Through the Looking Glass of Female Hysteria

Posted by on Aug 7, 2017 in Essays | No Comments

“A long time ago I would have been locked up like that too.”


“You know how I get angry and sad?”

“Oh,“ and he nodded his head in agreement. At twelve, pivotal scenes in an action-packed, thriller-fairy tales are not the moments you expect confessions from your mother.

I blurted it out as Dr. Addison Bennet professionally assessed Alice Kingsleigh. “Let us see, excitable, emotional, prone to fancy… textbook case of female hysteria. Untreatable, some say. I beg to differ.” Bennet punctuated his claim with a huge, steam-punk surreal syringe.

We paused the movie, I think.

“Women who got sad, angry and violent used to be locked up. They were sent away to hospitals where they would get electric shock treatments. They don’t do that now. Not since the seventies.”

My son looked horrified for a moment, then we returned to Tim Burton’s 2016 production, Through the Looking Glass. It was a treat to sit on my queen size bed and watch a movie with no other distractions. We had done our Saturday chores. We had eaten our favorite lunch of home made pasta with tomato sauce. No one else was home. It was just the two of us—our favorite space to inhabit.

Sick Bunny Pen, Ink, Crayon, Marker and Watercolor Pastels on Paper, 2010.

Sick Bunny Pen, Ink, Crayon, Marker and Watercolor Pastels on Paper, 2010.

We continued to watch the movie. There were only forty minutes left, but we did not want it to end. Time was a villain and Alice was a young woman who defied him, the oceans and all the people who called her crazy. It ended triumphantly and so did we. One more fairytale to add to our canon, entering Through the Looking Glass allowed us to thwart time too. That is what we crave most from each other. My son and I love to escape reality together. Sometimes we get on planes to do so. More often, we watch movies and read books.

We had successfully negotiated our way through a cooperative morning of vacuuming, dusting and laundry. Chores are never easy. Neither are bed times, morning rituals or any required routine that takes my son away from his fantasy world of reenactment. Sometimes it’s World War One, sometimes it’s a scene from Monty Python’s The Quest for the Holy Grail. He gets it honest. Just like me, he’s good at reliving intense emotions. We sometimes get carried away as the present becomes a warped extension from a deep well of fears.

Boredom in the Trenches, costume by Linus Pritchard, photo by Nancy Polo, 2017.

Boredom in the Trenches, costume by Linus Pritchard, photo by Nancy Polo, 2017.

High strung, passionate, Italian, stubborn, willful, oppositional-defiant, crazy are just a few of many adjectives used to describe people in our family. Just as Alice Kingsleigh in Wonderland, we have confrontations—often. We navigate mine fields that plunge us up and down emotional extremes. It feels like a backward place in our brains, or maybe our hearts. As a critic in 1872 described Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Looking-glass House, “One very natural peculiarity of Looking-glass House is that most things in it are exactly reversed; accordingly if you want to go anywhere you have to turn round and walk the other way. People live backwards too, and their memory consequently works forward; thus there is an unfortunate person whom we find undergoing sentence in prison – ‘the trial doesn’t even begin till next Wednesday, and the crime comes last of all.’”

That is what it is like to go through emotional turbulence in my family. My ex-husband says he has no such problems with my son. But I do. On Thursday day it was about dishes.

“THAT’s NOT CLEAN!!! Everything on the right side is clean!!! You only rinsed that plate!!! It goes on the left!!!” I screamed, banging my palm in rhythm on the counter until it hurt.

He screamed even louder, “I HATE YOU!!!!”

Scheduled Insanity, watercolor on paper by Nancy Polo, 2013.

Scheduled Insanity, watercolor on paper by Nancy Polo, 2013.

The conversation had started with smoothies. I had just returned from an hour hike up to Bear’s Den with a friend. I didn’t take my son that morning. I knew from experience not to take him on any early morning activities. I let him sleep instead. It was summer and it didn’t matter. But when I returned, energized from my exertion, he was on another planet. Dancing in his bathrobe from the couch to the kitchen, surfing a screen, reading a book or absently eating. He prefers fruit because it’s sweet, and he can easily hold it while he dreams. If left alone, the only motivation to get dressed or be active is to create a costume and run outside to re-enact a scene in our yard.

I had asked him to make himself an egg. He had learned to make several other, more complicated dishes for a 4H project. “Can I make a smoothie with blueberries? When can I get Knight Moon? Can we go to the bookstore today?”

“You have to finish the books I bought you on the kindle. I don’t have any bananas or anything creamy.” I’d forgotten about the plain yogurt. “Besides, you need to eat protein. The berries cost a lot, and you can’t just keep eating berries.”

“What do you want me to build in the kingdom of periwinkle? Can I show you something on mine craft?” I turned my attention from the questions to the pile of dirty dishes in the sink. There was paperwork to do on a computer. My registration and payment for classes in graduate school were late. A person from the Virginia Employment commission was playing phone tag with me over misfiled taxes. The permit for one of our farm’s six markets expired over a month ago. Our business website needed to be uploaded to a new server. I had no time for the kingdom of periwinkle.

My son invents places for us to inhabit to lure me out of reality into our imaginations. He knows I have one, but he sometimes only sees it in my paintings of rabbits doing human things. My favorite color is periwinkle. His is a livelier shade of blue, closer to TV rainbows. One day we bought strawberry shortcake dolls with scented hair and bobble sized heads on his Toys-R-Us gift certificate. He does not like dolls, but it meant that I would sit still to eat toaster smores, and watch You-tube with him while we invented stories from my past. He prefers watching war documentaries, forcing my chin with his hand toward the screen when my eyes move away.

Guilty Pleasures, photograph by Nancy Polo, 2016

Guilty Pleasures, photograph by Nancy Polo, 2016.

“Please remember to clean up your dishes.” He had obeyed my earlier request, but the egg-coated frying pan was in the sink.

“I did. I only wash what I use.”

“And how did you cook the egg? Should I only start cleaning the parts of the house I use? Should I just leave your stuff in the sink until it rots?” I spat with increasing anger.

“Yes, you should only clean up what you use.”

“If you expect to go over to your friend’s house by ten, you had better clean this mess up.” The threat worked, but he was being sloppy. And that’s when I screamed about where clean dishes go.

“I hate you! You’re a tyrant! I can’t be perfect Mom! It’s not always about you, you know.” He shouted as he stomped up the stairs with man-sized feet and a boy’s thin limbs. I ran after him, broader and angrier in the shoulders.

He cowered on the landing when he saw my eyes. “The only tyrant in this house is a child who constantly demands that I buy him things!!! You aren’t going anywhere until you clean your room and the mess you made yesterday in the basement.” I didn’t slap him, but I wanted to. Hitting is wrong. Spanking never works, but I had done it before. He’s taller than me now. Eventually he might be angrier too.

For now, he was scared of his mother, so he cleaned his room. In twenty minutes all the tasks that would normally take an hour or more in happy time were done. “I have to answer an email before I take you to your play date.”

“Don’t call it that mom.” I could tell from his tone of voice that things were moving right side up for him, but I was not ready to shift perspective. I took him to his friend’s house after commanding that he be ready to go at exactly 2:15 when I would have to shuttle him to a group violin lesson. I would be calmer then.

Leave a Reply