The Bell Jar
Joan’s room, with its closet and bureau and table and chair and white blanket with the big blue C on it, was a mirror image of my own. It occurred to me that Joan, hearing where I was, had engaged a room at the asylum on pretence, simply as a joke. That would explain why she had told the nurse I was her friend. I had never known Joan, except at a cool distance.
“How did you get here?” I curled up on Joan’s bed.
“I read about you,” Joan said.
“I read about you, and I ran away.”
“How do you mean?” I said evenly.
“Well,” Joan leaned back in the chintz-flowered asylum armchair, “I had a summer job working for the chapter head of some fraternity, like the Masons, you know, but not the Masons, and I felt terrible. I had these bunions, I could hardly walk—in the last days I had to wear rubber boots to work, instead of shoes, and you can imagine what that did to my morale…”
I thought either Joan must be crazy—wearing rubber boots to work, or she must be trying to see how crazy I was—believing all that. Besides, only old people ever got bunions. I decided to pretend I thought she was crazy, and that I was only humouring her along.
“I always feel lousy without shoes,” I said with an ambiguous smile. “Did your feet hurt much?”
“Terribly. And my boss—he’d just separated from his wife, he couldn’t come right out and get a divorce, because that wouldn’t go with this fraternal order—my boss kept buzzing me in every other minute, and each time I moved, my feet hurt like the devil, but the second I’d sit down at my desk again, buzz went the buzzer, and he’d have something else he wanted to get off his chest…”
“Why didn’t you quit?”
“Oh, I did quit, more or less. I stayed off work on sick leave. I didn’t go out. I didn’t see anyone. I stowed the telephone in a drawer and never answered it…
“Then my doctor sent me to a psychiatrist at this big hospital. I had an appointment for twelve o’clock, and I was in an awful state. Finally, at half past twelve, the receptionist came out and told me the doctor had gone to lunch. She asked me if I wanted to wait, and I said yes.”
“Did he come back?” The story sounded rather involved for Joan to have made up out of whole cloth, but I led her on, to see what would come of it.
“Oh yes. I was going to kill myself, mind you. I said ‘If this doctor doesn’t do the trick, that’s the end.’ Well, the receptionist led me down a long hall, and just as we got to the door she turned to me and said, ‘You won’t mind if there are a few students with the doctor, will you?’ What could I say? ‘Oh no,’ I said. I walked in and found nine pairs of eyes fixed on me. Nine! Eighteen separate eyes.
“Now, if that receptionist had told me there were going to be nine people in that room, I’d have walked out on the spot. But there I was, and it was too late to do a thing about it. Well, on this particular day I happened to be wearing a fur coat…”
“Oh, it was one of those cold, wet days, and I thought, my first psychiatrist—you know. Anyway, this psychiatrist kept eyeing that fur coat the whole time I talked to him, and I could just see what he thought of my asking to pay the student’s cut-rate instead of the full fee. I could see the dollar signs in his eyes. Well, I told him I don’t know whatall—about the bunions and the telephone in the drawer and how I wanted to kill myself, and then he asked me to wait outside while he discussed my case with the others, and when he called me back in, you know what he said?”
“He folded his hands together and looked at me and said, ‘Miss Gilling, we have decided that you would benefit by group therapy.’”
“Group therapy?” I thought I must sound phoney as an echo chamber, but Joan didn’t pay any notice.
“That’s what he said. Can you imagine me wanting to kill myself, and coming round to chat about it with a whole pack of strangers, and most of them no better than myself…”
“That’s crazy.” I was growing involved in spite of myself. “That’s not even human.”
“That’s just what I said. I went straight home and wrote that doctor a letter. I wrote him one beautiful letter about how a man like that had no business setting himself up to help sick people…”
“Did you get any answer?”
“I don’t know. That was the day I read about you.”
“How do you mean?”
“Oh,” Joan said, “about how the police thought you were dead and all. I’ve got a pile of clippings somewhere.” She heaved herself up, and I had a strong horsey whiff that made my nostrils prickle. Joan had been a champion horse-jumper at the annual college gymkhana, and I wondered if she had been sleeping in a stable.
Joan rummaged in her open suitcase and came up with a fistful of clippings.
“Here, have a look.”
The first clipping showed a big, blown-up picture of a girl with black-shadowed eyes and black lips spread in a grin. I couldn’t imagine where such a tarty picture had been taken until I noticed the Bloomingdale ear-rings and the Bloomingdale necklace glinting out of it with bright, white highlights, like imitation stars.
SCHOLARSHIP GIRL MISSING. MOTHER WORRIED. The article under the picture told how this girl had disappeared from her home on August 17th, wearing a green skirt and a white blouse, and had left a note saying she was taking a long walk. When Miss Greenwood had not returned by midnight, it said, her mother called the town police.
The next clipping showed a picture of my mother and brother and me grouped together in our backyard and smiling. I couldn’t think who had taken that picture either, until I saw I was wearing dungarees and white sneakers and remembered that was what I wore in my spinach-picking summer, and how Dodo Conway had dropped by and taken some family snaps of the three of us one hot afternoon. Mrs Greenwood asked that this picture be printed in hopes that it will encourage her daughter to return home.
SLEEPING PILLS FEARED MISSING WITH GIRL.
A dark, midnight picture of about a dozen moon-faced people in a wood. I thought the people at the end of the row looked queer and unusually short until I realized they were not people, but dogs. Bloodhounds used in search for missing girl. Police Sgt Bill Hindly says: It doesn’t look good.
