In the winter of 1968, a young woman called Bette Howland swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. Instantly regretting it, she called the doctor before her mind fused like a blown bulb. She was brought back to life on a ventilator in Chicago’s university hospital, and then admitted to the psychiatric ward which was called, like the US Government tax form, W-3. Here she received a letter from her former lover, Saul Bellow, in which he encouraged her to write. “One should cook and eat one’s misery,” he counselled. “Chain it like a dog. Harness it like Niagara Falls to generate light and supply voltage for electric chairs.”
W-3: A Memoir is the result of Bellow’s advice. At first Howland “did not have the energy for such reflections”, but as she recovered she digested, leashed and channelled her misery, observing, like a panopticon, every detail of the ward and its inhabitants: the gangs of student doctors “marching in with their stethoscopes jutting from their pockets”, the “dusty, disabled equipment propped up in corners”, the overflowing ashtrays, the basket weaving, the thin-legged black cleaning staff “thrusting their mops with a strange listlessness”.
Following the book’s publication in 1972, Bette Howland was launched in the literary firmament. Over the next decade she produced two books of short stories and was lauded with prizes, including a MacArthur Genius Award, after which everything went silent. No more publications, no more praise. By the nineties, Howland (who died in 2017) had disappeared altogether and her masterpiece was cast into the oubliette of forgotten books. Then, in 2015, W-3 was found by a literary editor in a dollar box in a second-hand book shop, and a new edition was published this Spring, which is when I discovered it myself.
The timing could not have been better: the world of Covid-19, with its regulations and mayhem and the way in which it has turned us all into inmates is just like W-3. Howland’s memoir is a metaphor for the pandemic. “Let me explain right away,” she says of W-3, “that I didn’t belong here. But that goes without saying, no one belonged here.” This alone might serve as the epigraph to the last 18 months, during which none of us has belonged in the place in which we found ourselves, which for many has been in front of a screen, staring all day at our own distorted visages.
The patients in W-3 belonged to a tight “community” in a large teaching hospital, itself a unit of a sprawling gothic university, which also happened to be where Howland, before her suicide attempt, had worked as a part-time librarian. Now a full-time member of the institution, Howland found herself, like a Russian doll, occupying less and less space in her own life. Sound familiar?
The first thing she noticed about W-3 was that despite being told there were “no rules”, the “air was thick with them”. There were rules everywhere, attached to everything. The rules came mostly from above, but the patients ruled themselves in after-dinner meetings where they requested various freedoms, such as permission to take a bus journey or to meet up with a friend.
In Howland’s first meeting in W-3, Sydney is chairman and Fran is secretary. “Fran read the minutes very loud and fast, holding the notebook up so I could see her black eyes moving. She wore a shower cap over her curlers; coarsely graying hair.
‘Any additions or corrections?’ she asked in a challenging voice.
‘Actually, I think I’m supposed to say that,’ Sydney said, glancing at the notes of parliamentary procedure he was crushing in his fist’.”
No one has anywhere else to go or anything else to do, and meanwhile Trudy keeps interrupting:
“‘Hey! I’ve got another question! When do I get to talk?’
‘So far,’ Sydney observed, ‘you’ve been doing more talking than anybody else’.
‘Oh fuck. Fuck you. I know all about these meetings. Don’t worry, I’ve been to plenty of meetings. I bet I’ve been in more nuthouses that you have. So you don’t have to go getting stuck up with me about your dumb meeting!’“
These community meetings are not unlike what I imagine the Cabinet meetings to have been like during the recent crisis: Boris Johnson, with his “go to work, don’t go to work” directive, might have been schooled in W-3.
But they are even more reminiscent of the Extraordinary Meeting of Handforth Parish Council, called by two councillors “following the refusal of the council chairman to call such a meeting,” which went viral in February. Remember Jackie Weaver being told ‘to “read the standing orders! Read them and understand them”? All zoom meetings are like nuthouses. You have no authority here, Sydney.
Howland also noticed that in W-3, despite the amount of time spent grooming themselves, “everyone looked essentially the same — peculiar”. The inmates kept up appearances while looking dreadful. The women, like “birds in a barnyard,” wore clownish quantities of make-up: black eyebrows, red cheeks, “eyelids like wilted butterfly lids”. Hair, which always looked “wrong”, was controlled by tongs, towels and wigs. The kitchen smelt of burning hair; even the cleaning staff wore wigs. One wig, crooked and silky black, rested on a patient’s head “like a roosting wing.”
“Clothes”, however, were the focal point of the female patients. “On W-3, all inmates were expected to wear ‘clothes'”, and “clothes” meant anything that was not hospital garb. One woman swished down the corridors in a sleeveless evening gown and a single opera glove, because self-care proves you are still sane.
I read W-3 while lying in my pyjamas. Like many people, I wore pyjamas all day throughout the pandemic because lockdown meant “no rules” as well as nothing but rules. I would have worn a wig if I had one. Like other women in my neighbourhood community, I accessorised my bedclothes when I exercised the dog. Feathers in our greying hair, bangles on our wrists and slippers on our feet, the dog-walking sorority circled the local park, shouting through our masks while waiting for our animals to bend their legs and shit.
When I met my Creative Writing classes on Zoom, I put on a jumper in order to look sane. My students, on the other hand, kept their cameras off so that no one could see what they were wearing or where they were living or who they had reverted to being. They too were occupying less and less space in their own lives, most of them now spending 24 hours a day in their childhood bedrooms, beneath faded Snoopy duvet covers and the florescent stars their mum put on the ceiling 15 years ago to help them sleep at night. In emails to me they described despair, depression, deepening levels of panic as their debts accumulated and their worlds closed in. For four solid terms I talked to row upon row of black squares, an oubliette of forgotten people.
The only student to put on her camera was a girl who sat up in bed in a negligee as though caught unawares on camera. Ready for her close-up, she wore full make-up: orange foundation, false eyelashes, big pink lips, her hair coiffured to within an inch of its life. There was a connection, I thought, between the excessive performance of presence in W-3 and in this student’s bedroom, and the otherwise excessive performance of absence in the seminars. When the whole community is sick, on-stage and off-stage become versions of the same thing.
“Cook and eat your misery,” I counselled my seminar groups, just as Bellow counselled Bette; harness your ward and its inhabitants. One or two of them did, but for the most part they lacked the energy for such reflections. The bulbs had all blown leaving nothing but darkness. Except, as Bette Howland said of her own state, “it wasn’t dark — it wasn’t anything”.