The Yellow Wallpaper: Crash Course Literature #407


Today on Crash Course Literature, John Green teaches you about The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The Yellow Wallpaper tells the story of a woman who is a prisoner in her own home, in the name of caring for her mental health. The narrator stares all day the yellow wallpaper

Transcript Provided by YouTube:

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Hi, I’m John Green and this is Crash Course Literature.
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So for the last few weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about Dystopias, imaginary societies gone wrong.
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Like George Orwell’s “1984” is a world of war, surveillance, and mind control.
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“The Handmaid’s Tale” portrays a toxic landscape in which healthy women are forced to produce offspring for the ruling class.
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“Candide” showed us the best of all possible worlds, which was terrible.
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And “Parable of the Sower” takes place in an alternate universe where a sloganeering, strongman president presides over a country,
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experiencing intense social disorder thanks to climate change. Fortunately none of that stuff has happened, yet,
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But today we’re gonna talk about our final dystopia of the series, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
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And it’s about a dystopia that already happened.
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First published in 1892 in the New England magazine, this story is less of a “what-if” dystopia
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then a “this is happening to me” call to action.
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So at first glance the life that Gilman describes in this story might not seem that bad, a young
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woman is married to a doctor and spends all of her time in a country mansion, and I mean all of her time.
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But make no mistake about it. The social order in this story is in some ways as oppressive as the others that we’ve examined.
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Gilman’s narrator is imprisoned within her marriage and her social order and also her house.
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And she eventually goes insane trying to preserve her perspective. Today
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I want to talk about Gilman who was a feminist, humanist, sociologist, novelist, poet, and essayist.
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I also want to talk about perspectives on mental health, and how they’ve changed between Gilman’s era and ours, and of course
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I’m gonna talk about yellow wallpaper. Soon enough you’re gonna see it everywhere.
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(Intro music plays)
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(music fades)
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So Charlotte Perkins Gilman had a fascinating life.
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She was born in Hartford,
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Connecticut in 1860 and she lived with her mother and brother, after her father
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abandoned the family, and although she moved from school to school her childhood was really
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intellectually rich, largely because of her three brilliant and famous
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aunts: Isabella Beecher Hooker, suffragist and abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, best-selling author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Katharine Beecher,
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education reformer and advocate for Native American rights. With some financial help from her Ne’er-do-well father, Charlotte enrolled in design school. Later
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she supported herself by illustrating advertising cards and tutoring so, you know, she did know something about wallpaper
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patterns. In 1884 she married Charles Walter Stetson and gave birth to a daughter,
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Katherine, and in the years after her daughter’s birth Charlotte experienced a series of what were called at the time
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“Nervous-Disorders”. In 1887 she visited a specialist who encouraged her to try a “rest cure”,
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and this involved living as domestic a life as far as possible having
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But two hours intellectual life a day, and never touching pen, brush, or pencil
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again. After three months of this so-called treatment
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she quote “came so near to the borderline of utter mental ruin, that I could see over.”
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Gilman wanted to warn others of the dangers of this rest cure and her story she explains was not intended to drive people crazy,
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but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.
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We’ll get to that working bit in a second,
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but back to her life. So in 1888, Charlotte left her husband and took Katherine with her to Pasadena,
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California. Her professional life flourished. She organized social reform movements. She represented California at the suffrage convention in Washington DC.
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She became a lecturer and edited a series of
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magazines. She also wrote essays, poems, a novella, and by far her most famous story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
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Much of her work focused on women’s unequal status in marriage and their need for financial independence.
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And she achieved financial independence and also an equal marriage in her second marriage.
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Eventually she was diagnosed with breast cancer and as she had lived on her own terms,
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she also died on her own terms.
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She was an advocate of euthanasia, and she chose chloroform over cancer, committing suicide in 1935.
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I wanted to focus a little on Gilman’s life story to emphasize that this was a person who experienced severe, disabling
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mental illness and whose treatment ended up making it much worse
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and yet who still went on to live a long, fulfilling, and productive life.
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I think it’s really helpful to read “The Yellow Wallpaper” with that background. As for the story itself, well,
