August 17, 2010

Gilman: no trouble to anyone

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was always suspicious of modern medicine. Her "hysteria" led to her forced "rest therapy," which only made her more frustrated. Her story, "The Yellow Wall-Paper" (1892), fictionalizes her experience. In 1932, she was diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer.

She was living in Pasadena, California at the time, along with her husband (the artist Frank Tolles Chamberlin) and two of their children. She came to the conclusion that her work was done and she was ready to die. She spent the evening of Saturday, August 17, 1935 with her family. She then went to bed, placed a chloroform-soaked screen on her face, and died peacefully in her sleep by 11:30 p.m. She had left a note: "I have preferred chloroform to cancer."

About ten years earlier, in July 1925, Gilman predicted that she had ten years of life left — a shockingly accurate prediction. Her suicide also resembled a fictional one she described in her 1912 book Forerunner. In the book, she noted her approval of the "good taste... in suicide" of a fictional "well-bred" woman who was found in her bed after using chloroform — "no trouble to anyone." In the real-life suicide, Gilman's family did not notify police until Monday; her body was cremated the next day. Her ashes were spread in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Gilman grabbed control of her own life and, in a sense, her death was in accordance with her values. She had been an advocate for women's rights, and her story "The Yellow Wall-Paper," is considered a major work of feminist thought. Fannie Hurst, a novelist, noted that Gilman "died as wisely as she lived." A friend and activist named Hattie Howe wrote of her friend as: "Indomitable, valiant, she was never vanquished, she even conquered death."

Her final work, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, appeared posthumously in October 1935. Gilman hoped the book would "stir some women" to become "a mover of others."

*Much of the information in this post comes from Cynthia Davis's Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Biography (2010).

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