It is uncommon for any student to graduate from high school or college without reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ”The Yellow Wallpaper” at least once. It has become a standard in American English courses and a significant part of the feminist canon.
In the largely autobiographical story, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell’s “rest cure” is condemned for causing madness in young women in the early 20th century. Gilman, who was a patient of Mitchell’s, villifies his methods in the story and even has the protagonist mention the doctor by name.
However, Dr. Lori Schmied, professor of psychology and chair of MC’s division of behavioral sciences, does not feel that Gilman’s accusations of Mitchell are well-grounded.
“When I read some articles by Mitchell published in medical journals at the time, I made the connection that he was the one that was referred to in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ one of my favorite short stories,” she said. “What I realized was that what he was writing about wasn’t accurately presented in the short story.”
Schmied recently presented a paper on Mitchell’s substantive contributions to the field of psychology and the reasons why modern society’s perceptions of him are skewed.
When Schmied discovered that Mitchell’s rest cure method was the inspiration for the story, she decided to pursue research on the topic.
“My research focuses on two of my enthusiasms,” she said. “One is my professional background in neuroscience, and the other is history in psychology. When I made the connection that [Mitchell] was the psychologist described in Gilman’s short story, I was hooked.”
Schmied found that Mitchell had made impressive contributions not only to the field of psychology but also in neuroscience and literature. His theory on phantom limbs went uncontested for over a century.
However, the work for which Mitchell is most famous is the rest cure, which he details in his books “Fat and Blood and How to Make Them” and “Wear and Tear.”
Both books address how Americans living in height of the Industrial Revolution were suffering from overwork and stress. Mitchell was one of the first psychologists ever to address the physical and psychological detriment that can result from stress.
His rest cure was designed to treat a disorder found mostly in young, upper-class women called neurasthenia or, since it was uniquely American, “Americanitis.” The symptoms of the disorder included fatigue, low weight and listlessness, among others. The popular methods of treatment at the time (which included hydrotherapy, alchohol, electric shock and lithium) were highly ineffective.
The genius of the rest cure, said Schmied, lies in Mitchell’s emphasis on detoxifying the body.
“One of the things that I realized almost immediately was that it was a detox program,” Schmied said. “These were women who were heavily medicated. The main point of his rest cure was to get them in a structured environment where their diet could be controlled, where they could be taken off all medications. The other thing that he talked about where he was really ahead of his time was the synergy that existed between the patient and the caregiver.”
The rest cure mandated that the patient be separated from her “enabler,” usually a female family member whose excessive attention kept the patient in a state of illness.
From the evidence available, it would seem that Mitchell’s ideas were effective, at least in comparison with the methods used by his contemporaries.
So, what of Gilman’s accusations that Mitchell’s rest cure plummeted her into a state of near madness? Schmied claimed that such allegations were highly unmerited.
“One of the interesting things I’ve discovered is that the short story itself has been altered by several different editors and altered in such a way that makes it seem like a more feminist piece,” Schmied said. “When it was first published, it was considered a ghost story. In the 1970s it was rediscovered, and editors in subsequent editions added words that would make it seem more like a feminist piece.”
Also, the assertion that the protagonist makes in the story that Mitchell forbade her to engage in intellectual activities is completely false.
“When I actually read what Mitchell had to say in his works, I found that he said that they could not talk about their symptoms, but he encouraged them to talk about their intellectual pursuits,” Schmied said. “So, it’s almost exactly opposite to what she’s accused him of.”
Schmied admitted that gender critics have a point in criticizing Mitchell’s methods, especially because of the gender binary that exists within the cure. (Men were recommended outdoor excursion while women were recommended rest.)
However, Mitchell made remarkable strides in psychology with his pinpointing of the dangers of stress and, according to Schmied, does not deserve to be vilified.