by Marlene Goldman
In her introduction to this collection, Julia Creet asserts that “migration is a condition of memory,” and cites Pierre Nora’s lament that
“we create sites of memory because we not longer have ‘real environments of memory’: stable geographic, generation environments in which memory resides . . .”
Margaret Atwood’s historical novel Alias Grace is based on the life of a notorious Canadian woman who immigrated from Ireland and who was convicted of murder at the age of sixteen.
Fiction has played a profound role in shaping our understanding of both normal and pathological memory. In her study of conceptual art and memory, Luiza Nader observes that the work of the artist under consideration
“raised the problem of the relation between memory (with its vicissitudes like transference, repressions, and displacements) and history” (*).
I would suggest that Atwood’s novel adds a significant dimension to this collection’s engagement with the issues of migration, memory, trauma, testimony, and fiction because of its reflexive engagement with fiction making and, more precisely, owing to the novel’s insistence that even in the case of traumatic testimony, the vicissitudes of memory and artistic fabrication play a profound role.
In Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory, Ian Hacking argues that writers have played a formidable role in fashioning our understanding of normal and pathological memory:
“I make the strong point,” he writes, that our understanding is the direct “consequence of how the literary imagination has formed the language in which we speak of people be they real or imagined . . . ” (233).
In keeping with Hacking’s insights, my paper turns to Alias Grace to examine how this text has contributed to and challenged the interpretation and construction of cultural and medical models of the mind and, more specifically, the operations of memory. As Atwood herself explains, Alias Grace raises questions about “the trustworthiness of memory, the reliability of story”. Precisely because Alias Grace is an historical novel, the text demonstrates the extent to which prevailing notions concerning supposedly normal and pathological memory are derived from fiction. Put somewhat differently, our models of ordered and disordered memory are based on fictional models generated, in part, by writers of historical fiction.
With the publication of her first novel, Surfacing, which charted the psychic and physical journey of a woman wandering in the wilderness, haunted by an abortion that she remembers only in traumatic fragments, Atwood initiated her readers into her ongoing exploration of the relationship between haunting and hysteria, a disease that since antiquity has been associated with the notion of wandering.
Alias Grace self-consciously takes this exploration in new and important directions by rooting it in an historical context when concerns loomed large about hysteria and about women wandering beyond the confines of class boundaries and patriarchy’s tight control. Based on historical events, this text serves as a particularly useful tool to examine the connections between haunting, hysteria, and fears associated with gender and class mobility.
Alias Grace offers a thoroughly researched account of Upper Canadian life in the nineteenth century when some servants aspired to the status of the upper classes and, on occasion, realized their desires to rise above their station. In so doing, they attacked the notion that inheritance rests solely on “filiation,” defined strictly by blood, and argued instead for “affiliative” notions of inheritance based on performance, hard work, and “collegiality” (Said 20). By juxtaposing wandering immigrants and hysteria, a disorder that emphasizes pathologized wandering, Alias Grace highlights societal fears associated with female emancipation and the upwardly mobile racialized “Other.”
In Alias Grace, this type of class conflict is aligned with sexual differentiation and the threat posed by “the Woman Question.” Atwood’s gendered rewriting of the nightmare of social class is apt since the same message directed toward the lower class was often repeated to women: stay in your place! As Jameson observes, this class warning “can be re-written as an actantial injunction: do not attempt to become another kind of character from the one you already are!” (191). His emphasis on “characters” is particularly relevant to my study because Alias Grace aligns class conflict and hysteria based on the fact that both were associated with debates about performance versus biological inheritance and with pathological forms of wandering.
Alias Grace’s central figure, Grace Marks, an impoverished Irish immigrant, was one of the most infamous Canadian women of the 1800s. With the help of a fellow-servant, James McDermott, Grace murdered both her well-to-do Tory employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his pregnant housekeeper and mistress, Nancy Montgomery. While McDermott was found guilty of Kinnear’s death and hanged on November 21, 1843, Grace’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison, thanks to the efforts of her lawyer and a group of gentlemen petitioners who emphasized the “feebleness of her sex,” her “extreme youth,” and her supposed witlessness (McLean and Barber 133).
