[A Public Space Books; 2021]
In the afterword to Bette Howland’s short story collection, Blue in Chicago, Honor Moore quotes from a StoryQuarterly interview between Howland and Roslyn Rosen Lund. Howland — now best known as the late author of three books, a MacArthur Fellow, and a woman writer rescued from the oblivious literary gallows of patriarchy — was, even then, posed a question about adherence to form: her book, reminded Rosen Lund, was deemed non-fiction, a sketch series and an autobiography. Howland replied with more epithets attached to the book (a short story collection, a first-class novel, and a chronicle), and added: “What form did I use? Well you don’t use a form. That’s the whole trouble. You find a form. . . . When people worry about whether something is fiction or non-fiction, they are worrying about how much invention there is. They should be worrying about how much imagination there is.”
There lies a siren for our times. What are marginalized writers deprived of when denied access to form as imagination? Beneath the charade of “is it true/is it not true,” embedded is a suspicion of the very contract of fictitious form: the bargain seems to be that in exchange for readership, the most interesting reveal of fiction — by women in particular — has to be its flashing signals of biography. So it feels marvelous when writers reject this offer, giving publishing systems and their associated readers the slip. When they can get away with concealment in their work; when they are able to resist the novel-as-social-autobiography calls to clarify form. Elena Ferrante is one such writer. Another is Bette Howland.
W-3, first published in 1974 and reissued by A Public Space in 2021, is a memoir about Howland’s time as a patient in a psychiatric ward in a Chicago university hospital. In 1968, Howland, a single, working-class, Jewish mother of two, attempted suicide by consuming a bottle of pills. Howland writes, after watching her private nurse Henrietta read her chart and shoot glances at her:
I could tell that she was reading all about me; that is to say, what I had done, for at that time (and for some time after) that was the primary fact about me.
I would like to put this in a recognizable form. For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin — real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way. Something to be got through first, some unfinished business; time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life could begin. At last it had dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.
W-3 is not a recognizable form. What does one expect from a memoir about being institutionalized in a psychiatric ward? If there is a singular confession, it is cleverly eased over: yes, a suicide attempt, yes, a note on the method, yes, an insight into the machinery that kicks into action once you survive an attempt in 1960s urban America. But it is not a memoir that confesses to an intimate or spectacular inhabitation of neuroses. “It may seem strange, but I wasn’t at all curious about what was on that chart Henrietta had been browsing over in her lap. At least that was one form that I had not had to fill out,” writes Howland. “I was sick to death of the facts of my life.”
Howland writes around herself: she is ever-present, but more in her steely observations, less so in the facts of her life. She narrates the slow passage of time in the ward, her friendships with the others who live there too, and their wardrobes, moods, families, objections and exits. She is a mesmerizing writer about institutions in general; a quality that is also tended to in the narrative voice she develops in her fiction. She observes life in institutions telescopically, harboring a wryness towards bureaucratic structures and a deep fondness for the people having to navigate them. In her short story “Public Facilities,” set in a public library, the narrator says, “Let us speak frankly. Where are people to go? People, I mean, who have no place to go. There are no clean well-lighted places.” In “Golden Age,” the narrator describes the Golden Diners Club, a program for senior citizens: “One hundred and sixty-seven had signed up for lunch today; only so-so. Fridays the turnout is better; then they can expect challah, wine, roast chicken. Today no one knew what was on the menu, and everyone was asking.”
In W-3, Howland is similarly tender in her descriptions of the people who are institutionalized alongside her. They’re all on the same side, opposing the violence of the psychiatric gaze in their own ways. The narration is gleaming, but light touch; even funny. “Weeping was mightily encouraged here,” she writes. Later: “It never mattered what you said you were doing here. Some outward sign, some characteristic peculiarity, something all the rest could recognize right off — that’s what mattered, that’s what you were doing here.” And of her friend Trudy: “She perambulated down the corridors lashed to her intravenous stand — bandages, pajama strings loosened and streaming — looking like a sort of injured parade float.” Trudy later attempts a transfer to Idlewild, the state institution, which Howland describes as a nervous, exciting prospect for Trudy, for whom W-3 was not “big enough.” Trudy is anxious about her transfer interview: “The doctors had told her that her examination before the board must be “successful” — i.e., Trudy must appear sufficiently crazy — before she would be accepted at Idlewild. That’s just their jargon; it didn’t mean anything. But it meant a lot to Trudy: she wanted to be a success.”
Bette Howland’s prose is unsparing, and in her memoir, this manifests as a trick of form. We may take for granted that the work of autobiography is to say, “this happened to me,” but the memoir, as Howland shows us, need not be instructive. The radicality of W-3 lies there: it is imaginative, as a form, because it is a narrative about the banal, moving contradictions of people who experience madness, and how they experience them. The ongoingness of equivocation is not a lesson to be learnt, or the result of an anthropological experiment. Outside W-3 is more of what is inside it: the mere, explosive continuation of life itself and — whether one considers it lucky or not — more of it.
Sharanya teaches and writes in west London.