Scribbling Sisters and Mad Wives in Kate Zambreno’s Heroines

by: , November 11, 2018

I have a habit of referring to my favorite authors by their first names. After all, why would I spend hours with the characters and thoughts growing out of their inner musings if they were not women with whom I would want to drink a glass of wine. Colleagues and friends have told me that this tendency is rather odd. Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, however, confirmed that I am not alone in considering the woman writers I adore fellow madwomen, ‘ghostly tutors’, and ‘scribbling sisters’ (14: 296).  Heroines is a poetic memoir, an exciting history of modernism, an exploration of a writer’s challenges, and a pertinent critique of sexism in academia and mental health care.

As she writes her own story as a wife moving from city to city each time her archivist husband takes a new job, Zambreno (or should I call her Kate?) tells the tales of famous modernist authors’ wives, most notably Vivien(ne) Haigh-Wood Eliot and Zelda Fitzgerald, women wanting and needing to write themselves but cast as the madwomen in their husbands’ publications. Writing about husbands that oppress, diagnose, and erase their wives, while also examining her own conjugal situation, Zambreno introduces us to both Kate the writer—reading, blogging, scribbling—and Kate the wife—going to yoga class with her husband, posting pictures on Facebook. Juxtaposing feminist condemnations of patriarchal practices within heterosexual marriages and loving confessions of engaging in somewhat similar practices, she creates porous borders around the concepts of following a husband, being the wife of someone, and being a reading, writing subject. Without imposing an answer, she questions how she can follow another person and co-create a life while also attending to her own desires.

An important work on memory, Heroines is also a book about place and placement. Taking her readers back and forth between Chicago, London, Ohio, New York, and North Carolina, Zambreno paints the easily overlooked details of American suburbia and overpriced urban dreams. At the same time, Zelda and Viv (as she lovingly calls Vivien Eliot) follow their husbands and are sent away by their husbands in a series of displacements, including their estrangements in asylums. The book delves into the tricky situation of finding a home in spaces that are not home. With its pleasing prose, Heroines invites its readers to become flâneuses in the various settings of its author and her literary heroines.

Literary wives, shadow wives, women who move for their husbands’ careers, madly in love women, mad women. The women who worked as their husbands’ secretaries. The muses transformed into characters. The wives whose husbands tried to impede them from writing themselves. These wandering souls whose histories have faded come to the foreground.

Organized as a collection of fragments about nineteenth- and twentieth-century author’s lives and works interwoven with Zambreno’s witty reflections on her own trajectory as a wife, a student, a ‘toxic girl’, and a writer, the book creates a narrative around the collection, contemplation, and mourning of these fragments. Zambreno writes her writer’s body and writerly madness by convening with the often forgotten or rewritten women of modernism. Drawing connections between her life, these authors, and their works, she creates bridges between women’s literary history and women’s situations in America and Europe. Making visible this community of writers, belittled in academia and known primarily as the wives of so-and-so, Heroines beseeches us to listen to the silenced voices of modernism, voices that have the potential to help us write ourselves.

Through a constellation crafted out of reflections on literature, literary history, and everyday life, Zambreno demonstrates the effects of treating women as second-class writers or crazed women with pens: women writers are trained to consider themselves unstable and unworthy of great literature. Questioning terms such as the canon and genius, Zambreno screams in the silence of institutional spaces. She describes her forays into the poorly paid realm of adjunct teaching and encounters with institutional brick walls, to borrow the term from Sara Ahmed, as tenured professors and students scoff at women writers. This realistically dreary picture of American academia, at times, made me wonder if we are sitting in the same classroom where Professor X lectured on the great men of the excluding literary canon. Heroines is a book that pushes, in the sense that Ahmed speaks of: ‘Feminists have to push if we are to do our work. We have to keep pushing even when it seems we have brought something about’ (2017:110). Zambreno convincingly shows how literary and medical institutions worked together to cast modernist male writers as geniuses and women writers as mad women. She pushes us to read these writers as writers, great writers, not the wives of writers.