In Atwood’s retelling of events, in addition to suffering from traumatic amnesia and claiming to have lost the part of her memory associated with the execution of the murders (41), Grace is prone to terrifying hallucinations, fits, fainting spells, somnambulism (sleep walking) and episodes of double consciousness–symptoms typically associated with what was then known as the “disease” of hysteria. Alias Grace explicitly interrogates the hysteria diagnosis by pairing Grace with a fictitious American doctor, Simon Jordon, who travels to the Kingston Penitentiary in 1859 and studies Grace to determine whether she is, indeed, hysterical as opposed to merely criminal. Dr. Jordan has been invited to examine Grace at the behest of the Reverend Verringer, a Methodist minister. Verringer hopes to prove scientifically and unequivocally that Grace is mentally ill and, on those grounds, secure her release from prison. At the crux of the novel, when Dr. Jordan’s proto-psychoanalytic method fails to penetrate Grace’s amnesia and “wake the part of her mind that lies dormant” (131), he permits Grace to undergo hypnosis at the hands of Dr. Jerome DuPont. In this pivotal scene, Grace lies in a hypnotic trance and, to everyone’s amazement, an alternative identity emerges claiming to be the spirit of Mary Whitney, Grace’s friend who died several years earlier from a botched abortion. As Mary’s disincarnate spirit malevolently insists, it was she, and not Grace, who slaughtered Kinnear and his mistress.
Even from this brief account, one can appreciate that Alias Grace highlights the fascination and confusion surrounding the relationships between haunting, hysteria, gender, race, class, and criminality in the nineteenth century (see Harris). At the time, the connections among these factors were hotly debated and provided fodder for the speculations and turf wars of spiritualists and scientists alike. Grace’s gender, race, and position in the servant class locate her at the centre of these debates. As historians observe, the sensational murder case,
“involving sex, violence, and insubordination carried to an extreme, portrayed in stark relief the gender, class, and ethnic tensions in the master/mistress-servant relationship. It also revealed the complex and gendered public response to Irish immigrants” (McLean and Barber 133).
Set in the mid 1800s when Irish women were arrested and convicted of crimes with much greater frequency than any other group, (Diner 111) when “among immigrant servants committed to insane asylums, Irish women far outnumbered all other ethnic groups combined,” (McLean and Barber 149) and when “hysteria was the most prominent and memorable maladie de la mémoire,” (Roth 1) Alias Grace explicitly probes the racialized links between memory, madness, and migration, and highlights how these links were disseminated in narrative form. Nineteenth-century Upper Canadian society was particularly concerned about “allowing unknown immigrants into the private sanctum of the home” (137). Because of their supposed love of finery, Irish domestics “were frequently suspected of trying on their mistress’s clothes in her absence”—a fear which masked the deeper terror that
“such relatively harmless acts of insubordination could mirror more serious crimes such as theft from their employers or, at an extreme as in the case of Grace Marks, even murder” (137).
Given the powerful fears and anxieties of the ruling class, it is not surprising that the servant class suffered from psychological distress, albeit of a different sort. Recent studies concerning the occupational identities of past hysterical patients reveal that among working people one category appears time and time again: domestic servant (Micale “Theorizing”158-59). Contemporary scholars now hypothesize that just as certain “aristocratic ailments of the eighteenth century descended to the middle classes in the early nineteenth century, so perhaps a more medicalized self-consciousness began to form later in the century among working-class people living in bourgeois environments. A kind of psychological gentrification” (Micale “Theorizing” 160; see also Ellenberger 190). On a very basic level, in postulating that Grace suffers from hysteria, a disease more often associated with Freud’s affluent Viennese patients than with working-class Irish immigrants, Alias Grace emphasizes that nineteenth-century social mobility, the disease of wandering above one’s station, instigated the transgressive assumption of new social roles and the diseases associated with these roles.
