In her brutal and beautiful memoir, Inferno, Literary Agent Catherine Cho details the two weeks she spent in a psychiatric ward with postpartum psychosis when her son was three months old.
Opening sentence: According to Korean tradition, after a baby is born, mother and baby do not leave the house for the first twenty-one days.
Have you ever heard of postpartum psychosis? It’s a serious mental health condition, symptoms include hallucinations, delusions and acting in ways that are not in character.
I hadn’t heard about it until long after I’d had my two boys. It’s not something that’s very common, but it does happen and it surprised me that I hadn’t heard more about it, especially through the pregnancy and post-birth process.
That’s why I really feel books like Inferno are so important. To talk about this and raise awareness about topics people might not know about.
Reading Catherine’s story, some parts were so visceral; she descended into delusions so strongly that she saw the devil in her son’s eyes, transcended time and forgot who she was. She was involuntarily sectioned and, as she was in America at the time, separated from her baby when she was in the psychiatric ward.
It’s difficult to know where the story of psychosis begins. Was it the moment I met my son? Or was it decided in the before, something rooted deeper in my fate, generations ago?
Writing was a coping mechanism for her while she was sectioned, so she recorded her thoughts and slowly remembered who she was. She weaves these accounts with stories from her past and the ways her family traditions have influenced her.
Catherine is Korean but was brought up primarily in America. Her Korean family roots and traditions feature throughout Inferno too. It was so interesting to learn about traditional stories and customs and have a glimpse into Korean family structures and expectations. These caused Catherine a lot of stress, as she was forever adhering to values that maybe did not align with her own.
It was fascinating and heart-breaking to read what happened to Catherine, but there was hope too in her process of recovery. So many women struggle after becoming mothers. And yes, Inferno is an account of an extreme version of that, but the fact that postpartum psychosis is being talked about is brilliant and the fact Inferno is so achingly and lyrically written, it felt like poetry in places, made it even better. An important and arresting read.
- Get your copy of Inferno here;
- Published by Bloomsbury 2021;
- 261 pages;
- My rating: