“It Dwells in My Mind So”: The Karabots Fellows Explore Mental Illness and “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Actress Jennifer Sumemrfield portrays a scene from her one-person show of The Yellow Wallpaper, directed by Josh Hitchens (seated right)

This week, the Karabots Junior Fellows met with Josh Hitchens and Jennifer Summerfield, respectively the director and star of a one-person show based on The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) in 1892. The story depicts a woman whose husband, a physician, has locked her alone in a room as a treatment for mental illness known as the “rest cure.” The rest cure was a common 19th century treatment for mental illness, especially for woman, and involved minimal mental stimulation, a diet of bland food, and significant bed rest. The story is told through a series of journal entries surreptitiously written by the woman where she describes her descent into madness.

Photo of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935)

In writing The Yellow Wallpaper Gilman drew heavily from her own life experience. Suffering from what today would be diagnosed as postpardom depression, Gilman took part in a “rest cure” treatment at the behest of Philadelphia physician Silas Weir Mitchell (1829-1914) in 1887 (Mitchell was a Fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the namesake of CPP’s Mitchell Hall). After three months of bed rest, minimal mental stimulation, and medically-imposed inactivity, Gilman stopped treatment for fear of a complete psychological breakdown. Gilman channeled her experience into The Yellow Wallpaper, later explaining the story, a scathing indictment of the rest cure, “was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”

Photo of Silas Weir Mitchell (1829-1914)

Silas Weir Mitchell (1829-1914)

Jen and Josh described the process of depicting a person grappling with sensory deprivation and overwhelming psychological strain, and Jen presented the Fellows with excerpts from her performance. Our students asked a lot of questions about the acting process and the impact of mental illness.

Jennifer Summerfield and Josh Hitchens describe their production of the Yellow Wallpaper to the Karabots Junior Fellows

You can view Josh and Jen’s production of The Yellow Wallpaper this weekend at the Ebeneezer Maxwell Mansion. Shows will take place Friday, April 15 at 7:30, Saturday April 16 at 7:30, and Sunday April 17 at 2 and 4 PM.

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