By Leslie Lindsay
Terrifying, brutally honest memoir about a mother’s experience with postpartum psychosis, her time in a mental institution, and her recovery.
~MEMOIR MONDAY|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
A BUZZFEED SUMMER 2020 SELECTION
Catherine Cho’s INFERNO: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness (Henry Holt, August 4, 2020) has been on my radar since I heard (about a year ago) that this book was in the works. It’s a riveting account of one woman’s experience with postpartum psychosis, before and after her hospitalization, and infused with Korean culture.
Catherine and her husband, James, set off from London to visit their family in a whirlwind visit of the U.S., starting in California and working their way across the country to the east coast. They have their 2-month old infant, Cato, with them. The plan is to visit with each family member, proudly showing off their new baby, culminating with Cato’s 100-day celebration, a milestone in Korean culture.
Before the trip’s end, Catherine becomes unhinged…she’s paranoid, tired, worried about the baby, her in-laws seem overbearing. She feels she is being watched. She loses all sense of time and thinks her baby’s eyes are those of the devil. In desperation, her husband admits her to a nearby psychiatric hospital, where Catherine begins the tedious work of rebuilding her identity. Interwoven throughout the narrative, we learn of Catherine’s childhood in Kentucky, a failed traumatic relationship, then her courtship and marriage with her husband.
Written in gorgeous, limpid prose, we vacillate between Catherine’s ‘before’ life, her hospitalization, with a taste of what life immediately following her hospitalization. INFERNO is a powerful exploration of psychosis and motherhood, at once intensely personal, but also unveiling universal truths of love, life, family, tradition, and more.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Catherine Cho to the author interview series:
Catherine, welcome. I am so honored. This is such a personal story and you tell it so openly, so bravely. A lot of people in your position might have said, “No. I’m not telling this, it’s too personal.” What were your motivations for sharing—why now?
Thank you Leslie for having me and for the lovely words. I did hesitate about sharing this story, it is very personal, and in real life, I’m actually a very private person. However, my main motivation for writing the book was that I had never heard of postpartum psychosis until my experience, and so much of what I read about psychosis, particularly in mothers, is steeped in stigma and shame. It’s often a hidden experience, we don’t like to think of the darkness of mental illness. I wanted to take away some of the fear around these words, to reveal why this might have happened. I think that when you can understand or have empathy for another person’s experience, it opens a new door of understanding. It’s why I wrote it as a book rather than article, and also why I reveal so much about my personal life – I thought a reader would need to know the context to fully understand psychosis.
You write with such raw emotion, such description, that it feels we are right there with you—in all accounts, but especially while hospitalized in the psychiatric institution. Can you tell us a little more about New Bridge, the program you were in?
New Bridge was such a strange place, it really felt separate from time. I felt like I’d just appeared in this place, that I had to figure out the rules as I went along. It was a general psychiatric facility, many of the other residents were veterans or were homeless, there were others who were recovering from drug addiction. Everyone was going through their own issue, but the one thing we shared was that we all wanted to leave. I also saw how many people were caught in this system – so many of the other residents were ‘returners’, they stayed in the ward, they were released, but then they came right back in. They couldn’t break the cycle.
We were all on heavy medication, and the staff were so overworked, no one takes the time to talk to you. So you’re just waiting, following the schedule, watching the television, sitting in on group sessions, coloring, and then going back to bed. There’s also a sense that something might break at any moment, there were violent incidents on the ward, and there’s always a worker in the corner of the room watching you to make sure that nothing breaks out.
“Inferno does just as the title suggests, it throws you into the flames of the author’s psychosis so that you are in there with her, fighting for your next breath. I’ve rarely read such a powerful account of madness. Gripping, chilling and ultimately hopeful, this is one not to miss.”
– Lisa Jewell
What you might not know, is that my mother also suffered from psychosis. Like you, it came much later than the typical time frame of about two days following birth. My sister was two-and-a-half when she devolved. I was ten-and-a-half. We don’t know for certain if it was postpartum psychosis, but many of her experiences were similar to yours. She felt my sister and I were the devil. She grew paranoid. Can you tell us more about postpartum psychosis? When does it happen and why?
That sounds incredibly difficult and traumatic. So there’s not a lot that is known about postpartum psychosis, for the majority of women, it happens in the first days or weeks after birth. Usually it’s a combination of hormones, a lack of sleep, possibly stress. It happens to women who have had pre-existing mental illness, but it can also happen to women (like me), who’ve had no history of mental illness.
I spent a lot of time trying to trace why I had postpartum psychosis, and why my psychosis was so extreme. I think for me, it was a combination of factors. The dissociation of self that I think every new mother experiences when you first have a child – your identity and understanding of self is split, and then the pressure of trying to keep a new baby alive, as well as the lack of sleep and hormonal changes in the body. For me, it was also exacerbated by travel – we went on a cross-country trip when my son was 2 months old, and the lack of sleep and strain really took its toll. There was also a cultural element, my parents and in laws are Korean, and they had very strong ideas about how a baby should be raised and kept safe, they thought we were being incredibly reckless, and the constant reminders and fears led me to believe that I was endangering my son.
There’s an element of the tangled knot of genetics, of having past personal experiences (and those of your ancestors imprinted on your DNA. You worried that maybe your baby would inherit some of the pain you endured from a past relationship. You write:
“Would it infect the baby? I’d read that an ancestor’s experience is imprinted in the DNA of the next generation, a warning for what was to come. Was violence there? Was an acceptance of suffering? Would my son be afraid of heights? […] How were we meant to exit the loops of the past if we were destined to face them again and again?”
