My novel, HYSTERA, tells the story of young woman’s struggle with mental illness in the 1970’s. It was a time before pharmaceutical solutions, a time of widespread political unrest and social disorder. Patty Hearst stood out in my imagination as the symbol of this strange time. She represented, to me, the rapid societal and class changes, as well the confusing changes in women’s sexual roles and identity. A millionaire’s daughter who, after being kidnapped and held against her will, was transformed into a fellow revolutionary, appearing in the newspapers holding up a bank, clad in the uniform of her own kidnappers--the “People’s Symbionese Army” --donning an Afro-wig and carrying a machine gun slung across her shoulders.
The confusion inside HYSTERA’S main character, Lillian, sprung from the same wild era and seemed as much a part of the instability of those times as of her personal family tragedy. Lillian blames herself for a family tragedy and, after tripping through failed love affairs with men, and doomed friendships, she retreats from the outside world into a world of delusion. She is incarcerated inside the private terrors of a New York City Psychiatric Hospital.
While trying to find a language for the painful and inaccessible emotional states Lilly feels as she floats in and out of reality, I stumbled on a book called SORCERY AND ALCHEMY. Inside were wild etchings drawn by early alchemists in the Renaissance which,--more than our contemporary psychological vocabulary,-- seemed to capture the inner chaos and dissolution of the psyche during a psychotic break. Dream-like, sexually ambiguous, and enigmatic pictures and symbols of the body represented people engulfed in a dangerous inferno of desires and confusions. Neither male, nor female, the figures were drawn with ambiguous genitalia-- males spawned large oval eggs, dropping from penises like sacs; the pubis’ of women sprouted rods and long snakes. Hermaphrodites possessed acacias for genitals that shot up with pulp red flowers into the heavens. There were also symbols of citadels with towers on the pages; drawbridges over long wavy rivers, hawks, green lions, lambs, people with yellow solar faces and skulls. The rich and disturbing imagery was the closest I had ever seen in capturing the disorder of a delusion, a psychosis, or even just an emotional depression where one might feel the universe as topsy-turvy, nonsensical, splintered, and overwhelming.
The alchemist (like a person experiencing emotional and mental illness), could no longer tell “the psychically real from the physically real,“ the book explained, but, engulfed by their subconscious, the alchemist falls into a pit without knowing the boundaries between reality and imaginings, no longer able to function as a whole person in the world. Because many feelings were inexplicable and often impenetrable, their emotions became part of a quasi-mystical experience. By fracturing inside, the alchemists had found themselves unified with larger oceanic passions, much as one would feel when entering a cathedral, mosque, or synagogue during mourning, moved and comforted by ancient and archaic images from the Bible which are primal: bloody, sensual, immediate, and ineffable. This is not to romanticize mental illness or say one is “with the Gods” during a breakdown, but, perhaps, to suggest that falling apart, madness in itself, can bring on these quasi-mystical moments.
These states are what Freud called "archaic remnants”. Wikipedia defines this phenomenon further as “mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual's own life and which seem to be aboriginal, innate, and inherited shapes of the human mind”. These “archaic remnants” can be powerful to someone experiencing a psychotic break, connecting them to a universal and timeless identity and humanity, bringing them the comfort of knowing they aren’t as isolated from a recognizable context as they feel.
In HYSTERA, Lilly has such a psychotic break. But she also, like me, finds a book on the ancient art of alchemy, connecting with the wild images depicted in the alchemy book, as if her unconscious had finally found a country that spoke the same language as she. I wanted to track the map of this psychotic young woman as she rummages through the lost imagery and relics of madness, finding, through them, solace and identification. The unexpected shock of recognition between what Lilly is experiencing and the symbols throughout centuries she reads about in her alchemy book give Lilly moments of peace and comfort. Though HYSTERA is also about a family tragedy, trauma, and illness, I hope it will penetrate further, too, and resonate with some of these perpetual and everlasting mysteries.