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Let’s go to the thought-bubble. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the
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first-person narrative of a 19th century woman
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suffering from a mental breakdown after giving birth. In a secret diary this narrator describes her setting ,”a colonial mansion, a hereditary
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estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity–
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But that would be asking too much of fate!” This narrator is confined to a room with barred windows.
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It’s possible that she’s in an asylum,
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But the physical setting is less important than another landscape, the shifting consciousness of her mind.
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The narrator knows that she perceives reality differently from her husband, who is also her doctor. At first
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She chalks this up to the expected difficulties of male-female relations. “John,” she writes, “laughs at me of course,
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But one expects that in marriage.” This expectation of marriage is of course troubling in its own right,
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But there’s an even darker side to their dynamic, John has almost complete control over his wife’s body. The narrator’s descriptions may be at times
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Unreliable, but there are a few things we do know: she recently had a baby,
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She recognizes that she is sick,
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John belittles her saying that she suffers from a temporary nervous depression, a slight hysterical tendency. Meanwhile
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he prescribes her a scheduled prescription for each hour in the day of phosphates or
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Phosphites, the narrator doesn’t know which, and a regime of tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise.
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Also, John forbids his wife from writing,
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Working, or socializing and it quickly becomes clear that these so-called cures are
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Exacerbating the narrator’s condition as she is left with very little to do except stare at the yellow wallpaper.
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Thanks thought-bubble. So today
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We would probably say that the narrator is experiencing postpartum depression and/or postpartum psychosis.
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These are conditions that can result from a drop in hormones like estrogen and progesterone and are
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intensified by the two central experiences of new parenthood, sleep deprivation
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and anxiety. Postpartum psychosis can include the depressive symptoms of postpartum depression along with confusion, disorientation,
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Hallucinations, and paranoia. Today these conditions would be treated with medication and therapy and other medical interventions,
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But whatever treatment John gives his wife in “The Yellow Wallpaper”
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Definitely does not work. If Gilman’s story were an argument this line from it would be its thesis, “John is a physician,
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Perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.”
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Admittedly the 19th century wasn’t a golden age for psychiatry,
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But even so, John is
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exceptionally bad at treating mental illness. At the start of the story Gilman’s narrator craves more society and
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Stimulus. She writes that she must say what I feel and think in some way.
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Forbidden from communicating with a living soul she secretly
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Confesses her thoughts to dead paper in a journal and in her writing
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She projects her mental disintegration onto the patterns that she sees on the walls.
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“I never saw worse paper in my life,”
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She writes, explaining that it contains “one of those sprawling
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Flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.” Still she finds this pattern compelling: “it is dull enough to confuse the eye and following,
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Pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study…
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And when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance
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They suddenly commit suicide — plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of
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Contradictions.” Of course this also describes the narrator’s interior landscape
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But it also describes the story, right? Like initially her narrative seems dull.
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I mean plot summary woman stares at wall. But then it becomes confusing the wallpaper seems to be moving
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We aren’t sure where this narrator is or if we can trust her and then something becomes
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Pronounced enough to provoke our further study. Are these romantic descriptions of a house, a delicious garden,
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Or it’s tattered decor? Are they intimate descriptions of a failing marriage, the desire for connection, or are they veiled
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Suicidal musings, or maybe they’re attempts to find a meaning in an extremely limited
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Experience, like Offred opening her hand in the sunlight in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
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I’ve always been fascinated by how the narrator tries to understand her situation in terms of principles of design,
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Like after she studies one breath or strip of wallpaper she concludes that its pattern is “not arranged on any laws of
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radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or
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Anything else that I ever heard of.” I think anybody who’s experienced mental illness can relate to that. For her each of these breaths
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Exists as an isolated column of fatuity, in other words
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It’s meaningless. A pattern only emerges when she considers the strips next to one another
