After Me Comes The Ableism: how to write really badly about mentally ill women

I had high hopes for Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes The Flood. Unluckily my hopes have been dashed, after finding yet another weird portrayal of a mentally ill woman in its pages. I’ve read a string of books in the past year where the same awful stereotypes crop up. At this stage, let’s just say that if some scientist were to invent a radar for Problematic Portrayals, I’d buy the hell out of it.
After Me Comes The Flood looked promising. It’s the story of a man called John Cole who leaves London one day; his car breaks down, he pulls over near a house in the woods. Unexpectedly, the community of misfits in the house hear John’s name, and greet him as an old friend. The premise had everything I like in stories – liminal space, mistaken identity, a timeless rural setting, mystery.
Turns out (spoilers, here) that the Mysterious Band of Misfits are all ex-residents of a private mental hospital. That I wouldn’t have minded, as a premise, but… Alex and Claire. Oh, Alex and Claire. These two characters made me grit my teeth, sigh, and seriously consider throwing the book across the 171 bus.
Alex and Claire are described in the blurb as “siblings full of child-like wonder and delusion”. That alone should have set alarm bells ringing. These mentally ill, mentally disabled adult characters are romanticised in a positively Victorian way. They are constantly described as, and compared to, innocent infants.
Alex, experiencing psychotic delusions, is made out to be a suffering martyr too good for this world; he was expelled from the mental hospital because he secretly stopped taking his pills, which “muted each of his senses”. He also encouraged other patients to stop, which hurt them. (But really, Medication is Bad for people like Alex, because it Makes You Less Sensitive and Romantic. Do you see?)
Meanwhile, Claire is oddly sexualised and at the same time made out to have the intelligence and mannerisms of a child, despite being an adult woman. Claire’s condition is not stated, but she is heavily coded as mentally ill and autistic. Claire, I will stress, is written in a very sexualised way which emphasises her physical beauty but reminds the reader constantly that she is an innocent, a child. The disturbing implications of this I don’t need to spell out; draw your own conclusions.
This reaches a climax when Claire, late in the book, sneaks into our hero John’s room at night (“he smelt sweet alcohol on her breath… something a child would drink in furtive nips when parents were away”). Claire then attempts to flirt, mimicking her friend Eve “in a parody as unconvincing as a schoolgirl in her mother’s shoes”; finally she takes her dressing-gown off and stands “facing him, naked and afraid”. (“He’d have liked to say ‘What are you doing?’ but knew she wouldn’t have been able to answer”.)
Ick. A painful scene ensues; the upshot is that John, being a Good Guy, doesn’t take advantage of her. Instead, she ends up sleeping in his bed. They curl up together in quite a chummy way, and he tells her the story of Wulf and Eadwacer (a moment which is actually well done; if Sarah Perry wrote a book bringing Anglo-Saxon poetry to life, I’d read it). End of scene.
What, as mentally ill disabled women, can we take from this? That we’re not real adults; that we don’t have a real sexuality, we are merely copying other women’s attempts to flirt; that it is up to men to be kind and not take advantage of our frail child-like selves? Well, that’s my takeaway. How comforting! – to find yet another book in which the sexuality of people like you isn’t real, and their agency is ignored! Hurrah!
A friend read over this piece for me and commented that Claire is implied to be good and pure because she is incapable of real sexuality; she’s ‘parodying’ the techniques of Eve, who John is in love with. (Note the name; he finds Eve tempting, d’you get it?)
So what does that say about women who are sexual? That only ‘normal’ women are sexual, that women’s sexuality is somehow corrupt, that a mentally ill disabled adult is technically an infant? There are so many implications to this scene that it’s hard to cover the dreadfulness of it in a short essay.
The other woman in the book who’s presented as mentally ill – Hester – is a manipulative harridan. She’s self-conscious of her “ugliness” and afraid of getting old. She turns out to have been taking advantage of poor, innocent Alex by encouraging his delusions, because she doesn’t want to be alone. So, there’s that. It doesn’t leave much for a mentally ill, disabled reader who doesn’t really want to read about either of these characters.
It’s not the first time this scenario has cropped up, either. In Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, which I also disliked, the hero meets a girl in a mental institution who is strikingly similar to Claire:

“She invited me into her room and closed the curtains. I said it would help to draw her in natural light, but then she unbuttoned her blouse and took off her bra and we sat in silence for a while… I drew her half naked in the half-light of her room. And I drew her scars.”

My initial reaction is plain old bafflement; I know many mentally ill and disabled women, and I’ve never heard of anything like this happening. Ever. If straight men think that vulnerable women are likely to strip their clothes off as soon as they’re alone in a room with them, they’re probably flattering themselves. Whatever sexist hell-dimension these two books are set in, it’s not this one.
Mentally ill and disabled women are at a far higher risk of getting raped and sexually assaulted, especially in institutions and by police and other ‘professionals’. Scenarios like this play into society’s sexualisation and infantilisation of mentally ill, disabled women: the idea that we never understand what we’re getting into, that we don’t understand risks or stranger danger. Many of us are well aware of that, thanks.
And those women who, for whatever reason, aren’t aware of risk? Well, of course they don’t deserve to be raped! And nor do they deserve to be portrayed in this horrible, patronising way which objectifies their bodies and simultaneously implies that they are sexless, pure, innocent children in the bodies of adults. This is what it looks like when ableism and misogyny converge.
Returning to the real world, almost all the mentally ill, disabled women of my acquaintance have stories about ableist ignorance, medical neglect, and abusive relationships. I also know a developmentally disabled woman who is highly vulnerable, and her carers have had to fight hard to make sure she is safeguarded. These women’s trauma and the danger they face is absolutely valid and real, and it’s really quite insulting to romanticise it like this.
Stories are not reality, no, much of literature is escapist in some way. But literature doesn’t exist in an apolitical vacuum; you can’t handwave this portrayal away by saying it’s all a dream. People’s hatred of mentally ill, disabled women is not a dream.
What we’re really looking at is a male fantasy (which is even worse when you remember it’s a female author perpetuating it in After Me Comes the Flood). The fantasy goes like this: a beautiful, vulnerable woman throws herself at you and strips naked. But you’re a good guy, so you understand that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. You don’t take advantage of her; you sit with her and try to Ease Her Pain.
This is queasy-making for so many reasons; it’s not realistic, it’s not fair, it’s creepy, it filters women’s pain through the male gaze. It ignores the sexuality and agency of the woman; the scene becomes about the heroic man’s feelings. It’s also insulting to mentally ill, disabled women who’ve been targeted precisely because of their vulnerable body and mental state.
I really don’t understand what Sarah Perry was trying to do in that scene. Perhaps she was trying to establish (again) that Claire is Innocent and Pure, despite trying to mimic sexuality like a Big Bad Real Woman; or that John is a Good Man for taking care of her. I don’t know, and honestly I don’t really want to know. What I do know is that I keep coming across these awful portrayals of disabled women, and I want it to stop. We deserve so much more than this apolitical, insular, ignorant rubbish.

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