The last post got me thinking about the word “crazy.” It was applied to women and to men, especially in my ex’s ethnic community, but it meant different things. It was a very gendered idea.
A “crazy” woman was a woman who supposedly acted strangely (meaning, not in accordance with community norms). Or, she was unduly upset by things that no woman in her right mind would be upset about. She was “nervous” (anxious and/or quick-tempered).
Once a woman had been labeled as “crazy,” it meant that her perceptions, her opinions, her wishes could be completely discounted by everyone.
It didn’t mean that she should be helped or given medical treatment. It meant that she was falling down on the job. She wasn’t acting the way she should be. How embarrassing for her, her husband and her family. They had better rein her in.
I was afraid of the “crazy” label. It was belittling, it was insulting, and it was threatening. What it meant was “Get in line! Behave properly, or you will be taken even less seriously than you are now.” It was used to control women.
Men could also be labeled “crazy.” But that didn’t mean that people discounted them, or tried to control them even more closely “for their own good.” No, what it meant was that there was no point in trying to rein them in. A man who treated his family harshly who was said to be “crazy”? It wouldn’t do any good for anyone to try to talk sense into him, or to intervene. Because he was “crazy.” He was just going to do things his way, no matter what. So hands off, just let him be. (And too bad about his wife and kids; they were just going to have to deal.)
Looking back, I think about some of the women who were labeled “crazy.” Some of them had been through wartime experiences that would have traumatized anyone. Some had definitely been abused in various ways. But this community didn’t believe that mental illness exists—or that if it did, it would only affect those who didn’t have strong enough faith. There was tremendous stigma attached to seeking any kind of psychiatric help.
In my ex’s family, the “appropriate” way to deal with horrifying memories of abuse or cruelty or war or torture was either to never speak of them at all (particularly in the case of, say, rape) or (in the case of most other types of abuse, trauma or tragedy) to laugh and joke about it.
In such a context, the crazy ones are those who can’t remain silent, and who can’t laugh.