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Dim shapes appear to resemble a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. The wallpaper also
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Changes as the light changes. At night the woman in the wallpapers captivity behind bars becomes as plain as can be,
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So of course does the narrator’s own captivity. And also wait hold on full disclosure
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I’m about to go full Freudian which I know is like a
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Frustration and annoyance to many of you who are not like hardcore lit crit people
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But just walk with me on this one. So the paper has this
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Peculiar odor that creeps all over the house and is stronger after a week of fog and rain.
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Her husband might explain it as a combination of glue and mold intensified by humidity
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But smells travel through the olfactory bulb closely connected to the regions of the brain that handle memory and emotion.
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That’s why smells always remind us of moments from our past.
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And it seems to me the narrator’s fixation on this smell could be what Freud called the return of the repressed, or unconscious material
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rising to the surface.
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And maybe that’s part of why the narrator becomes determined that nobody discovered the wallpapers meaning except herself, although
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She had initially craved conversation,
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She decides that it does not do to trust people too much, especially with her most frightening thoughts.
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I mean after all having previously trusted people with her frightening thoughts has landed her in this situation
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Where she has to stare at yellow wallpaper all day.
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And then eventually the narrator begins to suspect that many women are trapped inside this paper:
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“I think there are great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.” The
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Narrator longs to free this woman or women. On her last day in the house
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She locks her door, throws the key into the garden, and tethers herself to the bed which she also bites.
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She rips at the wallpaper and thinks that it would be an admirable
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exercise to throw herself out the window. Then she wedges her shoulder into a smudge that runs along the lower part of the wall and
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walks hunched over along the periphery of the room, a kind of
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Reenactment of the woman stuck behind the wallpaper. John enters the room at last and then faints at the sight of his wife, yet
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She continues her laps crawling over the body of the man who had oppressed her.
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“I’ve got out at last,” she announces, “in spite of you and
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Jane?” Getting out at last involves rejecting societal norms and defying John and breaking free of
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Jane, a character not mentioned until this point who may be herself?
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But then comes this question mark which complicates everything and makes it ambiguous. Charlotte Perkins Gilman
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Transformed her experience of enduring this rest cure into a story that invites us to reconsider gender dynamics
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And the treatment of mental health disorders.
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At the time of its publication the story may have inspired concrete change too. In an article published in
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1913 Gilman claims that her story quote “has to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate —
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So terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered. But the best result is this. Many years later
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I was told that my own doctor had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of
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neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.” stories affect the world in mysterious ways and if “The Yellow Wallpaper”
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Helped end the practice of separating the sick from the world then I am grateful.
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But I think the story has served another far more personal function. It has given form and expression to many people’s
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Experiences with mental illness including, I have to say, mine.
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It’s a story that explores the ways that physiological brain disorders can be hurt or
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Helped by treatments and by the way the social order imagines and talks about mental illness. And although we no longer
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Embrace rest cures we still have a long way to go when it comes to talking about mental illness without the stigmatization that can worsen
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Suffering. But then also mental illness and the way it’s discussed isn’t the only Yellow Wallpaper
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Out there. I wonder
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What is the wallpaper
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That constrains you and who else do you feel might be
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imprisoned by its pattern?
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How might you escape, how might you tell your story to
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Influence others? Those questions haunted me when I first read Gilman’s story in high school
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And they shaped a lot of the ways that I think about writing today. More than 20 years later I’m still asking them.
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Thanks for watching
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I’ll see you next time. Crash Course is filmed here in the Chad and Stacey Emigholz studio in Indianapolis
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You can get a free trial at a link in the description.
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Thanks to everyone who supports us on Patreon and to all of you for watching and as we say in my hometown don’t
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Forget to be awesome.


This post was previously published on YouTube.

Photo credit: Screenshot from video

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