Postpartum Psychosis in the Early 1900s

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Postpartum Progress reader Alison S. sent me this lovely email, and I asked her if I could post it here to share it with you. She said she stumbled across a memoir that she felt was perfect proof that postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis are not illnesses of spoiled, Western women …

It’s a thin book called “Rachel Calof’s Story.” It is the memoirs of a Jewish Russian immigrant to North Dakota. She was an orphan, and came to the U.S. in 1894. In 1936, at the age of 60, she sat down and wrote the story of her life in a notebook. She was not a “writer”, just a mother and farm wife. In 1995, the University of Indiana translated her notebook from Yiddish into English and published it.
The hardships and horrors that this woman faced in her life are almost unimaginable to me. She is beaten and neglected as a child, she is sent across the ocean to marry a man she has never met, her entire family nearly starves to death,she survives a North Dakota winter in a 12 x 14shack with four other adults, a cow and twenty chickens for six months, she bears seven children within eight years and gives birth to all of them without medical assistance, she undergoes an unanesthesized D&C to remove aseptic miscarriage from her uterus,the entire homestead is nearly lost in aterrible storm, a child is burned horribly on the woodstove and she nearly dies multiple times.
What is most striking to me about these memoirs, though, is the section that she devotes to describing in detail the postpartum mental illness (which seems to be postpartum psychosis) that she experienced after the birth of her first child. Of her 87 page journal, fully 11.5 pages are devoted to the six weeks after her daughter’s birth. I find it interesting that with all that happened in her life, she chose to devote more than 13% of her memoirs to telling this story.And what a story.Within a few days of the birth she becomes psychotic. She isalmost unable to sleep or eat. For weeks, she experiences terrifying visual hallucinations of demons and auditory command hallucinations to “give us your child, or else we will take you and the child.” She sits at the side of the baby’s bed with a knife.
Her mother-in-law is aware of her insanity, but blames her for it and threatens her. Becausehe is gone so often (working as a farm hand miles from their home), and because shemakes up elaborate excuses for her bizarre behaviors, Rachel is able to hide her illness from her husband “with the cleverness of the deranged” for nearly six weeks. At that point the hallucinations become even more pronounced, and they find her screaming out on the prairie. A kindly female relative is finally called in who gently and patiently nurses her back to health.
So there it is: proof that perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are not a new “trendy invention” of spoiled women. The two things that I love most about the story are these:
1. The wisdom that Rachel has looking back. She is able to look back from a place of being fully recovered and callitwhat it was: “a fearful illness of the mind, a sickness.” I wish that everyone here in 2010 could have the wisdom that Rachel had in 1936 when she wrote the memoirs.
2. She goes on to survive and thrive! All of her children live, the farm becomes prosperous, she becomes arespected leader in her community, and she livesa long life with an adoring family.
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About Katherine Stone

is the founder & editor of Postpartum Progress. She was named one of the ten most influential mom bloggers of 2011, a WebMD Health Hero and one of the top 25 parent bloggers using social media for social good. She also writes the Fierce Blog, and a parenting column for Disney's Babble.com.

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  1. interested says:

    Thanks for this Katherine. I've already checked it on amazon and will be picking it up for sure!

  2. The book The Yellow Wallpaper is a good early account of postpartum psychosis, as well.
    BTW, where is the "Stop" button for this article?

  3. Wow. I have to get this book. Thank you for sharing.
    I just wrote about intrusive thoughts and then came across this. Love when things align like that.
    Thanks.

  4. wrong diagnosis clai says:

    thanks for sharing this with us . we need that