“The House of Death”: Postpartum Psychosis and Infanticide in the Weird Tales Magazine

In her paper, presented at the Representing Women’s Health conference’s “Speculative Fiction” panel, Beata Gubacsi explores the portrayal of postpartum psychosis and infanticide in F. Georgia Stroup’s (1882-1952) “The House of Death: A Strange Story” published in the first issue of the Weird Tales magazine, in March 1923, arguing that it resonates with contemporary scientific, medical an judicial discourses.  

 

The Weird and Weird Tales

Cover of the Weird Tales magazine’s first issue from March 1923

Traditionally, Weird fiction is linked to the Weird Tales magazine running from 1923 to 1954. (S.T. Johsi) During the three decades of the Weird Tales magazine published 279 issues containing “strange and unusual” stories and verse, encouraging active conversation about Weird writing and canon between editors, contributors and readers, at first in the section called The Eyrie, and later in the Weird Tales Club. The Weird is predominantly informed by the dark romanticism of American Gothic writers Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Tennessee Williams, and Washington Irving among others, and British decadent writers Lord Dunsany, William Hope Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and M.R. James. The Weird is often synonymous with the figure of H.P. Lovecraft, who published his key Cthulhu Mythos cycle in the Weird Tales magazine. The influence of Lovecraft’s “breathless macabre fiction” (Miéville, 510) is apparent in the current Weird revival: his psychological and philosophical approach to the uncanny, and human/non-human relationship is widely used in the fields of Object-Oriented Ontologies and New Materialism.

Margaret Sanger’s birth control pamphlet (Weird Tales, 1923)

New approaches to Weird fiction advocate for the expansion of the Weird canon through revisiting the work of authors who are not traditionally considered Weird, as well as unearthing forgotten Weird writers. Melissa Edmundson’s recently published collection Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940, demonstrates both approaches, containing important texts from women who published either in the Weird Tales or other similar pulp magazines. Accordingly, Edmundson’s canon includes Louisa Baldwin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Nesbit, Edith Wharton, Francis Stevens, Margaret Irwin, and Mary Butts, among others. While it is rarely mentioned or explored, the Weird Tales from the very beginning published the short fiction and poetry of women writers, and one of the magazine’s cover artists and long-time editors were also women – Margaret Brundage (cover artist between 1933-1938) and Dorothy McIlwraith (editor between 1940-1954) -, accumulating and appealing to its significantly large female readership and fanbase as well. Eric Leif Davin in his Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926-1965 dedicates a whole chapter to those authors whose names are rarely mentioned alongside “the Lovecraft Circle”. In “Weird Sisters”, then, he shares “actual numbers” of authors and fans in “pulp science fiction magazines.” (64) He finds that “a total of at least 127 women published over 365 stories in the Weird Tales over the course of its lifetime”. (68) In addition, “of the 448 Weird Tales club members” at least “118 were female” (66). This is confirming that women were “a major, vocal, and crucial part of the Weird Tales” (66). The magazine certainly catered to women on the level of advertising placed in the magazine, offering dresses, hair curlers, and interestingly, the recurring writings of contraception advocate Margaret Sanger.

 Postpartum psychosis and infanticide

To begin to contextualise the Weird and the Weird Tales in the discussion of perinatal mental health, it is important to consider the transitional position of the Weird between fin-de-siècle and high modernism. The shift from Gothic to the more surreal Weird is reflective of the onto-epistemological crisis brought on by an increasingly and fundamentally secular worldview, framed by Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis, and new scientific discoveries. Emily Alder in her book Weird Fiction and Science at the Fin de Siècle establishes definitive connections between the Weird’s interest in contemporary science as well as the inherent weirdness of said science: “Science is not just an interesting lens through which to interrogate weird fiction, but is integral to the emergence of the weird tale as a new mode in the second half of the nineteenth century. At the same time, weird tales speaks back to science through their explorations of often similar philosophical or theoretical questions.” (3-4) Considering this interaction, the emergence of the Weird coincides with major advances in the field of medicine from anatomy and obstetrics and gynaecology to psychiatry which are utilised by the Weird. Both these “weird medical sciences” and the Weird’s fascination of women’s bodies and women’s madness, inherited from Gothic literature, rely on bias. As Margrit Shildrick writes in Embodying the Monster:

