. The next two sessions focused on a writer’s toolkit – how to pitch, promote yourself and use social media – and a panel on how the literary magazine industry works here in Melbourne.

We had lunch as a group and it was refreshing to ask someone bluntly what their favourite book was, or what kind of writing they were interested in. I have only one or two friends who I can put those questions to, and they’re friends I don’t see often. I found it so inspiring to meet other people who were working towards the same thing I was: improving their writing, looking for opportunities to be published, and now, building a writing network. I met a girl my age who was also working full-time and studying writing part-time. It was a hallelujah moment – there are others out there like me!

We ended the day by adding each other on Twitter and Facebook (I set up a Twitter account for myself the next day) and setting up a Facebook group to share work and ideas in the future. I really didn’t want the momentum to stop; I wanted the motivation from that day to keep flowing and to maintain the connections I made, even if it’s only sporadic communication.

I’ve been consistently writing for about two years now, but this week feels different.
I finally feel like I’m part of a community, that it’s not merely about sitting alone at my desk looking for the right words, but that there’s a whole bunch of people doing exactly the same thing here in Melbourne, across Australia and the world. I’ve spent the last week reading, editing my stories, buying journals I haven’t read before and keeping a new spreadsheet to organise submissions and opportunities. I really believe I can do this. I believe I can make this writing thing work and that I can be good at it.

It’s pretty damn exciting.