Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Question of Power by Bessie Head

While reading Alice Walker’s A Temple of My Familiar, I noticed a couple of mentions of a South African writer, Bessie Head.  Normally, these references are part of the fiction, but what I read sounded authentic and vaguely familiar.  I was wrong about the familiarity, but Bessie Head was quite real indeed.

According to her website, “Bessie Amelia Head never knew her real parents: an unstable white woman and an unknown black man.  She was born and raised in apartheid South Africa.  There she suffered from poverty, racial segregation, and gender discrimination.  She also had to worry about her own "delicate nervous balance."  As a young woman she left South Africa to come to Botswana.  She lived the rest of her life in this country, mostly in Serowe.  Bit by bit she overcame her many formidable obstacles.  One of her passions was letter-writing; she corresponded with hundreds of people from many countries during her life.  At the end she was a famous writer known all around the world”

The site also revealed that Head spent at least two periods in a mental institution.  Her doctors diagnosed her with schizophrenia.  After reading this except, I began to grasp the enormity of the tale Bessie tells in her 1974 novel, A Question of Power.

I will say this right off – this was one of the most intense, moving, and horrific descriptions of mental illness I have ever read.  I have read a number of stories like this, which caused me varying amounts of disturbance.  For example, Lu Hsun’s chilling short story, “A Madman’s Diary.”  But those tales fail to even begin to approach the horror of Elizabeth’s life.

The novel contains numerous scenes of sexual encounters which may or may not directly involve the main character, Elizabeth.  After a while, I felt as though Elizabeth also suffered from what was once known as multiple personality disorder, but which the American Psychological Association now defines in DSM IVTR as “Dissociative Identity Disorder.  The symptoms include: The presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states (each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and self); at least two of these identities or personality states recurrently take control of the person's behavior; the inability to recall important personal information that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness; and the disturbance is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., blackouts or chaotic behavior during Alcohol Intoxication) or a general medical condition (e.g., complex partial seizures).

Some pages I could barely get through; others I had to read and reread, and sometimes go over again to grasp the significance.  I frequently thought, “I can’t read anymore.”  But I kept coming back.  The middle of the novel described a lucid period in Elizabeth’s life, but it ends with another breakdown and an extensive period of hospitalization.

This wonderful section, of a relatively happy and peaceful sojourn in the village of Motabeng, depicted Elizabeth helping the local residents establish gardens to grow fresh vegetables.  This part of the story was filled with love, friendship, and compassion.  However, the entire novel suffered from poor editing.  I found dozens od spelling errors in the book.  Despite all this, I want to read more of Bessie Head.  Her award winning novel, Maru is on my radar, but A Question of Power will haunt me for quite a while.  5 stars

--Chiron, 9/15/13

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