“Women’s bodies, paradigmatically, and by elision, women themselves, exemplify an indifference to limits evidenced by such everyday occurrences as menstruation, pregnancy, lactation and such supposedly characteristic disorders as hysteria, and not one vulnerable to external threat, but actively and visibly deformed from within. Women are out of control, uncontained, unpredictable, leaky: they are, in short, monstrous.” (31)

This bias and interest is also apparent in the brief segments between short stories which tend to revolve around unbelievable news, strange historical facts and anecdotes, and sensational reports on scientific and medical discoveries which also demonstrate that the Weird Tales could often be anachronistic and reactionary. The “Odd Facts about Insanity” (WT, February 1924, p 32) is written from the point of view of fictional Dr Hyde, referring to Stevenson’s classic Gothic novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, perhaps drawing attention to the monstrous science of psychiatry or the terror of madness. In any case, the suggestion of this piece that women are harder to cure, they are more troublesome, and hereditary mental illness affects them more, reflects the state of Victorian psychiatric views on women’s inherent predisposition to madness which is still feeding bias against women’s experience of pain, agency and credibility in medical situations. Elaine Showalter explores this in The Female Malady:

“For despite their awareness of poverty, dependency, and illness as factors, the prevailing views among Victorian psychiatrists was that the statistics proved what they had suspected all along: that women were more vulnerable to insanity than men because the instability of their reproductive systems interfered with their sexual, emotional, and rational control. In contrast to the rather vague and uncertain concepts of insanity in general which Victorian psychiatry produced, theories of female insanity were specifically and confidently linked to the biological crises of the female life-cycle – puberty, pregnancy childbirth, menopause – during which the mind would be weakened and the symptoms of insanity might emerge.” (55)

As a result of this persistent medical view of women, conditions such as perinatal depression and postpartum psychosis despite being well-documented experiences in historical and literary texts were lumped under the much dated term “hysteria” until 1980s, and have not been identified as separate diagnoses before DSM-4 for perinatal depression and DSM-5 for postpartum psychosis.

Now, turning to my analysis of F. Georgia Stroup’s “The House of Death: A Strange Tale”, which was published in the first issue of the Weird Tales magazine – the one also containing Margaret Sanger’s birth control pamphlet – arguing that many aspects of this sensitive account of postpartum psychosis and infanticide resonate with contemporary scientific, medical and legal discourses regarding postpartum psychosis and infanticide. The short story is set in a Kansas farm, surrounded by corn and cattle. Mrs Prentis and her daughter Selina, accompanied by “motherly” Mrs Collins are set out to “straighten up” Mamie Judy’s house for “the funeral”.

As they begin to work, they note how lively Mamie Judy was in school and how quickly “she went to pieces” like any farmer’s wife. (156) The uncomfortable mystery of the events that took place in the house leading to “the funeral” is elevated by the tension of the women avoiding eye contact, and the closeness of the cemetery. Selina says “Always seemed to me that Mamie had found it kinda spooky, always seein’ the graveyard right through the window there over the stove. Bein’ up on top of that rise and only half a mile away, would make it seem to me kinda like livin’ in a graveyard.” (156) The literal and symbolic position of the family hearth on top of the graveyard does not only foreshadows that Mamie kills her daughter but it also establishes Mamie’s isolation and hardships as an older mother raising her daughter practically alone on a farm which is not fully paid for.

