Bright Lights Film Journal

Dialogues with Madwomen: Review and Interview with Allie Light

What does it mean to be a “madwoman” and an artist in American society? A review of Allie Light’s documentary on the subject, along with an interview (below), tries to answer that question.

The connection between mental illness and female articulation, assertiveness, and creativity is one that society has painstakingly nurtured. The idea that a woman who speaks her mind, acts in her own interests, and — supremely — openly expresses her sexuality, must be insane goes back in our society as far as the Salem witch trials, where “witchcraft” was a code phrase for “sexually active.” Closer to home is the modern woman whose refusal or inability to conform to stifling social norms has resulted in her incarceration and abuse at the hands of family, church, and the mental health industry who have attempted to silence her.

In Dialogues with Madwomen, filmmakers Allie Light and Irving Saraf have coaxed seven “madwomen” — including Light herself — into telling their stories. Using a mixture of home movies, archival footage of psycho wards, re-enactments, and (mostly) interviews with their subjects, Light and Saraf have created a complex, moving portrait of women in whom depression, schizophrenia, and multiple personalities coexist with powerful, sometimes inspired levels of creativity.

These women are often dazzling in their verbal facility, talking with honesty, humor, and passion about the most intimate details of their lives. The first interviewee is director Light, who recalls the loss of interest in her domestic life that made her check herself into a hospital for treatment. She tells of her doctor’s bizarre attempts at behavior modification: “One weekend he told me I could go home if I promised to bake a turkey. The next weekend I could go home if I promised to mop all the floors.” Her depression, which happened in 1963, seems to have been her unconscious mind’s way of telling her she could do more than bake turkeys and mop floors. Eventually, against the advice of others, she became a teacher and filmmaker, and it’s clear that depression was a key factor in this decision.

We also meet R.B., an African-American woman whose frightening exposure to the “sons of the ruling class” at Stanford helped her decide to drop out. After being raped in a hot springs, “I left my body,” she says, eventually becoming a bag lady. R.B. cooperated with Light in recreating scenes from her history, including haunting footage of her huddled barefoot in the corner of an airport bathroom, pulling a hood over her face and going to sleep. R.B. is typical of the women in this film, but suffers specifically from an unpredictable euphoric state that transforms her into an instrument of powerful self-expression. One scene shows her sitting alone in a stairwell at Stanford, throwing back her head and singing a beautiful, transcendent melody. One of R.B.’s poetic descriptions of her early sense of moving through unknown terrain — “As a child, I’d butterfly up to the ceiling” — is a persuasive metaphor for the power of the interior world to break through social strictures.

Light found two of the women through her teaching. Hannah, Light’s T.A. at Oakland’s Laney College, is a manic-depressive obsessed with Bob Dylan. She talks about the powerful lure of madness: “I do believe in these non-ordinary realities… there’s something trying to emerge. It feels intensely alive, which is why it’s so hard to give up… it feels so imaginative.” Hannah’s imagination lets her create a variety of fascinating visual and performance art.

Dee Dee is Light’s other former student. She methodically documents the things the Catholic Church taught her were good: “dying … self-mutilation. The nuns were quite violent. A lot of us would cut ourselves secretly.” Dee Dee took extraordinary steps to prove her lack of personal self-worth and her adherence to church norms by slicing up her own body. Eventually she attained some kind of peace with herself, became a lesbian, and is studying homeopathy.

Most of these “madwomen” live in the San Francisco Bay area. Mairi, a fascinating multiple (25) personality, is an Oakland librarian. She tells horrific (and apparently not uncommon) tales of abuse at the hands of her family, but she too has moved toward a situation where the psychic fragmentation of multiple personalities was no longer needed as a coping strategy. She can talk with humor about her situation now: “I love the fact that I’m pretty, that I’m a lesbian, that I’m a good librarian!” she says.

One of the most disturbing, but ultimately inspiring, stories concerns Susan, a strong woman who was viciously abused from childhood, but speaks with leveling insight into her own condition. Like most of the women, in spite of the sense of personal power that informs her life, she is never far from the dark side of her own emotions: “One of the last vestiges of immense anger I have left inside of me,” she says, “is that I was totally robbed of any innocence.”