Alias Grace likewise emphasizes that the disease of hysteria surfaced when both lower-class and middle-class women were wandering beyond their allotted place in the domestic sphere. Mary Whitney, for instance, proves to be an especially troubling spirit both alive and dead because she espouses “democratic ideas” (159) and insists on women’s potential for social mobility.
She tells Grace that
“being a servant was not a thing we were born to, nor would we be forced to continue it forever; it was just a job of work . . . and that one day I would be the mistress of a tidy farmhouse, and independent . . . . And one person was as good as the next, and on this side of the ocean folks rose in the world by hard work, not by who their grandfather was, and that was the way it should be” (157-58).
Mary’s philosophy of rising by “hard work” (a vision of class based on one’s performance and not on inheritance) is aligned more generally in the novel with performative and fabricated conceptions of identity.
In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault describes how during the late 1300s and early 1400s, the mad were driven from the cities and set aboard boats that “conveyed their insane cargo from town to town . . . . Often the cities of Europe must have seen these ‘ships of fools’ approaching their harbors” (8). Foucault ultimately describes the madman as “the Passenger par excellence; that is, the prisoner of the passage . . . . He has his truth and his homeland only in that fruitless expanse between two countries that cannot belong to him” (11).
In his case history of Dora, Freud likewise associates madness with wandering when he asserts that the disease of hysteria is caused by pathological memory and argues further that it is characterized by a specific hallucinatory, fragmented, and meandering narrative style.
As he explains, hysterics are unable to tell a complete, “smooth and exact” story about themselves: “their communications run dry, leaving gaps unfilled, and riddles unanswered . . . . The connections—even the ostensible ones—are for the most part incoherent, and the sequence of different events is uncertain . . .” (Freud Dora 45-46). Moreover, for Freud, this incapacity to give an “ordered history of their life” was not simply characteristic of hysterics; it was, as Elaine Showalter observes, “the meaning of hysteria” (Hystories 84). In essence, Freud associated both normal and hysterical forms of memory with discrete narrative styles—smooth and exact, on the one hand, and those with gaps and riddles, on the other. In so doing, however, he seemingly remains unaware that the apparently natural, smooth and exact story that offers “an ordered history, which he privileges, and associates with healthy forms of memory is, itself a highly artificial narrative mode honed by traditional historical novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In contrast to the form and assumption associated with this narrative mode, Alias Grace’s opening scene introduces a type of fragmented hysterical narrative style along with the text’s governing image of dark red flowers, hallucinatory fleurs du mal, that haunt the novel:
Out of the gravel there are peonies growing. They come up through the loose grey pebbles, their buds testing the air like snails’ eyes, then swelling and opening, huge dark-red flowers all shining and glossy like satin. Then they burst and fall to the ground. . . . I watch the peonies out of the corners of my eyes. I know they shouldn’t be here: it’s April and peonies don’t bloom in April. There are three more now, right in front of me, growing out of the path itself. Furtively I reach out my hand to touch one. It has a dry feel, and I realize it’s made of cloth.
Then up ahead I see Nancy, on her knees, with her hair fallen over and the blood running down into her eyes. . . . I am almost up to Nancy, to where she’s kneeling. But I do not break step, I do not run, I keep on walking . . . and then Nancy smiles, only the mouth, her eyes are hidden by the blood and hair, and then she scatters into patches of colour, a drift of red cloth petals across the stones. (AG 5-6)
Here the image of flowers recalls Breuer’s famous reference in Studies on Hysteria to hysterics as “the flowers of mankind, as sterile, no doubt, but as beautiful as double flowers” (Freud and Breuer 284).
