When I gave birth to my daughter eleven years ago I suffered from a severe bout of post-partum depression. About two weeks after she was born it was as if a cloud or a thick fog had descended over me and I no longer felt like myself. I could barely move except to do the most essential tasks to take care of my newborn and was silent for most of the day. I also felt a deep sense of embarrassment over experiencing this depression because what should have been one of the happiest times of my life was one of the saddest. Talking about one’s physical health seemed far more socially acceptable than discussing ones struggle with mental health. The New York Review of books reissuing of Down Below helps to ease this stigma and to begin much needed conversations about the importance of mental health.
While reading Down Below, Leonora Carrington’s autobiographical account of her nervous breakdown during World War II and her resulting admission into a sanitarium in Spain I couldn’t help but think about my own bout with mental illness. There were two themes throughout her account with which I particularly identified: her fear of a relapse and her determined and constant struggle against her demons. The mental health issues I experienced with post-partum were no where near the severity of the nervous breakdown that Leonora Carrington suffered in 1940. But the fear of lapsing back into that fog of depression, a fear that is not uncommon to anyone with an illness, has always haunted me. Carrington’s recollection of these harrowing events felt to me like they were her attempt at catharsis to rid herself of the fear that she would someday, once again, lose her grip on reality. She writes, “I am in terrible anguish, yet I cannot continue living alone with such a memory…I know that once I have written it down, I shall be delivered.”
Carrington originally wrote out this short memoir herself a few years after the breakdown but the original manuscript was lost. She then dictated in French this version we have now to the wife of a friend in 1943 which was translated into English and published in 1944. As she speaks about these events to her friend’s wife it becomes evident that her motive for bringing forth these horrible memories is to cleanse her mind of these awful events, to unburden herself and to allow her friends to know the full story so they can help her stay whole. She begins her dictation of this period in her life with:
I must live through that experience all over again, because, by doing so, I believe that I may be of use to you, just as I believe that you will be of help in my journey beyond that frontier by keeping me lucid and by enabling me to put on and to take off at will the mask which will be my shield against the hostility of Conformism.
As she gets deeper into the more disturbing events of her commitment to an asylum Carrington never pities herself or asks her audience to pity her. She is able to recall the broken and fractured thoughts of a tormented mind with the detached style of writing that seems more fitting for a journalist. But her lack of emotional response, I felt, was due to the fact that if she stopped and allowed herself to become awash in her feelings, she would never have been able to make it through her entire story. She continues to stave off her fear as she gets farther into her memoir:
I have been writing for three days, though I had expected to deliver myself in a few hours; this is painful, because I am living this period all over again and sleeping badly, troubled and anxious as I am about the usefulness of what I am doing. However, I must go on with my story in order to come out of my anguish. My ancestors, malevolent and smug, are trying to frighten me.
The cover that the New York Review of Books chose for this reissue of Down Below evokes the thoughts in these lines. It features the center image of Carrington’s painting Crookhey Hall, which was also the name of her childhood home in Britain, with a ghost-like figure dressed in white fleeing other ghostly images that surround a gothic style house. This painting can be viewed as Carrington’s representation of her escape from her childhood home in Britain and the grip of her wealthy, industrialist family; but it is also a fitting image to portray her never ending struggle to keep her mental demons which describes in Down Below at bay.
The other theme that appears on every page of Down Below is Carrington’s struggle against her illness. There were many times throughout her experience where it would have been easier for her to give up and succumb to her disease but she never allows this to happen. Carrington’s breakdown begins when Max Ernst, the surrealist painter with whom she was living in France, was captured by the Germans and brought to a concentration camp. Even at the very beginning of this episode she fights against the sadness and anxiety that threatens to overwhelm her: She describes the first few hours after which Max was taken away,
I wept for several hours down in the village; then I went up again to my house where, for twenty-four hours, I indulged in voluntary vomitings induced by drinking orange blossom water and interrupted by a short nap. I hoped that my sorrow would be diminished by these spasms, which tore at my stomach like earthquakes.
An old friend from England arrives in France to help her escape to Spain where the symptoms of her illness become more severe. Carrington is committed to Dr. Morales’s sanatorium in Santander, Spain which she believes at the time was a “god-send” because of her increasingly disturbing thoughts and behavior. Once at the asylum she is tied down to her bed because her fighting against the doctors, which is described as animalistic, is constant. “I learned later that I entered that place fighting like a tigress,” she says. The descriptions of her restraints and her injections with the drug Cardiazol, a common treatment for mental disorders at the time, are especially difficult to read. The indignities she suffers at Santander, instead of mitigating her disease, only add to her trauma:
I don’t know how long I remained bound and naked. Several days and nights, lying in my own excrement, urine and sweat, tortured by mosquitoes whose stings made my body hideous—I believed that they were the spirits of all the crushed Spaniards who blamed me for my internment, my lack of intelligence and my submissiveness.
Carrington’s delusions are numerous while she is confined to Santander; she believes that Dr. Morales is the supreme commander of the Universe, that she is part of the Holy Trinity, and that there is a paradise at the sanatorium the she calls “Down Below.” She feels that gaining admission into what she believes is the paradise of “Down Below” will help her to heal and she constantly struggles to make it to this magical place. When she is injected with Cardiazol which induces painful episodes of epileptic seizures she still continues with her fight to make it through this illness. She recalls her second injection of this awful drug: “Keeping my eyes closed enabled me to endure the second Cardiazol ordeal much less badly, and I got up very quickly, saying to Frau Aseguardo, ‘Dress me, I must go to Jerusalem to tell them what I have learned.'”
Carrington’s delusions gradually subside to the point where she is able to be released from Santander. Her parents decide that they want to send her far away to another asylum in South Africa. But as her last act of defiance in this memoir, she escapes to the Mexican embassy where she eventually meets Renato Leduc who marries her and brings her to Mexico. She knows that she cannot endure another stay at an asylum that would undoubtedly use the same harsh treatments that she received in Spain. She decides she has had enough and her last act of struggle, of fighting is what most likely saves her sanity.
After her marriage of convenience with Leduc falls apart, Carrington goes on to marry Imre Weisz with whom she had two sons. She lives with her family very happily in Mexico for the rest of her 94 years and has a successful career as a Surrealist painter and an author. Carrington’s memoir not only serves as a testament to her strong will but it also provides us with a brave example of the ability to overcome the struggle with mental illness and the resulting fear of relapse.
This month was the 100th year of Leonora Carrington’s birth and many commemorative articles have been written about her life, her writing and her art. I have collected a few of these links here:
An article in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/06/leonora-carrington-from-high-society-to-surrealism-in-praise-of-100-years-on
A review of her short stories from NPR News: http://www.npr.org/2017/04/08/521959754/rediscovering-surrealist-leonora-carringtons-delights-and-disturbances
An article written by author Joanna Walsh for the Verso Blog: http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2275-i-have-no-delusions-i-am-playing-leonora-carrington-s-madness-and-art