Women writers’ absence from literature curriculums silences women by devaluing their literary history. In line with Ahmed’s argument that we have women’s studies programs in higher education because we do not have feminist universities, Zambreno reveals the challenges of teaching women writers in American universities by calling out both professors and students (2012: 110). As Toril Moi writes: ‘To turn women into second-class citizens in the realm of literature is to say that women’s experiences of existence and of the world are less important than men’s’ (2008: 268). To teach and write about literature written by women is to acknowledge and represent their contributions ‘in the term chosen by women themselves’ (Grosz 1994: xi). Studying and writing about women’s contributions to literature, art, and human progress contributes to a more complete understanding of the world. I would not however qualify Heroines as an attempt at reparation. The book does not take on the onerous task of dismantling and rectifying the canon; rather, it recognizes the canon as one posed to maintain a patriarchal view of literary history. Furthermore, this critique makes no attempt to exonerate women writers and feminists, such as Simone de Beauvoir, Hélène Cixous and Elizabeth Hardwick, from contributing to the demoted position of women’s writings. In addition to shining light on the practices and discourses adding to the problem, Zambreno looks at what is lost from limiting women’s access to writing and reading their histories. She asks how labels like chic lit, women’s literature, frivolous novels, and girly diaries silence writing bodies as she sketches her own writing practice and her perceptions of herself as a woman.

Zambreno shows how the history of women authors’ diagnoses of nervous diseases and madness coupled with their own writing suggest that they were not mad but angry, furious, full of rage. She reads their madness as their alienation from the male genius of modernism. Who distinguishes genius and madness? Given the label of genius handed out to the alcoholic F. Scott Fitzgerald and the fragile-nerved T.S. Eliot while their wives were sent to asylums, it would seem that serious gender discrimination has muddied the use of such titles in the first place. Receiving all the glory, men like Gustave Flaubert (who suffered numerous nervous disorders) wrote, fetishized, and condemned female literary hysterics. Recounting her voracious reading appetite, Zambreno returns to Madame Bovary multiple times throughout the book, playing with the idea that the woman who reads too much must be frivolous and excessive. Partaking in her own form of Bovarysme and fighting Midwestern ennui in ‘a literary nymphomania’, Zambreno lets herself sink into the daydream of an affair but swims away as she looks around at the stand-ins for Rodolphe and Léon. Unlike Emma Bovary, she writes her wild dreams instead of letting them destroy her. In contradiction to early-twentieth-century doctors, Heroines proposes writing as the antidote for self-immolation and effacement.

The aesthetic of madness manifesting as the feminine, as Zambreno rightfully demonstrates, became the fiction supporting medical models of mental illness. Male authors of the canon are remembered for their works of genius, while female authors are reduced to the diagnosis attached to their names. Bipolar, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia. Biographies of women writers, Zambreno shows, often read like medical charts searching for the writers’ illness in her work and life story. Moreover, the critiques of some women authors’ works as overly emotional, impulsive, lacking boundaries mirror the diagnosis of supposedly unstable women. In her commentaries on reception, it becomes evident that many twentieth and twenty-first century readers continue to believe Hegel’s claim that women follow dictates of subjectivity but cannot achieve the same quality of artistic production as men.

At a time when women continue to be overdiagnosed and overmedicated, Heroines calls out the sexism behind these practices. Reflecting on her own incorrect diagnosis of bipolar disorder, Zambreno grapples with the traditions associating willful or emotional feminine subjects with sickness. References to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ reappear throughout the book allowing the story’s unnamed narrator, immured and cast off as ill, to repudiate her diagnosis. She didn’t need to rest. She needed to write. Zelda, Vivien(ne), and Virginia Woolf were limited to only an hour or two of writing each day for fear of overstraining their nerves. The silencing of writers seems to be the cause of the madness and depression. As Zambreno’s anecdotes in academia demonstrate, keeping them out of the canon and off of course syllabi, literary and academic establishments continue to silence them and cast them as mad women.

Zambreno questions what it means to compose oneself, to write one’s excessive self, finding the discipline to write about the undisciplined self. Although she condemns the excessive diagnosing of women, she also fights to make space for the silly girls and what she calls the ‘toxic girls’. She seeks out a space for them to revolt and give value to their stories. In the final pages of Heroines, Zambreno describes her entrance into the blogosphere where the private becomes public. She justifies her decision to write a public diary as an action against the shaming project of silencing women and censoring their flawed and messy lives. Heroines remembers and questions how we remember women writers in addition to asking how we will remember ourselves and be remembered. It engages in the kind of ‘memory work’ that requires us to ‘to remember what sometimes we wish would or could just recede’ in order to change the present (Ahmed 2017: 22). Inviting us to join her as scribbling sisters, Zambreno urges us to write our experiences, to become ourselves, to resist our own disappearance, and, most importantly, to become our own heroines.


Ahmed, Sara (2017), Living a Feminist Life, Durham: Duke University Press.

Moi, Toril (2008), “‘I am not a woman writer”: About Women, Literature and Feminist Theory Today’, Feminist Theory, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 259-271.

Grosz, Elizabeth (1994), Volatile Bodies, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Zambreno, Kate (2012), Heroines, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)/Active Agents.

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