Karen Wong, who produced the film and is one of the seven subjects, was raped and murdered during the filming. She describes her early awareness of racism and becoming politicized, joining a progressive Maoist group that — typical of doctrinaire radical groups — kicked her out when she appeared to have “mental problems.” Karen’s sense of sardonic humor, a coping mechanism common to these women, emerges: “It’s 1980, Reagan years, I could write a resume saying, ‘Ex-communist madwoman, will you hire me?'”

Dialogues with Madwomen indicts the murderous axis of family-church-medical establishment that moves swiftly to smash extreme modes of self-expression on the part of women. At the same time, this is not simply a detached problem drama. The film shows that these women exist both as part of society, and as unique individuals capable of tremendous contributions. The sometimes uncontrollable psychic and artistic forces that gave society the excuse to lock them up has also helped them survive and to some extent flourish.

Bright Lights: Why did you make Dialogues with Madwomen?

Allie Light: The first thing was the growing need to tell my own story. I was a Women’s Studies teacher for many years, and I always tried to share my experiences at Langley-Porter and at San Francisco General. I taught women in the arts and, you know, you make art from your own life. And what it did was, I got these amazing stories back from students, about themselves, their mothers and their grandmothers. Actually two of the women in the film are from my class. Hannah, the woman who loves Bob Dylan, was my T.A. at Laney College. And Dee Dee, who walks into the ocean. This was an assignment she did for my class. She did it with slides. I loved that image so much, I had it on my desk for ten years. Then when I started to get the money for the film, I knew I wanted to have her on the film and I had to track her down. She was living in Juneau, Alaska. She came back and she walked into the ocean again. She had done it originally to a poem her lover wrote, an adaptation of Allan Ginsburg’s HOWL written from a lesbian point of view. And so that whole poem culminated in the walk to search for Sappho, as she says in this film.

Where did you find the other women?

Mairi, the woman with multiple personalities, Irving and I met when we were taking care of a friend who had a brain tumor. During the year and a half of chemotherapy, Mairi and I became friends. When she saw footage from some of the other interviews, she told me she was a multiple personality and asked if I would be interested. Then Susan, who was tossed back and forth between her mother and father, her therapist was a friend of ours, and he had seen some of the material and he said, “I have this client I’ve been seeing for seven or eight years, and she’d be wonderful in your film.”

Karen Wong and I met when we both joined the Writers’ Union. She was actually the associate producer on the film. After her murder, it was really impossible for us to work on the film. It was delayed at least a year by that tragedy. We just couldn’t look at her.

Then R.B., the African-American, was introduced by mutual friends who were studying this therapy called process work and R.B. was doing that. She’s amazing because she can do just about anything. She has her law degree from Stanford, and passed the bar, but she works mostly for arts organizations. She did all the music for the film.

People who see the film will want to know what the women are doing now.

Well, everybody is really about the same, they’re living their lives. That’s one reason for putting the crew in at the end. I really wanted people to see that this was a film, not real life. There’s much more to these women’s lives than you’ve seen here.

And have they all seen the film?

Yes. In fact, I have this wonderful letter from Dee Dee, saying “I want you to know I just looked at it for the 100th time!” She’s back in Oakland now, studying homeopathic medicine.

Was it difficult to get them to open up the way they did? Karen talked about being repressed.

I think her interview was the most difficult. But none of them were as difficult as you would think, because the camera, as Irving says, is a great confesional. People will say, “I don’t want to talk about such things,” and you turn on the camera, and they almost invariably do. And where else do you get so much focused attention, with a whole group of people standing around hanging on every word you say, so that helps. And I think the fact that they all knew I had done the first interview with myself, and I wasn’t hiding behind anybody. That really helped develop trust. I have much greater respect for the person who sits in front of the camera now!

This film seemed visually very complex. Was it more challenging than previous ones?

