By Jody Diperna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
Pittsburgh author Clare Beams’ new book ‘The Illness Lesson’ (Doubleday, 2020) is a work of precision and dread, one part ‘Little Women’ and one part ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’ Historical fiction bracketed very firmly in 1871 New England, it is macabre and chimeric, with an essential dose of feminist rage.
The narrative is built on restrained, sick in your gut tension from the jump. Something bad is going to happen. We just don’t know what.
“My fiction does not tend to be very sunny,” Beams told the Current via telephone. “I find satisfaction even in writing about dark things. It’s a chance to look at things that have gone unspoken and understand them a little better.”
In the New England of transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, ‘The Illness Lesson’s’ setting is very akin to Fruitland, the utopian commune started by another transcendentalist, Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson. (It didn’t last a calendar year. Nobody really knew how to farm, they were trying to eat only fruit, and people were starving.)
“It was a movement that had a lot of beautiful ideas. One of the things I was playing with is the contradiction in that thinking which is very much still alive and with us. Every human soul has equal value — yet all these women are bustling around the edges, making all this brilliant thinking possible for these men,” she said. “The things we tell women about their lives and possibilities still don’t always match up with what women actually find in the world once they go to meet it. That’s the contradictory space the book is playing with.”
The fictional Samuel Hood is a transcendentalist of some renown who had undertaken a very similar experiment to Fruitland, with very similar results. Twenty years later, he lives on the property with his grown daughter Caroline. Bright red birds appear, a species never seen before except for a brief period during the first iteration of Samuel’s commune. Named Trilling Hearts by Caroline’s (now) deceased mother, their reappearance is seen as a harbinger of great things to come. Only Caroline is unsettled.
They are about to start an experimental school for girls, where Caroline will teach English literature, leaving the ‘meatier’ subjects like natural science and philosophy to the menfolk, namely Samuel and his acolyte, David.
“I wanted them to be this flourish of strangeness,” Beams said of the fantastical and grotesque birds which dot the narrative. “Sort of like the girls’ bodies are insisting on themselves, I wanted the birds to be more underscoring of the fact that something is not quite fitting. That felt important.”
The girls arrive and start school. One by one, they start to get sick. It is here that Beams downshifts into an even more unsettling level of dread and horror. The girls all have different symptoms — rashes, vision problems, tremors, verbal tics, falling and fainting spells. The men see the ailments as failings of character or intellect.
“The girls are having real physical symptoms — no one is faking. This is a product of this impossible, contradictory place they’ve been given to live inside. They are being given this wonderful education (and it is actually wonderful), but it makes no space for their actual female bodies. No attention is being paid to the fact that they’re being educated like boys, but they’re not boys … the world is not going to treat them like they’re the same as men,” Beams noted.
A doctor is called in, a man so puffed up on himself he makes no space for anything but his own opinions. He considers himself expert at, honestly, everything — from the female body to the new avian species the Trilling Hearts. With the consent of the school, he undertakes ghastly, but historically accurate, treatments.
He convinces them all that this is group hysteria. And yet, the decision makers, the doctor, Samuel and David, and even Caroline, are wrapped up in their own kind of mania. This is the systemic hysteria that serves to maintain and protect institutions — not just the school, but the deeply entrenched institution of sexism.
Throughout, Beams builds an undercurrent of madness and danger. And by exploring the delusions and irrationality which drive the people in charge, she allows the reader to breathe in the madness that is misogyny.
“It’s such a strange piece of evidence that this sort of thing has always been there and still is there, to some extent,” Beams explained. “That mindset is what I was writing about — about what can happen when you decide that you must be seeing it wrong because someone else is telling you. The darkest things can flourish when women give foremost authority over their bodies to someone who is not them.”