It’s been two years since Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood published. I know because it popped up in my “memories.” It made me pause and think about how long and impactful these last two years have been. A lot has changed in my life. I’ve changed. Peeling yellow wallpaper is painful stuff. When writing my book, I didn’t realize how much of it was all over myself.
For those of you who haven’t read Recovering, I am referring to the infamous 19th century novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s a brilliant and disturbing exploration of the effects patriarchal attitudes and constrictions have on female psychosynthesis. Being forced into “rest therapy” for a bogus diagnosis of neurasthenia, the narrator of the book becomes completely fixated on the disturbing yellow wallpaper of the run-down estate she is made to stay in and becomes convinced that there is a woman trapped inside of its smothering pattern. She must peel it back to set her free. You see, the yellow wallpaper in this confined room of which she is made to stay is a symbol of the traditional patriarchal structures of family, medicine, and society. Following the stream-of-consciousness writing of the narrator’s journal-like entries, the reader joins her downward spiral from sanity. At the end, her voice changes to that of the woman in the wallpaper whom she’s set out to free.
In the Introduction of my book, I ask the question:
Is the woman in this story crazy for what she saw in the yellow wallpaper, or is everyone else crazy for not seeing it?
Because in reading it more than one hundred years after its publication, I too see the lingering yellow wallpaper. Much of it is ripped off, of course—thanks to the woman who was behind it. Thanks to the many women who have come before us in history. I’m so thankful for the yellow wallpaper peelers. I was introduced to another amazing peeler of the paper in reading about Elizabeth Packard in The Woman They Could Not Silence. But it painfully reminded me again of what the church often does to yellow wallpaper peelers: labels us as crazy. Or the worst of sinners.
Recovering was an attempt to reveal the yellow wallpaper respectfully but directly in our churches today, much of which manifests itself under the teaching of “biblical” manhood and womanhood, and to do something about it. Peel. Because there is something beautiful and glorious behind it. I wrote that one of our biggest challenges is to actually see this yellow wallpaper’s scrawling patterns that are stifling the force of the Bible’s message and strangling the church’s witness and growth. Don’t we want to rip those away and reveal the beauty and unity in God’s word?
I didn’t realize that in revealing and peeling the yellow wallpaper, things I held with value in my life like my job, “good” friends, my denomination/church, my reputation even, were in the paper’s patterns and would peel with it. It was some painful revealing and peeling! I can see why the narrator has us wondering if we can hold onto our sanity through it all. But that is what we are doing in the peeling. The message is clear: seeing it is holding onto our sanity and goodness.
And it is worth it. With the loss, I’ve looked beside me and found other yellow wallpaper peelers. There hasn’t only been loss, but recovery. Recovery of depth of Christ’s love for us, of our eschatological imaginations, recovery of curiosity, the meaningfulness of the theology of our bodies, and the heart of our creation: to covenantally share in the Father’s love for the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Our bodies call us to imagine the story of a gift given in eternity—a gift of a bride to the Son. Imagine man and woman revealing the deep mystery of an eternal trinitarian covenant that is prefigured in creation. Who wants to allow yellow wallpaper to cover all that?
Gilman wrote her book because she was misdiagnosed with neurasthenia and the “treatment” almost drove her to madness. She explained, “I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.” He didn’t acknowledge it to Gilman, and yet years later she learned that he quit prescribing his rest therapy after she sent him that copy of her book. Dr. Mitchell wasn’t going to admit to seeing the yellow wallpaper, but he did change his treatment.
I will say this. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
And once you see the beautiful picture before us, you can’t unsee that either. It’s irresistible. Yellow wallpaper peeling is worth it. The Lord uses this very challenge as a backdrop to get our attention and reveal that discipleship is more than we ever imagined—it is a participation in the covenantal, spousal union with Christ.
Like I said before:
Women, you are disciples of Christ. This is dangerous business. Count the cost.
 I snagged this great word from a review posted by “bookeros,” “The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Review,” Guardian, November 25, 2014, http://www.theguardian. com/childrens-books-site/2014/nov/25/review-yellow-wallpaper-charlotte-perkins-gilman.