In double flowers, the purely sexual function has been tampered with to serve aesthetic desires because the stamens have been replaced by petals. As Showalter explains, Breuer implies that, like the double flower, the hysteric is “the forced bud of a domestic greenhouse.. . .[S]he is also an aesthetic object, standing in relation to a more sober ‘mankind’ as feminine and decorative” (“Hysteria,” 291-92; see also Smith-Rosenberg). In Grace’s hallucinatory account, the red flowers are made of cloth, further emphasizing their socially-constructed nature.[iv]
In addition to invoking Breuer’s image of hysteria, the opening passage graphically illustrates the workings of hysteria by virtue of its meandering narrative style in which the peonies “burst” and Nancy’s visage “scatters” into “patches” of colour, a “drift” of red cloth petals. . . ” (5-6). In effect, on both the intradiegetic level of Grace’s narration and on the extradiegetic level of the narrative–marked by its excessive reliance on epigraphs, fragments from nineteenth-century texts, and chapter headings named for well-known quilt patterns–Alias Grace deploys hysteria’s fragmented and drifting narrative style. As Grace herself admits, her lawyer wanted her to tell her story “in what he called a coherent way, but would often accuse me of wandering . . .” (357). Not surprisingly, it is precisely this penchant for wandering that has also characterized hysteria from antiquity. Owing to hysteria’s etymological association with the uterus, in what follows, I argue that Atwood’s emphasis on hysteria, flowers, and fabrication challenges notions of supposedly healthy forms of narrative and memory, and of socially-acceptable forms of sexual reproduction and inheritance.
The word “hysteria” originates from the Greek word for uterus, hystera, which derives from the Sanskrit word for stomach or belly. According to the ancient Egyptians, the cause of disturbances in adult women was the wandering movement of the uterus, which they believed to be “an autonomous, free-floating organism, upward from its normal pelvic position” (Micale 19).These ancient Egyptian beliefs, in turn, provided the foundation for classical Greek medical and philosophical accounts of hysteria. The Greeks adopted “the notion of the migratory uterus and embroidered upon the connection . . . between hysteria and an unsatisfactory sexual life” (Micale19). In Timaeus, Plato famously explains that
“the womb is an animal which longs to generate children. When it remains barren too long after puberty, it is distressed and sorely disturbed, and straying about in the body and cutting off the passage of the breath, it impedes respiration and brings the sufferer into the extremist anguish and provokes all manner of diseases besides” (qtd. in Micale 19).
In Alias Grace, however, hysteria is not solely linked to a wandering uterus but, more generally, to the transgressive wanderings of dispossessed and diasporic female working class. “Diaspora,” like the word “hysteria,” originates from the Greek, a combination of “dia,” meaning “through,” “thoroughly,” “apart,” or “across,” and “speiro,” meaning to “scatter” (OED). When Jeremiah, the mysterious peddler who later refashions himself as the hypnotist Jerome DuPont, reads Grace’s palm, he states enigmatically, “You are one of us.” Grace assumes he means that like him, she is “homeless, and a wanderer” (155). In her study of hysteria, Elaine Showalter likewise argues that in nineteenth-century France, “runaways and migrants can be seen as social equivalents of the unruly migratory uterus traditionally associated with female hysteria” (Hystories 71). Michèle Ouerd similarly asserts that the working class in nineteenth-century France “is itself the wandering womb of Paris” (qtd. in Showalter, Hystories 71). These analogies between the migratory uterus and the working class in France also shed light on Alias Grace’s depiction of the status of migrant workers in Upper and Lower Canada during the same period.
In Alias Grace, the connections forged between Grace’s pathological memory, hysteria, and the Irish diaspora are especially apt when one recognizes that the latter was unusually gendered:
“Whereas most transatlantic migrations of people to North America were dominated by men, for significant periods of time women formed the majority of Irish migrants” ( McLean and Barber 134).
This migration constituted “a mass female movement. . . . No other major group of immigrants in American history contained so many women” (Diner 30). Like Grace, the majority of these women worked in rural rather than urban areas. As a result, “these ‘women alone’ sometimes lacked kin or friendship networks for advice and aid and hence were more vulnerable” (McLean and Barber 136). In addition, Atwood’s gothic representation of Grace’s and her fellow workers’ direct and indirect sexual and physical abuse at the hands of their various employers accurately attests to the fact that the impact of scattering and the resulting isolation and loneliness in both rural and urban work increased “the vulnerability to conflict with employers or to sexual exploitation” (McLean and Barber 137-39). Moreover, studies of Irish domestics in courts, jails, and asylums tellingly reveal that almost half the women in jail who listed occupations were servants or housekeepers, and by far the largest immigrant population was from Ireland (McLean and Barber 139; see also Diner ch. 5).
