Inferno is a memoir of Catherine Cho’s harrowing journey through postpartum psychosis. Postpartum depression and psychosis exist in some of the most taboo corners of the haunted space assigned to mental health, conjuring headlines of drowned children and marring the virtuous, sunny, false picture of new motherhood. Cho’s story begins with a loving husband, a smooth pregnancy and only moderately overbearing new grandparents. But one morning, time and self began to unspool amid paranoid fantasies, and soon Cho’s husband is visiting her in the hospital, pleading with her to eat, trying to connect in any small way and finding that he cannot.
In Cho’s hands, the story of her psychosis is also one of her growing up and knitting together her sense of self, even as that self is coming ferociously undone. The Korean fairy tales of her grandparents intermingle with the classical mythology loved by her father. Together, these stories suggest meanings to her that she can’t quite discern. The identities of her ancestors, herself and her son become mutable and bleed into one another. She feels overcome with love for her husband, convinced they have entered hell and she must save him. Cho seems to experience time as a divine being might, skidding back and forth and in between, realities crisscrossing and intertwining. There is a sublime quality to this temporal movement. Her illness looms large and mythic, even in its terror.
Those grandiose episodes flatten into periods of lucidity when Cho returns to herself in the ward and moves through her days without information, without contact with her family, carefully negotiating her relationships with the other patients. Even in these moments of clarity, postpartum psychosis treads around her edges like an animal, pressing a soft muzzle with hidden sharp teeth into her mind.
Though Cho dwells apprehensively on the intertwining of love and pain in the Korean culture of her upbringing, it’s the resilient thread of devotion in her life—to her husband, her family, the curious memory of her son—that laces through the pain and draws her back into the world. Cho’s expression of her experience of madness is poetic, and like much good poetry, it points its finger to the lies in our so-called reality: that our health system is healthy; that our expectations of motherhood are rational.