As the women continue to clean the house without disturbing the areas where the dead child and the catatonic mother were found, they can’t believe their friend and neighbour could be hanged for her tragedy. “They felt that they ought to have a feeling of horror. It was a terrible crime” but this sentiment is immediately replaced by “visions of … her seeming happiness and joy at the little cuddling head in the hollow of her arm and soft lips on the breast, as the little form was held tightly to its mother’s bosom.” (157) The reaction of the women and the way Mamie is described seems to show parallels with the findings of an Australian qualitative research project analysing seven texts in the light of recent infanticide cases in the country. Jefferies et al. in “Blurring reality with fiction: Exploring the stories of women, madness, and infanticide” write: “the women in the literary texts are isolated and marginalised from their communities making it very difficult for them to receive support and assistance. [Their] community often reacts with shock and disbelief when a woman experiences the symptoms of psychosis or mania, or a mother reacts to increasing stress by committing suicide or infanticide.” (e25) Indeed, the women in “The House of Death” emphasise not only their shock and disbelief but also their responsibility for not providing enough support for their neighbour who was, in hindsight, clearly struggling with child care.

The story comes to its turning point when the women find the following letter, explaining Mamie’s trigger to commit infanticide:

“…your wife is hopelessly insane. She may live for years, but will never regain her mentality, as cases like hers are incurable. We find upon investigation that the women of her family for several generations, have become hopelessly insane at her age. In view of the that your small daughter is tainted with this inherited insanity, we strongly advise you to take her to some new environment and when she grows older, explain to her why marriage should be considered impossible for her. As we can see the matter now, it is too bad that her mother was not warned of the same fact, and in view of all our information it would seem to have been better if we had not pulled her through that severe illness.” (159-160, emphasis mine)

Upon finding the letter, the women speculate whether Mamie did what she did to protect her child from “spending the last of her years in a ‘sylum” (160), and that way, regaining some agency which has been taken from her. Friedman and Resnick in their overview of the research literature of maternal filicide identify five distinctive motives, one of which might be relevant to the case described in “The House of Death”: “in an altruistic filicide, a mother kills her child out of love; she believes death to be in the child’s best interest.” (Web) In the end of the short story, perhaps partly due to the women’s assumed responsibility and partly their belief that Mamie killed her child to save her from the same fate, they decide to burn the letter and, consequently, free Mamie from the charges and hanging itself.

The short story closes with the attorney’s words: “If there never is found a definite reason for her wanting the baby to die, no jury will ever believe she is guilty.” (160) This is especially interesting in the context of current legal practice regarding infanticide cases. In her 2018 article for The Atlantic, “When Giving Birth Leads to Psychosis, Then to Infanticide” Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi explains that postpartum psychosis induced infanticide cases are often treated as regular homicide because there is no clarity on how to address the question of intent. As she puts it: Although definitions vary by jurisdiction, homicide laws include specific language regarding intent. In first-degree murder, even if it’s for a brief period of time, the [accused] contemplated and made a decision to kill. For women with postpartum psychosis, the specifics of these definitions can lead to convictions. Windows of lucidity can be interpreted later in court as sanity and used to demonstrate premeditation. […] Defense attorneys, however, can use a client’s mental illness to persuade a judge to limit the sentence. But they often struggle to prove a client with postpartum psychosis should have a reduced punishment [because] postpartum psychosis presents suddenly and often in women who have never had a psychotic episode in the past. (160) “The House of Death” case demonstrates the same difficulty: the intent is not fully known or understood, and the women could not even recall any indicator of mental illness in Mamie, hence, the letter stating her illness is almost as shocking as the death of the child. Mamie’s perspective is also concealed and unknown. The women remark that after the tragedy: “there wasn’t’ any manner of doubt that she wasn’t crazy. She just sat there, with her solemn, big eyes, and looked straight ahead and never said a word.” (160) A better understanding of postpartum psychosis could be instrumental in revising current legal practice as well as the system of services available for women to ensure sufficient rehabilitation.

Finally, the letter also seems relevant to address the long-standing emphasis on the hereditary nature of postpartum psychosis in both literature and medicine which might not be fully supported by contemporary science. In her chapter “Genetic basis for postpartum psychosis” for the recently published collection Biomarkers for Postpartum Psychiatric Disorders, Arianna Di Florio writes “the term ‘postpartum psychosis’ is commonly used to describe the acute onset of psychotic or manic symptoms in the first few weeks after delivery. Evidence suggests a familial association between postpartum psychosis and other mental disorders, especially bipolar disorder. Genetic biomarkers of postpartum psychosis, however, have not been discovered yet.” In my interpretation the burning of the letter is a rejection of the notion of hereditary mental illness, and an act of defiance against psychiatry which uses this “curse” to abuse already disenfranchised women. Stroup’s short story instead of the bleak future depicted in the letter, provides hope of recovery with the support of a community of women.