It was. It’s a step beyond our last film, Shadow of the Stars. Lots of formats (laughs). But Irving and I both feel the documentary form has to change — it’s too stilted. As more and more docs get theatrical runs, and are getting longer, they have to become more dramatic.

The culture seems to be more receptive to documentaries — to reality.

And actually, when docs first began, years ago, they were scripted. Flaherty’s films were made from scripts. Then when cinema verite came along, people were just fascinated with capturing what was there, and they forgot about the interior world. That doesn’t get realized through cinema verite.

What kind of budget did you have?

Irving and I raised $20,000, and we put in $43,000 of our own.

A lot of people think that madness, so-called, comes out of nowhere. But the film links it up with their environment.

I didn’t set out to make a film about child molesting or sexual abuse, but it’s there. It’s probably the common denominator, although three of the women were not abused sexually as children, Karen being one of them. But then look what happened to her? Eventually, we all get it.

The target’s still there. There’s that constant motif in the film of the authoritarian male who’s indicting the sexuality of the woman — for example, your encounter with that weird doctor asking if you kissed your husband’s penis.

That’s still a hard story for me to tell, because even this many years later there’s still something in me that feels I must have been provocative. Irving constantly reminds me that it’s not me, but the doctor, who should be ashamed.

Over the past 30 years or so, there’ve been attempts to redefine schizophrenia as a not unreasonable response to a chaotic world — the R. D. Laing school. Do you think there’s been progress there?

I certainly think you can see it in the stories in the film. I don’t know if it’s generally recognized. It should be. Laing did make a big impression. But certainly in Mairi’s case, if you think about multiple personalities being madness, heavens! It’s not. It’s sanity. What could be more sane than to split off a little piece of your mind to take all the abuse? That’s very sane.

A coping stragegy. These women all have strong, creative personalities, and that’s all mixed in with this view of them as “madwomen,” which sounds ironic.

In the ’50s, any woman who was articulate and spoke out, could be labeled mad. I wanted to show that women think as well as feel and that what you so often get when you listen to a woman’s story is a feeling. But behind it is the ability to analyze and figure out what happened and why and what to do about it.

You also make clear connections betwen the idea of art and madness. For instance, you show Karen looking at ocean waves where she sees “mocking faces,” then you cut to an art print of ocean waves. Can you comment on this connection?

The only similarity between them is in the imagery, in that artists know what to do with that kind of imagery. You can take that power and use it, whereas you sort of get lost in it when you’re “mad.” When I was depressed, it was the least likely time I could work as an artist. Whereas somebody in a manic state could make art out of that feeling.

Hannah seems to be a good example of that.

Yes, she’s prone to do all kinds of things when she’s in a manic state. She says the only thing that limits her is that she doesn’t have good concentration, she can’t focus on a project. That’s the other side. Now R.B. also has this euphoric state, where she’s extremely creative and hears the music she composes.

In the movie she has a great description of the tremendous rushing sound that came to save her during a trauma.

And that was true when she was a bag lady, she had that little musical instrument in her head.

How has the film been received so far?

We thought we had this little film on rinky dink equipment, that it would be like a guerilla film, playing only to women’s groups. After the opening at the Castro, the first call I had was from a psychiatrist who wanted it for the APA. But he didn’t want to pay a rental fee. I told him, “I couldn’t get one dime from any of the helping professions when I needed money to make the film. Not only should you pay rent, but you should pay a rather high rental fee!” Of course I never heard from him again. The film will be shown at the World Congress of Psychiatrists in Hamburg. That came from out of the Berlin showing. The film has taken off. It won the prize at Sundance, and from there went to Berlin. Then all kinds of good things have happened.

How has the film affected you personally?

I have my struggles with the visibility of my life. And so I’ll be glad when this year is over, and I don’t have to stand up before an audience and say I’m a “former anything.”

You want to be a present-day something!

I’m pretty private, but it’s really rewarding when people come up afterward and tell their stories. There’s such a blurred line between who gets committed and who doesn’t. It often doesn’t depend at all on what the behavior is. Somebody once said to me, women are in mental hospitals, and men are in prison.