Thus, as a convicted murderer sentenced to life in the penitentiary who also spent time in Toronto’s newly opened insane asylum, Grace Marks was “definitely not the only Irish immigrant domestic servant labelled both ‘mad and ‘bad’ whether because of intolerable conditions, poverty, overwork, rebellion, physical or mental illness or mental retardation” (McLean and Barber 149). In contrast, then, to the smooth and exact historical narrative—the officially-sanctioned “healthy” story that portrayed criminality as hereditary—Atwood’s fragmented and transgressive narrative highlights transgressive desires (of both the lower and upper classes) that challenge the familiar conjunction between healthy memory, coherent narrative and socially-sanctioned reproduction.
The strength of Atwood’s novel lies in its refusal to label Grace as “mad” and “bad.” Instead, and in contrast to healers and physicians from antiquity who adopted the hysteria diagnosis to account for women’s supposedly pathological minds and bodies, Atwood’s representation of Grace’s hysteria, in keeping with feminist analyses of hysteria, suggests that the disease had more to do with women’s social roles and the unequal relations of power associated with these roles than with any innate gendered or racial aetiology. Contemporary medical historians now acknowledge that in the early 1800s women’s madness typically resulted neither from a wandering uterus nor from lesions of the nervous system—signs of degeneration (see Harris 64-79)–but, instead, from what was referred to in 1820 as “domestic affliction,” namely, traumatic experiences including physical and sexual abuse, death, and bereavement that were often exacerbated by alcoholism and poverty (Houston 320).
Women’s quarters at Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, North Stradbroke Island, 1914
In Atwood’s novel, Grace’s early account of her stay at the newly-opened Toronto Asylum underscores the role played by “domestic affliction” in instigating madness. As she explains:
[A] good portion of the women in the Asylum were no madder than the Queen of English. Many were sane enough when sober, as their madness came out of a bottle . . . . One of them was in there to get away from her husband, who beat her black and blue . . . and another said she went mad in the autumns, as she had no house and it was warm in the Asylum . . . . But some were not pretending. One poor Irishwoman had all her family dead, half of them starving in the great famine and the other half of the cholera on the boat coming over. . . . (31)
In addition to offering general information about women and madness, this passage, which juxtaposes “domestic affliction” with the trauma of the Irish famine and the transatlantic journey, furnishes readers with potential clues to the riddle of Grace’s illness and amnesia.
The narrative forges links between hysteria, domestic affliction, and migration early on when readers witness Grace succumbing to “hysteria’s most characteristic and dramatic symptom . . . the hysterical ‘fit’” after a doctor arrives at the Penitentiary to measure her head (Smith-Rosenberg 201). As Grace explains, when “I see his [the doctor’s] hand . . . plunging into the open mouth of his leather bag . . . . my heart clenches and kicks out inside me, and then I begin to scream” (29). She continues to scream until the Matron slaps her across the face. As the latter explains:
It’s the only way with the hysterics…we have had a great deal of experience with that kind of a fit, this one used to be prone to them but we never indulged her, we worked hard to correct it and we thought she had given it up, it might be her old trouble coming back, for despite what they said about it up there at Toronto she was a raving lunatic that time seven years ago . . . . (30)
On one level, in keeping with the Matron’s comments, readers gradually appreciate that Grace’s hysterical responses are, indeed, the result of “her old trouble coming back.” But, far from a sign of innate pathology, her hysterical symptoms constitute an expression of rage and grief triggered by the loss of her Irish homeland and the more devastating losses associated with the deaths of the three women who played a central role in her life, namely, her mother, Mary Whitney, and Nancy Montgomery.