How I love and relate to this! Can you talk more about this, please?
I’ve always thought a lot about the past, it’s something that fascinates me. I think it’s also because I’m a child of Korean immigrants, and there’s so much about my family history that I don’t know. I don’t know much about my grandparents or their parents, I have a few stories that were told throughout the years, but only glimpses of them – they almost become a type of mythology. I do think that the experiences of our ancestors are imprinted on us in some way, even if we aren’t aware of them. I know that there’s a sociological idea there that a fear of spiders or deep water, or other phobias might be genetic. I just wondered how much of our experience or our personality is inherited, and perhaps it might be more than we realize.
As a writer, I am always curious about structure. You do a fabulous job of interweaving your ‘before’ life with your hospitalization, and also your Korean culture. Can you talk about how you structured INFERNO? And a little about your writing process?
I always knew that I wanted to begin in the ward and that I wanted the actual psychosis to come towards the end of the book – I wanted to build up the background so that by the time the reader got to the psychosis, they had an idea of what was at stake or what was being broken. I suppose I also it wanted it to reflect that experience of tracing one’s identity, so that in the same way I was remembering the past or weaving in stories about my family / past relationships, it followed that process.
I think the structure was also influenced by the way I wrote the book. I wrote the book on Scrivener, which allows you to break down sections, so I would work on each section, and then I spent a lot of time moving them around and trying to figure out where the natural transitions were.
I’m always fascinated by writing processes and routines. Mine wasn’t very exciting – I began with the ward (I always knew it would be present tense), and then I went on chronologically until I reached the psychosis and ‘present day’. I initially didn’t have as much of the Korean fairy tales and some of the shorter vignettes, they came later, but once I added them, I realized that they helped add layers to the story.
In regards to Korean culture, I think it’s important to note that mental illness affects all cultures, all genders, it does not discriminate. While you were hospitalized, you noticed black, Asian, and Caucasian folks in your unit. And yet there are many cultural norms, beliefs, stereotypes. Can you speak to this, please?
It’s interesting because especially in Korean culture, and I think many East Asian cultures, mental illness is not talked about. It’s not seen in the same way as a physical illness (and perhaps that’s universal), but there’s a particular shame and fear surrounding mental illness. I didn’t see very many Asians in the ward, and I think it’s because mental illness in Asian communities is often hidden or kept private.
Even now, our families are surprised by my decision to speak about my experience. But I didn’t want to tuck it away or explain it away as ‘exhaustion’. They don’t fully understand why I experienced psychosis, and they also find depression hard to understand. There’s still this idea that you can ‘snap out’ of depression or that it’s something in your control or even self-indulgent, when actually, it’s an illness.
I’d love an update. How are you, Cato, and James doing now? What kind of legacy do you think INFERNO will leave?
We are doing very well, thank you. Cato is two and a half now, and he’s a joy in our lives. I took a long time to recover, I think my full recovery was probably a year, and it took a long time to build a bond with Cato again. I feel very grateful that we do have a strong bond now, and I think that it’s growing. James had a difficult time after my recovery. He’d spent so much time focused on my care and taking care of our family, that he didn’t have a chance to take care of himself.
He had some residual difficulties, but he was very proactive about getting help for himself. For me, it’s shown me how much I can trust James, he did everything to pull us through this experience. I never thought I’d have to rely so much on one person, but I did, and it showed me that he is truly my partner in life.
I hope the legacy of the book is that it reveals how much of these experiences are shared – these questions of identity, of trauma, of memory – I think they are universal questions. And I hope that the book helps readers consider what other people are experiencing, and whether they can see themselves in those experiences. I hope that it makes us kinder to one another. Psychosis opened a new dimension for me, and it was terrifying, but it also made me realize how much of our experience is a shared one.
Catherine, thank you so very much for taking the time to talk about such a moving and personal journey. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?
Thanks Leslie, these were wonderful and thoughtful questions!
Artistic cover of book image designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram@leslielilndsay1 #alwayswithabook
For more information, to connect with Catherine Cho via social media, or to purchase a copy of INFERNO: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness, please see:
- Mental Illness for information on mental health resources, self-care hotlines, fiction and non-fiction that may resonate.
- Model Home about my experience during my mother’s severe mental illness and her devolve into psychosis.
In this sense, it’s a bit like GIRL, INTERRUPTED (Susanna Kaysen) meets MY LOVELY WIFE IN THE PSYCH WARD (Mark Lukach), but INFERNO is different–touching on maternal love, Korean culture and expectation. Cho writes with such raw emotion and bravery, giving the reader a sense that we are there, a fly on the wall. In many regards this story is akin to BIRTH OF A NEW BRAIN (Dyane Harwood). What’s more, there’s a bit about the tangled knot of genetics and experience heightening the sense of maternal and familial legacy akin to other memoirs along the lines of INHERITANCE (Dani Shapiro) meets WHAT WE CARRY (Maya Lang).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Catherine Cho is an agent at Madeleine Milburn in the UK. Originally from the US, she’s lived in New York and Hong Kong, and she currently lives in London with her family. Inferno is her first book.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir. Her writing has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. Her cover art will be featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal; poetry in the Coffin Bell Journal, and CNF in Semicolon Literary Magazine; the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available late this summer. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Henry Holt Books and used with permission. Image of author from The Irish Times and can be retrieved here. Image of the author with her husband and son retrieved from on 6.25.20. Artistic cover of book image designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram@leslielilndsay1 #alwayswithabook]