He is writing about the narrator/main character in “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s gripping picture of a descent into madness. In 1892, when the story was first published, the term “post-partum depression” and indeed the very concept were unknown; but to the modern eye, that does seem to be where the narrator begins. My student, too, seems unfamiliar with the term, even though it had been mentioned in the class’s speculative discussion. “Post pardon” is the closest his inner lexicon will let him get.
In Shakespeare’s day and for some time after—and indeed, possibly today, if the speaker is bold enough or imaginative enough—one could be pregnant with something other than a fetus (or child or homunculus). It could be an idea, a task, an expectation of any kind; in fact, in a sixteenth-century play I read, it was imprisonment. We do still call some pauses, the ones that seem freighted with potential meaning, “pregnant.” Metaphorical usages of “labor” and “delivery” also abounded, as they do today. I think referring to an extended, intense, and hopeful task as a pregnancy is really not only useful, but also appropriate.
A lot of us have experienced the emotional equivalent of a step off an unexpected curb: a sudden disconcerting, briefly disorienting not-there-ness. Sometimes this feeling is followed by a kind of hollow wandering, a sense of loss of we know not what, even a kind of depression. All my fellow grad students and I remarked on this after passing our PhD qualifying exams: two years of course work and then a summer of unimaginably intense study (sometimes punctuated by brief flights into alcohol or the mists of marijuana), and then three days of written and oral exams, and then… “Congratulations! Go ahead and make arrangements with a dissertation director!” Rush to the phone booth, “Daddy, I passed! Yes! Whew!” Stagger home, take housemates out to dinner, hit the mattress, sweet dreams. And wake up the next morning to…what? what? what?
I’m feeling it this morning, after the closing performance yesterday of a show that was sheer delight and very intense work and suspense and high gratification with a cast and crew that were top-notch in their individual work and even more so as an ensemble, in Conor McPherson’s fabulous The Seafarer, to the kind of audience response that directors dream of. This morning I wake up to: forgot to put the garbage out, get myself together for two weeks of finals at my two schools, try to clean the house we call the Slough of Despond…where’s the excitement? where’s the joy? Where’s the rush?
I could call both these moments, and others like them over the years, step-off-the-curbs, or curb crises, or some such. But for a long time I’ve referred to them as post-partum depression. The great adventure has been accomplished. Now what?
In this light, my student’s Horror can almost pass. Think of a convict serving years in prison for a crime he or she did not commit. The lawyers, the petitions, the arguments, the appeals, the hope… What if it’s successful? Reading about The Innocence Project, that noble and eye-opening endeavor that began as an assignment for a journalism class, I rejoice in the lives rescued from at least total injustice, but I’m also saddened to read of a number of people freed by that and similar efforts who, after a flutter in the free air, commit a crime and go to jail, or fall into despair, dislocation, and inertia. I think post pardon depression may be a real thing.
My student’s error is funny, certainly. But does it have a grain of truth he wasn’t aware of?
I think I’ll pick up some candy canes to take to today’s exam.