In the case of Grace’s Irish Protestant mother, after marrying a hard-drinking and physically abusive Englishman and bearing him nine children, she expires due to a mysterious, deadly growth in her abdomen. Pregnancy and death also uncannily go hand-in-hand in Mary Whitney’s travails. After consorting with a gentleman, presumably her employer’s son, and finding herself pregnant with his child, Mary is cast off. In desperation, she undergoes a backstreet abortion and haemorrhages to death. Finally, Nancy is murdered shortly after Grace discovers that she is carrying Kinnear’s bastard. In essence, the spirits and histories of these women return to haunt the novel. As Kathleen Brogan observes, haunting in women’s texts often tends to attach to reproductive issues:
“the ghosts often arise from traumatic memories of rape, abortion, or miscarriage; possessed bodies are described as pregnant, or ghosts themselves may appear as pregnant” (Brogan 25).
Whereas Brogan posits that the connection is based on the fact that “female bodies are often the site of an uncanny struggle for control over lineage,” (25) Alias Grace usefully complicates matters by stressing the historical connections between haunting, hysteria, and diaspora. As I have suggested, for Irish working-class women in Canada in the early 1800s, migration, sexual exploitation, and hysteria were intimately related.
Grace’s mother, for instance, dies on the transatlantic voyage, leaving Grace vulnerable to her father’s abuse and the sexual advances of other predatory males. Yet, when Grace recalls her mother’s death on the ship, she insists that her mother’s spirit continues to wander the earth. As Grace tells Dr. Jordan, when her mother’s beloved teapot mysteriously shatters, she suspects that the act was perpetrated by her mother’s enraged spirit, “trapped in the bottom of the ship because we could not open a window, and angry . . . caught in there for ever and ever, down below in the hold like a moth in a bottle, sailing back and forth across the hideous dark ocean . . .” (122).[x] This spirit caught in the hold recalls Foucault’s image of madness, “the prisoner of the passage.”
Traces of the prior trauma instigated by the diaspora reappear in later scenes that foreshadow the emergence of Grace’s hysterical double consciousness. On the eve of Nancy’s murder, for example, Grace dreams that Mary is in the room with her, holding a “glass tumbler in her hand, and inside it was a firefly, trapped and glowing with a cold and greenish fire … and she took her hand from the top of the glass, and the firefly came out and darted about the room; and I knew that this was her soul, and it was trying to find its way out, but the window was shut; and then I could not see where it was gone” (312-13). This dream recalls Grace’s earlier concern that her mother’s spirit was caught inside the hellish ship “like a moth in a bottle” (122). The links between Grace’s illness and the fateful voyage are further strengthened when Grace learns the secret of Nancy’s pregnancy and we are told that Grace goes to bed with the rain pouring down so that she “was sure that every next minute we would split in two like a ship at sea” (279; my emphasis). In each of these scenes, Grace’s hysterical symptoms, specifically, memory loss and the fracturing of her psyche, are related to the earlier trauma and fragmentation springing from her family’s journey to the new world and the death of her mother. By weaving traces of the transatlantic journey into subsequent events, the text identifies Grace’s “old trouble,” her hysteria, with the shattering of domestic comfort and protection instigated by the Irish diaspora and exacerbated by the deaths of the three women who provided Grace with a material and psychic home in the new world. It is apt, then, that Grace emphasizes the simultaneous fracturing of the domestic realm and her psyche when she associates her mother’s death with the broken teapot and, later, compares her sketchy memories of Ireland to “a plate that’s been broken” (103). In keeping with fellow Canadian writer Jane Urquhart, in Alias Grace, Atwood probes what it means, spatially and psychically, to be “away.”
Viewed in this context, Grace’s hysterical episodes signal her divided and doubled response to her own transgressive desires for class mobility. Her experience of “splitting” is thus akin to the form of “double consciousness” described by W.E.B Du Bois in his writings about Black identity in America. According to Du Bois, who himself suffered from “nervous invalidism” (Micale “Theorizing”162), the experience “of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” gave rise to a sense of two-ness.
. . two warring ideals in one Black body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Du Bois 23 ).
