Commemorating the Uncomfortable

The same week that I learned about the history of Green Gables in light of the bigger picture of national park development (discussed in my previous post), my friend Ellen sent me another email. It contained a link to an article on The Globe and Mail, one that I have only had a chance to read recently.

The article’s title is significant: it promises to reveal “The heartbreaking truth about Anne’s creator.” Its author, Kate Macdonald Butler, is the granddaughter of Lucy Maud Montgomery. In the article, Butler shares how her grandmother suffered from immense depression. Despite the success that Montgomery achieved, Butler writes that “she was isolated, sad and filled with worry and dread for much of her life,” an experience borne in part from having married a man who also suffered from mental illness as well as from the restrictions that she faced, as a clergyman’s wife and as a mother of three, during a generation which, in Butler’s words, “simply did not acknowledge personal dysfunction, let alone seek help.” [1]

While the details of Montgomery’s depression have been generally known, Butler reveals a solemn fact about its extent which her family has kept to themselves for over half a century: that Lucy Maud Montgomery, whose writings speak of enduring beauty, hope, and renewal, ended her own life in 1942, at the age of 67.

I was shocked to learn about this other history, yet another sad component to this PEI story – but I was also moved. I was even encouraged, not because of the sobering truth behind Montgomery’s death but because of the reasons that motivated Butler to share this truth.

Butler mentions that the Globe’s recent series on mental health caused her to consider depression and its effects on her own family’s history. Additionally, the 100th year anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables, which has inspired commemorative events around the world, convinced her and her family that it was the right time to share the truth about the famous author.

Here commemoration – so often just a tapestry woven from golden threads of celebration, of nostalgia, of selective memory; an act that usually conceals, rather than reveals, the unattractive aspects of the past – becomes the unlikely backdrop for Montgomery’s descendants to share a more complete, if uncomfortable, history about one of Canada’s most revered authors. In sharing this difficult story, Butler hopes to help dispel some of the stigma and myths surrounding mental illness – that it only “happens to other people, not us – and most certainly not to our heroes and icons” – as well as to offer her conviction that secrecy is not the way to go about dealing with this enduring condition of humanity. In breaking the silence, she also wishes to help those currently going through similar situations: “I hope,” she expresses, “that by writing about my grandmother now there might be less secrecy and more awareness that will ease the unnecessary suffering so many people experience as a result of such depressions.” [2]

I was encouraged (if a little melancholy) after reading this article because it suggests that commemoration need not only be acts of selective memory, warm and fuzzy half-pictures of a past that is too often re-constructed to suit the needs of the people doing the remembering. The appearance of this article, indeed of the Globe’s series itself, also suggests the changing perceptions of mental illness and the possibility for more openness in dealing with this difficult subject. The recent focus on this subject is also particularly relevant, as our Public History class is working on creating a digital exhibit to present the history of a particular asylum, and I am reminded that how we discuss mental illness – down to our very word choices – carries with it a certain social responsibility and a need for respect and understanding.

I was also mostly encouraged by the public response to this article. Many of the comments posted by Globe readers thanked Butler for revealing the truth of Montgomery’s history. Many of them also included an honest and thoughtful reflection on how her writings touched them personally. Thus, far from being discomfited by the truth of the past, readers affirmed that their appreciation of Montgomery’s writings was not in any way diminished, that, in fact, their admiration for her novels, and for the author herself, only increased when they realized the duress under which Montgomery was writing.

I think this response supports well Wilton Corkern’s remark, in the particular context of heritage tourism, that “visitors” – and here we can substitute the more general term “people” – “seek authenticity” rather than the sort of safe, non-controversial, predictable, and even inaccurate histories, as Corken has shown, that are often presented in the public realm. [3] And I think people seek out such authentic history not because of a voyeuristic impulse or what sociologists have called a “fascination with the abject” (though, granted, this can be the case too at times, as in the appeal, I think, of “dark tourism,” outlined by John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, who show how death has become a commodity, readily packaged and sold at historic tourist sites [4]). I think people seek out and respond to authentic history because it shows us how those from another time and place still face some of the same, enduring problems of humanity. It reveals to us the ways in which we are not, after all, so very different from those who came before us. It is, I think, the same appeal that classical literature commands, what makes it stand the test of time to become those stories that, in the words of one writer, “never finish telling their tales.”

Søren Kierkegaard, an influential 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian, once pondered the question: what is a poet? He concluded that “a poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music.” I have only ever heard the beautiful music of Montgomery’s writings. To be more fully aware of her secret sufferings, and even of her untimely end, only makes the poetry of her work that much more moving.

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[1] Kate Macdonald Butler, “The heartbreaking truth about Anne’s creator,” The Globe and Mail.com, September 27, 2008, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080919.wmhmontgomery0920/BNStory/mentalhealth.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Wilton Corken, “Heritage Tourism: Where Public and History Don’t Always Meet,” American Studies International 42, 2&3 (2004): 7-16. The quote is from page 16.

[4] John J. Lennon and Malcolm Foley, Dark Tourism (London: Continuum, 2000), 1-12.

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