As her narrator enters the descent into madness, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) exposes the damage and misogyny behind the treatment of Silas Weir Mitchell’s infamous “rest cure”. Because many women were subjected to this treatment, readers of the time would already be familiar with Mitchell and his prescription. Interestingly, Gilman herself was a patient of Mitchell and the narrator’s condition and state of mental health, although embellished, is a reflection of her own experience. The therapy behind the “cure” often involved such tactics as enforced bed rest, prohibition of mental or physical exercise, isolation from family and friends, overfeeding, massage, and electrotherapy (Martin 1). Mitchell often prescribed rest cure for women suffering from “slight hysterical tendencies”, or more medically known as neurasthenia. This diagnosis of the times “was a catch all for the host of nonpsychotic emotional disorders that were not yet understood and not responsive to medical treatment” (Martin 1). What we may now understand to be disorders of depression, insomnia, anxiety, and migraines were often classified under neurasthenia and would thus all receive the same treatment. In contrast, many men were often diagnosed with neurasthenia but what was labeled as hysterics for women was considered a mark of high intelligence in men. In 1869, neurologist George Beard claimed “the malady was not just an illness, but also a mark of American cultural superiority” (qtd. in Stiles “Go Rest” 1). But while the categorization of the diseased differed, so too did the treatment. Just as he was called to cure the women, Mitchell had a cure for the men; “he sent [them] out West to engage in prolonged periods of cattle roping...
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...“he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper” (“Why I Wrote” 1). While it is debatable that Gilman’s story had such an immediate effect on Mitchell, the fact that such extreme practices in the rest cure were eventually altered does lend her credibility in her influence on readers. However, Mitchell’s influence on medicine is still existent. The rest cure, with its adjustments, is still put into practice for pregnant women who are having a difficult time before delivery. What is known as bedrest today has deep roots in Mitchell’s prescription designed exclusively for women. Consequently, while the medical and cultural treatment of biological differences in regards to men and women have changed over time, the importance of Mitchell and Gilman’s influence on each other, literature, and medical practices are still evident to this day.
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