Grace’s consciousness initially fractures when she is forced to contend with the conflict between Mary’s bold aspirations to rise in station and the tragic results of this experiment; having been impregnated and jilted by her gentleman lover, Mary dies from a botched abortion. Later, Grace’s consciousness doubles once again when she discovers that Nancy Montgomery, following in Mary’s footsteps, has engaged in a tryst with her employer, Mr. Kinnear, which elevates Nancy’s status to “mistress” of the house. After she learns about Nancy, Grace hears a voice whispering in her ear, saying: “It cannot be” (279). Grace’s unconscious negation of interclass relations—a negation that may well have culminated in Nancy’s murder—illustrates the extent to which Grace has internalized the prohibition concerning social mobility. Grace’s hysterical response to Nancy suggests further that Grace suffers “réssentiment,” the destructive envy the have-nots feel for the haves (Jameson 201). The ghostly whisper in Grace’s ear, however, demonstrates the debilitating effects of envy on marginalized groups since in this instance réssentiment is directed at the have-nots who presume to join the haves. In Alias Grace, the potential cost of opting for affiliation over filiation is racialized and class-inflected double consciousness.
In essence, Alias Grace stages the conflicts associated with traumatic loss instigated by migration, dispossession, and spectral attempts at re-possession and assimilation. In her essay on mourning, Judith Butler outlines the psychic devastation and loss of self that attends a profound loss or dispossession:
When we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place, or a community, we may simply feel that we are undergoing something temporary, that mourning will be over and some restoration of prior order will be achieved. But maybe when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these constitute who we are. It is not as if an ‘I’ exists independently over here and then simply loses a ‘you’ over there, especially if an attachment to ‘you’ is part of what composes who ‘I’ am. If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself. Who ‘am’ I, without you? When we lose some of those ties by which we are constituted, we do no know who we are or what to do. On one level, I think I have lost ‘you’ only to discover that ‘I’ have gone missing as well. (22)
Butler’s account which emphasizes how, following a loss, “we do not know who we are,” sheds light on Atwood’s depiction of Grace’s response to dispossession. After she discovers her friend Mary has died, for instance, Grace falls into a faint and “for ten hours . . . no one could wake me” (180). As she explains, “[W]hen I did wake up, I did not seem to know where I was, or what had happened; and I kept asking where Grace had gone. And when they told me that I myself was Grace, I would not believe them, but cried, and tried to run out of the house, because I said that Grace was lost. . .and I need to search for her” (180). Yet, as Atwood’s novel emphasizes by virtue of the ongoing dialogue between Grace and her proto-analyst, Dr. Simon Jordan, the search for Grace is not so much a search for a Truth and a true self as an engagement with fiction making and fabrication. In light of the text’s insistence on the links between haunting, hysteria, diaspora, fabrication, and memory, it is fitting that Atwood’s text concludes with Grace’s plans for a quilt composed of scraps from her prison dress, Mary’s petticoat, and the pink and white floral fabric of Nancy’s dress. Her statement, “And so we will all be together” end the novel (460).
