Tricia Smith Vaughan, self-styled Comic Mom, of whose controversial views on adoption I have previously written, has now been the subject of further ‘Net furore due to La Leche League picking her as the guest speaker for their 50th anniversary meal. (Side note: is that my all-time record for number of links in one sentence?) I meant to write a post about this at the time, but, thanks to my
darned perfectionism dedication to spending hours carefully and lovingly crafting my posts word by word, I was nowhere near finished at the time it became a moot point – LLL, faced with further information about Tricia and her views, reversed their decision and cancelled the booking.
What I was going to write about this time was not, in fact, Tricia’s views on adoption – as much as I disagree with them, I don’t think I’d have favoured barring her from speaking purely on those grounds. The way in which she expresses said views is a different matter, but I won’t go into that right now. I actually want to focus on something rather more specific, which I meant to write about a long time ago and didn’t; I want to write about Tricia’s views on post-natal depression.
In the midst of the storm, this was something that was almost overlooked by the protesters, and, accordingly, by Tricia – in her defence of herself, her views on PND get only a passing parenthetical mention ("did I say it didn’t exist? NO! But it is way overrated!") (Incidentally, I’m guessing she means ‘overhyped’ – I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talking about how wonderful PND is.) It’s also something that I haven’t written about before, despite meaning to; and I think her article on the subject bears looking at.
Tricia starts out the article in question by commenting on how our attitude to mental illness differs from our attitude to physical illness. Would the teacher who referred to a mother’s post-natal depression as "a little, well, post-partum" have talked about a brain tumour in the same way? I don’t know whether she would or not, because I can’t tell, from Tricia’s report of the incident, whether the teacher’s phrasing comes from a belief that post-partum depression is so minor that it can be dismissed, or a belief that it’s so horrific that even the full name can’t be mentioned aloud – the Voldemort of the medical world. But I do agree with the general point that Tricia’s trying to make here: we do, indeed, view and discuss mental illness differently from physical illness. And I think it’s extremely instructive to apply Tricia’s own comparison to the rest of her essay. If Brooke Shields had been suffering from a brain tumour instead of post-partum depression, would Tricia have talked about her illness in the same way?
If Brooke Shields had had a brain tumour, would Tricia have referred to it as Brooke Shields’ "supposed" brain tumour?
If Brooke Shields had had a brain tumour, would Tricia have felt that the most appropriate way to start out her discussion of the matter was with a disparaging mention of the money that Brooke had been making from being interviewed about her illness?
Would Tricia have dismissed the problems caused by a brain tumour as "common yet vague symptoms… hello, anybody not feel this way?"
Would she have considered it appropriate to say "I don’t have a lot of time for brain tumours, as Brooke apparently does"?
If Brooke was giving interviews about how she survived her battle with a brain tumour, would Tricia have dismissed this as ‘whining’?
Would she have implied that the brain tumour was somehow, in fact, Brooke’s own fault? (Actually, we probably would have been spared that at least – I don’t think there is a brain tumour-related analogy to the line "trying to get pregnant so that I could have postpartum depression".)
Would she have taken the opportunity to be bitchy about some of Brooke’s personal lifestyle choices? (The nadir of the whole dreadful article is the point at which Tricia implies that Brooke chose to do IVF instead of getting pregnant the natural way because the artificiality appealed to her.)
Would she have questioned the existence of brain tumours on an Internet message board and then referred to the people who disagreed with her as ‘lemmings’?
Would she have derided the idea of medical treatment and advised a person with a brain tumour to eschew medical advice and listen, instead, to a popular actor’s advice on exercise and vitamins?
If she had talked about brain tumours in this way, would she have been surprised when people who had suffered from brain tumours found her tone smug, mocking, dismissive, and deeply offensive? Would she have waved aside their objections with a hey-what’s-your-problem folks statement that, after all, she hadn’t actually said brain tumours didn’t exist?
Tricia, I suppose we could split hairs on this one. I suppose that it’s true that you did not, in so many words, come out and say that you didn’t think PPD existed. I suppose that writing about the time you publically "questioned the existence" of PPD isn’t technically the same as saying it doesn’t. I suppose that the statement that you "don’t have a lot of time for depression, as Brooke evidently does" only implies that you think she had a choice in the matter, unlike, say, a person suffering from an actual illness – you didn’t specifically say that. I suppose that dismissing a woman’s description of her suicidal thoughts by telling her to get out and take a walk, in the tone you did (with a bitchy aside about the cost of her apartment, as though that were relevant, for crying out loud) isn’t an actual statement that you think she’s making a fuss over nothing.
But I look at what you do say, as well as what you don’t; and I look at how you say it, something that you don’t seem to recognise is often just as important. What I see is someone who thinks it quite OK to make fun of a woman for suffering from post-partum depression. What I see is someone who does not appear to see anything to retract or apologise for in that article.
I’ve got to agree with your comment that maybe you’re really just jealous of Brooke – yes, I do think that that’s the likely subtext here, and I think it’s a shame you couldn’t have dealt with it in a more adult way. But regardless of whether or not I’m right about that being the reason, the result is the same. You dismissed a debilitating and potentially serious illness, and you made fun of a woman for coming out and admitting that she’d suffered from it.
So, no, I do not think that it would have been appropriate for you to speak at LLL’s anniversary dinner. I don’t know whether they cancelled because of genuine concern about your views, as other people think; or whether it actually was, as you think, because they caved to popular pressure (though I have to say that the latter strikes me as unlikely in a group who, after all, are about to celebrate fifty years of standing up against society’s mores to do what they feel is right). But, whatever their reason, I agree with their conclusions. LLL is there, among other things, to provide new mothers with support and help that may be desperately needed, and their dinner celebrates fifty years of so doing; and the fact that you think it appropriate to sneer at someone for suffering from PPD means that you were not the right woman to be speaking at that dinner.