Monday, December 30, 2013
BELCHERTOWN — When Justine Dymond read her essay reflecting on her own postpartum depression at the Odyssey Bookstore in South Hadley last October, it was the first time she spoke publicly in her community about a topic that had caused her great anguish before becoming part of her literary scholarship. “It was a coming out about something people don’t often talk about,” said Dymond, who lives in Belchertown with her husband, Louis Faassen, and their 9-year-old daughter, Marjorie Faassen Dymond.
Her account of anger and extreme anxiety in the months and years after giving birth is part of a book of essays she co-edited with Nicole Willey that examines women’s stories around various aspects of parenting. “Motherhood Memoirs: Mothers Creating/Writing Lives” (Demeter, 2013) blends personal stories with examinations of a topic Dymond, a professor of English at Springfield College, says deserves recognition as a distinct genre.
Among the challenges Dymond, who also writes fiction, faced in writing about her own depression was that her memory was dimmed by the experience. A journal keeper most of her life, she was unable to record her thoughts and feelings as she was going through it because doing so brought her further down.
“During the time that I was suffering with depression and it wasn’t diagnosed, I couldn’t use writing in a way that I had always used it as a place to turn when I needed to vent or process stuff,” she said. “So initially that was part of the frustration, because every time I tried to do that I just spiraled into more depression and more anger.”
Her review of both psychiatric texts and autobiographical accounts of women who experienced what Dymond describes as “a serious condition requiring medical attention” led her to reflect on the wider implications of postpartum depression. “The myth that PPD is merely ‘baby blues’ or raging hormones that just need time to settle down still circulates,” she writes. “Recognizing that PPD is a serious condition requiring medical attention is imperative if we want to see mothers and children lead healthy lives and not waste their lives (or lose their lives) in undiagnosed suffering.” Mirroring other essays in the book which tackle topics like lactation, grief around losing a child, and lesbian motherhood, Dymond’s essay titled, “’Where’s the Funeral?’: Maternal Silences in Memoirs of Postpartum Depression,” weaves her own experience into the things she was reading. These included www.dooce.com written by Heather B. Armstrong, who Dymond describes as a “rock star” blogger whose posts can be “shockingly honest,” and “brave.” Dymond was especially moved by Armstrong’s account of checking herself into a psych ward and she praises Armstrong for “confronting the stigma” around postpartum depression perpetuated by attitudes which tend to shame and silence women who suffer from it.
Dymond grew up in Washington, D.C. “near the heart of politics,” to which she attributes a drive to see both literature and scholarship through a lens that values social justice. She has both a master’s degree in creative writing and a doctorate in English from UMass.
“There is a huge scholarly interest around memoirs as a genre,” said Dymond, adding that her interest in the written accounts of mothers came naturally. “People are drawn to memoirs for all kinds of reasons,” she said. “The main reason I was drawn to it around postpartum depression was just that I wanted to see a reflection of myself in someone else’s story, and to know that it was a real live person’s story.” As she and Willey embarked on the Motherhood Memoir project they noticed that the body of literature they were looking at was rapidly growing but was being called things like “mommy lit,” a term she said acknowledged the genre. “At the same time it was trivializing and somewhat demeaning,” she said, as if women writing about their experiences as parents was not serious literature.
In putting the book together Dymond and Willey set out to find writers willing to draw on personal experience while at the same time reviewing the literature. “We were interested in changing the conventions of the scholarly essay to match the subject matter,” said Dymond. The technical term for mixing theory and autobiographical material is “autotheory.” She likes the approach but found it “challenging to he honest on the page,” she said.
“I am used to writing fiction, which is honest, but honest with a mask.” Revealing her mental health struggles gave her a deeper appreciation for the work that goes into memoirs. “We have a hard time telling the truth about our experiences as mothers because there is so much risk involved ... that is part of the stigma of saying, ‘I’m not happy all the time as a mom’.” She was also conscious of the fact that her daughter will likely read the essay someday. “There is an extra layer of ethical responsibility when writing about children,” said Dymond. “I don’t want her to think that in any way, shape or form she was at fault for any of this, which she obviously was not.”
Alarmed by silence
Dymond’s creative writing is mostly in the form of short stories. “Cherubs,” about a house in France that was occupied by three different armies during World War II, won an O. Henry Award in 2007.
Among the things Dymond discovered in doing this project is that as a society we still have much to learn and understand about mental illness and how to help people. She said she is now doing well. “I still take medication. I take care of myself and I am just more aware of when the little signals come into play that can be the beginnings of falling back down into depression. ... It’s never something that really disappears.” She hopes “Motherhood Memoirs” will find an audience outside of academia. She said she is alarmed by the silence surrounding a serious medical condition. “I am looking forward to the day when women no longer feel shame for what they experience,” she writes. “When we can tell our stories truthfully, perhaps then we can also start to change a culture that both creates impossible standards of motherhood and simultaneously undermines the work of parenting.”