Sherrye Cohn has been a professor of art history and a museum lecturer. She holds advanced degrees in art history and has written for academic journals. She's also the mother of two, a djembe drummer, and an ecofeminist. She lives with her husband in the lush Sonoran Desert of Tucson, Arizona. In both her fiction and nonfiction Sherrye writes about art and nature, the poles between which she lives.
Your novel is set in the year 1958. Why did you choose that time period?
I knew that I wanted the story to take place in a more conservative and repressive era than our own but still seem familiar. This use of the past allows us to see our own time from a more objective perspective—what has changed and what has not. The early 50s seemed too remote while the late 50s felt like a harbinger of the present; and though I didn’t know it at the time, 1958 was a seminal year for cultural change and self-examination on several fronts. It saw the fruits of Rachel Carson’s pioneering work on the environment and the damage caused by chemical pollutants. Second, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, translated into English in 1953, was a bestseller and widely discussed. Third, in that year, the anti-psychiatry movement originated in this country and in France as seen in the work of Thomas Szasz and Michel Foucault. By the mid-1960s all these events were incorporated into the counter-culture movement which is foundational to the present.
In Going Widdershins, the reader learns a lot about hysterics and hysteria. How did you become interested in this topic?
Strange as it may sound, my interest was sparked by my great admiration for the novels of Henry James. I had read his biography, knew he was the brother of William, a pragmatic psychologist, and that they had a younger sister, Alice. I wondered whatever became of her, living as she did in the same household with these two towering intellectual giants. Did Alice manage to live a fulfilling life? Alas, no. Dead by the age of forty-four, Alice was plagued for most of her adult years by emotional and mental turmoil, and because there was no sign of organic illness, the diagnosis given was hysteria, a disease that affected mostly women, which was also something to wonder about. Alice was an active child and judging from the diary she kept for four years, gifted as a writer, but her familial environment and the repressive conditions imposed on women in the Victorian era surely played a role in her illness. With no way to realize her own talents, her sickness was a war between her body and her mind. When I first conceived of Emilena, who was well-intentioned but doomed nevertheless, I remembered Alice James, even though their situations were completely different.
It’s 1958, and unresponsive catatonic housewife Emilena Lamb is transferred from Bridgeton Psychiatric to Summerland, a residential facility for “female hysterics.” Here, treatment includes Nature worship and lunar observation, and the rules of modern medicine don’t apply. As Emilena comes out of her shell, her psychiatrist is forced to question whether science has all the answers after all.