The question of genetics and perinatal mental health also made me wonder about possible links between Georgia Stroup’s short story and Margaret Sanger’s advocacy of birth control which again, appeared in the same issue. While Sanger’s mission to normalise the practices of family planning is undeniably important for women’s health, professional and political capital, her emphasis on “betterment”, and a “normative” ability or aptitude for child rearing can be easily associated with eugenics, which became a significant trend in fin-de-siècle science. It has to be noted, however, the very portrayal of Sanger’s work is complicated since it is intertwined with contemporary reproductive politics. The New York University’s Margaret Sanger Papers Project explains her connections to eugenics in the following way:

“Sanger used the popular eugenics movement to help promote birth control as a science-based remedy for overpopulation, poverty, disease and famine. Incorporating the rhetoric of the eugenics movement into her writings allowed Sanger to make a stronger biological argument that fertility control was necessary for the improvement and health of the entire human race, not only as a means to liberate women. Sanger did seek to discourage the reproduction of persons who were, in the terms of her day, “unfit” or “feebleminded,” those, it was believed, who would pass on mental disease or serious physical defect. And she did advocate sterilization in cases where the subject was unable to use birth control. This was a popular position espoused by many progressive medical leaders, scientists and health reformers of the day – those groups who Sanger hoped to win over to the birth control fight.” (Web)

The idea of sterilising women who suffer from mental illness or any disability appears the Woman of the New Race, advertised in the Weird Tales. The burning of the letter in Stroup’s short story also reflects this view in science, and criticises it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find out whether there was any intent on the editor’s part in putting Stroup’s and Sanger’s pamphlet texts in the same issue. There is also very little information about Fannie Georgia Stroup’s life which could provide insight into her views on birth control, hereditary mental illness, and her own possible experience with these, granting this level of understanding and empathy.

 

Cited Works

Alder, Emily. Weird Fiction and Science Fiction at the Fin de Siècle. Palgrave, 2020.

Davin, Eric Leif. Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926-1965. Lexington Books, 2006.

Di Florio, Arianna. “Genetic basis for postpartum psychosis.” Biomarkers of Postpartum Psychiatric Disorders. Academic Press, 2020. 149-158.

Edmundson, Melissa. Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women 1890-1940. Handheld Press, 2019.

Hatters Friedman, Susan, and Phillip J Resnick. “Child murder by mothers: patterns and prevention.” World psychiatry: official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) vol. 6,3 (2007): 137-41.

Jefferies, Diana, Debbie Horsfall, and Virginia Schmied. “Blurring reality with fiction: Exploring the stories of women, madness, and infanticide.” Women and birth 30.1 (2017): e24-e31.

Joshi, S.T. The Weird Tale. Wildside Press, 2003.

Le Beau Lucchesi, Emilie. “When Giving Birth Leads to Psychosis, Then to Infanticide.” The Atlantic. September 6, 2018.

Miéville, China. “Weird Fiction” pp. 511-515. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint. (eds.) The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. Routledge: 2009.

Shildrick, Margrit. Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. Sage Publications, 2002.

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1930-1980. Virago, 1987.

Stroup, F. Georgia. “The House of Death: A Strange Tale.” Weird Tales. Vol. 1. No 1. Pp: 158-160.

 

About the Author 

Beata Gubacsi is a PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool, and “SFRA Support a New Scholar Grant” holder for 2019-2020. While working on her thesis, Literature of Monstrosity: Posthumanism and Global Weirding, she is running the column, “Medical Humanities 2.0”, for The Polyphony. Her research interests are genre, posthumanism, climate and animal studies, technology in medicine and healthcare with a focus on gaming and mental health.

 

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