GIRL FOUND ALIVE!
The last picture showed policemen lifting a long, limp blanket roll with a featureless cabbage head into the back of an ambulance. Then it told how my mother had been down in the cellar, doing the week’s laundry, when she heard faint groans coming from a disused hole…
I laid the clippings on the white spread of the bed.
“You keep them,” Joan said. “You ought to stick them in a scrapbook.”
I folded the clippings and slipped them in my pocket.
“I read about you,” Joan went on. “Not how they found you, but everything up to that, and I put all my money together and took the first plane to New York.”
“Why New York?”
“Oh, I thought it would be easier to kill myself in New York.”
“What did you do?”
Joan grinned sheepishly and stretched out her hands, palm up. Like a miniature mountain range, large, reddish weals upheaved across the white flesh of her wrists.
“How did you do that?” For the first time it occurred to me Joan and I might have something in common.
“I shoved my fists through my room-mate’s window.”
“My old college room-mate. She was working in New York, and I couldn’t think of anyplace else to stay, and besides, I’d hardly any money left, so I went to stay with her. My parents found me there—she’d written them I was acting funny—and my father flew straight down and brought me back.”
“But you’re all right now.” I made it a statement.
Joan considered me with her bright, pebble-grey eyes. “I guess so,” she said. “Aren’t you?”
I had fallen asleep after the evening meal.
I was awakened by a loud voice. Mrs Bannister, Mrs Bannister, Mrs Bannister, Mrs Bannister. As I pulled out of sleep, I found I was beating on the bedpost with my hands and calling. The sharp, wry figure of Mrs Bannister, the night nurse, scurried into view.
“Here, we don’t want you to break this.”
She unfastened the band of my watch.
“What’s the matter? What happened?”
Mrs Bannister’s face twisted into a quick smile. “You’ve had a reaction.”
“Yes, how do you feel?”
“Funny. Sort of light and airy.”
Mrs Bannister helped me sit up.
“You’ll be better now. You’ll be better in no time. Would you like some hot milk?”
And when Mrs Bannister held the cup to my lips, I fanned the hot milk out on my tongue as it went down, tasting it luxuriously, the way a baby tastes its mother.
“Mrs Bannister tells me you had a reaction.” Doctor Nolan seated herself in the armchair by the window and took out a tiny box of matches. The box looked exactly like the one I had hidden in the hem of my bathrobe, and for a moment I wondered if a nurse had discovered it there and given it back to Doctor Nolan on the quiet.
Doctor Nolan scraped a match on the side of the box. A hot yellow flame jumped into life, and I watched her suck it up into the cigarette.
“Mrs B. says you felt better.”
“I did for a while. Now I’m the same again.”
“I’ve news for you.”
I waited. Every day now, for I didn’t know how many days, I had spent the mornings and afternoons and evenings wrapped up in my white blanket on the deck chair in the alcove, pretending to read. I had a dim notion that Doctor Nolan was allowing me a certain number of days and then she would say just what Doctor Gordon had said: “I’m sorry, you don’t seem to have improved, I think you’d better have some shock treatments…”
“Well, don’t you want to hear what it is?”
“What?” I said dully, and braced myself.
“You’re not to have any more visitors for a while.”
I stared at Doctor Nolan in surprise. “Why that’s wonderful.”
“I thought you’d be pleased.” She smiled.
Then I looked, and Doctor Nolan looked, at the waste-basket beside my bureau. Out of the waste-basket poked the blood-red buds of a dozen long-stemmed roses.
That afternoon my mother had come to visit me.
My mother was only one in a long stream of visitors—my former employer, the lady Christian Scientist, who walked on the lawn with me and talked about the mist going up from the earth in the Bible, and the mist being error, and my whole trouble being that I believed in the mist, and the minute I stopped believing in it, it would disappear and I would see I had always been well, and the English teacher I had in high school who came and tried to teach me how to play Scrabble, because he thought it might revive my old interest in words, and Philomena Guinea herself, who wasn’t at all satisfied with what the doctors were doing and kept telling them so.
I hated these visits.
I would be sitting in my alcove or in my room, and a smiling nurse would pop in and announce one or another of the visitors. Once they’d even brought the minister of the Unitarian church, whom I’d never really liked at all. He was terribly nervous the whole time, and I could tell he thought I was crazy as a loon, because I told him I believed in hell, and that certain people, like me, had to live in hell before they died, to make up for missing out on it after death, since they didn’t believe in life after death, and what each person believed happened to him when he died.
I hated these visits, because I kept feeling the visitors measuring my fat and stringy hair against what I had been and what they wanted me to be, and I knew they went away utterly confounded.
I thought if they left me alone I might have some peace.
My mother was the worst. She never scolded me, but kept begging me, with a sorrowful face, to tell her what she had done wrong. She said she was sure the doctors thought she had done something wrong because they asked her a lot of questions about my toilet training, and I had been perfectly trained at a very early age and given her no trouble whatsoever.
That afternoon my mother had brought me the roses.
“Save them for my funeral,” I’d said.
My mother’s face puckered, and she looked ready to cry.
“But Esther, don’t you remember what day it is today?”
I thought it might be Saint Valentine’s day.
“It’s your birthday.”
And that was when I had dumped the roses in the wastebasket.
“That was a silly thing for her to do,” I said to Doctor Nolan.
Doctor Nolan nodded. She seemed to know what I meant.
“I hate her,” I said, and waited for the blow to fall.
But Doctor Nolan only smiled at me as if something had pleased her very, very much, and said, “I suppose you do.”