In effect, the novel’s emphasis on fabrication offers an important contribution to and contrasts sharply with contemporary views on trauma.[xi] Trauma theory posits that because the victim of a traumatic event is allegedly unable to process the experience in a normal way, he or she is left with “a ‘reality imprint’ in the brain that, in its insistent literality, testifies to the existence of a pristine and timeless historical truth undistorted or uncontaminated by subjective meaning, personal cognitive schemes, psychosocial factors, or unconscious symbolic elaboration” (Leys 7). This theory, currently in vogue in the humanities, conceives of trauma victims as entirely passive, possessed by the Truth that returns in flashbacks and nightmares in the form of pristine fragments of missing history. According to Cathy Caruth, psychological trauma allegedly remains singularly enigmatic and haunting because
[t]he pathology consists . . . solely in the structure of its experience or reception:
the event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, its repeated possession of the one who experiences it. To be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or event. And thus the traumatic symptom cannot be interpreted, simply, as a distortion of reality, nor as the lending of unconscious meaning to a reality it wishes to ignore, nor as the repression of what once was wished. (4-5)
Caruth repeatedly insists that the “traumatic nightmare” presents us with something “undistorted by repression or unconscious wish” (152). “If PTSD must be understood as a pathological symptom,” she maintains, “then it is not so much a symptom of the unconscious, as it is a symptom of history. The traumatized . . . carry an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess” (5). Indeed, as Leys observes, this memory, in “its literality and unavailability for representation, becomes a sacred object or ‘icon” (253). In contrast to this view, however, Alias Grace underscores the creation of identity through narration, even in the case of trauma. Moreover, Grace’s traumatic flashbacks, which alter according to events in the present, confirm Ley’s finding that the allegedly pure idea is, in fact, subject to “the effects of distortion and ‘contagion’ from environmental and other cues”; in other words, the “content might be true, false, or confabulated” (Leys 243). If, as Andreas Kitzmann insists, we may speak of “a crisis of testimony” (*) Atwood’s novel suggests that this crisis is not merely due to the fact that testimony is “appropriated” and “divested of its horror.” Instead, this crisis is engendered by the often oppressive demands and circumstances surrounding the act fiction making or fabricating one’s story—a process that in Alias Grace, as noted earlier, is epitomized by the image of cloth flowers that bleed.
Although Alias Grace, a historical novel set in the 1840s would seem on the surface to have little to say regarding contemporary diasporas, the narrative’s formal and thematic concern with memory, hysteria, and fabrication resonate uncannily with Chowra Makaremi’s contemporary research on memory in the context of border detention in France. Makaremi’s study focuses on Ghislaine K, a migrant woman detained in the “waiting zone” who, like Grace Marks, is compelled by the authorities to speak of her traumatic migration. Ghislaine, however, remains silent and, in so doing, fails to offer the desired story—ironically, her failure springs, on the one hand, from an awareness of the power of story-telling and, on the other, from an inability, following a traumatic migration, to organize a coherent and seemingly credible story. As Makaremi observes, the interview “reveals a dense and complex personal narrative, in which the linear coherence of the biography is somehow dislocated” (*) As in Alias Grace, in this instance, narrative dislocation, a “wandering story” reflects the subject’s status, to borrow Foucault’s words, as a contemporary “prisoner of the passage.” As Makaremi explains: “According to the law, the detainee who leaves her country to come to France with a fake passport, and who is refused entry to the territory, can leave for any other destination of her choice where she would be legally admitted-but without a passport, nowhere will receive her. Suddenly, there is no place on earth where she can go” (*). In sum, both Alias Grace and Marakemi’s account of Ghislaine’s experience in the waiting zone highlight an often disavowed aspect of memory studies, particularly in the context of trauma, namely, that testimony and fabrication, far from being antithetical are, in fact, secret sharers of modern culture’s often traumatic, gendered, and racialized experience of migration. Both Ghislaine’s and Grace’s failure to provide “a smooth and exact story” about themselves and an “ordered history of their life” demonstrate the painful gap between sanctioned and official narrative forms of memory and those that convey working-class women’s lived experiences—alternative, fragmented forms of story telling which are deemed transgressive and pathologized.
If, as Ian Hacking and Mark Micale insist, our understandings of memory, hysteria, and multiple personality disorder have benefited greatly from the insights of nineteenth-century authors such as Flaubert, E.T.W. Hoffman, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dostoyevsky, and James Hogg, then Atwood’s contribution, as I have asserted, lies in refining our understanding to include a consideration of the historically-entrenched relationship between the hysteria diagnosis, the impact of migration, and Irish working-class women’s experience in the new world. By highlighting the connections among these elements through its own self-conscious play with a hysterical narrative style, Alias Grace demonstrates how cultural conceptions of memory and story-telling are radically transformed by gendered, class, and race inflected experiences of wandering. By emphasizing hysteria’s paradoxical, dual locus in the body and in discourse, Atwood’s novel demonstrates that hysteria is “no longer a question of the wandering womb; it is a question of the wandering story” (Showalter 335).