Mad Ambition: Writing My Way Back to The Butterfly Ward
by Terri Favro
“I have an eclectic kind of fan club. I can break them into groups easily for you: intellectuals, gay people, and the crazies. Psychiatrists. And some of the homeless too, when they can steal the books from the library.”
Margaret Gibson, Interviewed in Books in Canada
In my last year of university, I found myself unable to write. Stories, letters, essays –– it didn’t matter: any blank, white page ate my ambition like the Great White Whale swallowing Ahab. It was as if I had been erased.
Coming from an immigrant family with a strong oral tradition, storytelling had always been a natural, intuitive act for me, craft as much as art, like swirls of fancy plasterwork on the ceiling of a beautiful room. I wrote fairytales and comic books. I rewrote blurbs from TV Guide and household tips from Hints from Heloise in my own voice. I planned to become a jet-setting journalist, like in the comic strip Brenda Starr, Reporter.
By the time I’d reached high school, I’d learned that writing was hard, dangerous work, more like ditch digging than plastering. My grade 12 English teacher showed film-strips of the literary triumphs and tragic demises of Poe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Sexton, and Plath, among other doomed geniuses. All brilliant. All crazy. All dead by their own hand or the ravages of drugs and alcohol.
I decided to chance an English degree anyway. My favourite high school teacher suggested picking a university with a good pub. And so, I went to McMaster.
In my third year, an ancient journalist who had won the Leacock Award gave a talk to my creative writing class. I’d never seen a writer in person before: up until then, writers only existed from the neck up, on TV talk shows and the back covers of books.
I’ve forgotten everything the wizened journalist said about the craft of writing, except for one thing: we should beware of gazing too long and too deeply at the world, as if wearing a pair of metaphysical X-Ray-Specs. Writers who did this often experienced an existential crisis that eventually drove them to booze, dope, and madness. Some writers turned into sex fiends. Others committed suicide.
Be careful about the writing life, kids, that way madness lies, he warned us before heading off to the Faculty Club, no doubt for a stiff Scotch.
By my fourth year, I’d learned first hand what the ancient journalist was talking about. I think of 1979 as my Bell Jar year because it had echoes of the summer when the central character of that novel, based on Sylvia Plath herself, had been a junior magazine editor in New York, triggering a mental health crisis that left her suicidal and, for a time, unable to write.
In the summer of 1978, I had an Ontario Arts Council summer internship with the then-new Writers’ Union of Canada. I moved to Toronto, living in a windowless room in a cockroach-infested house off Spadina, reveling in my freedom and making bad choices. The Union was a safe space – or as safe as it could be in a crumbling Yorkville office building regularly raided by the vice squad – but my internship opened up invitations to parties, launches and media events that occasionally turned me into prey for men who offered me a crack at the writing game if I’d go on dates with them. I began to learn that if I wanted to be a writer, I might have to pay to play.
By the time I returned to Hamilton, I was paralyzed with uncertainty about what I would do after graduation. Did I really have what it took to be a professional writer? Did I have to throw my body into the deal as a kind of loss leader? I didn’t sleep, drank too much, ate too little, and found myself for the first and only time in my life, like Plath, unable to write.
I had gone a little mad, I suppose; my G.P. sent me to a psychiatrist who put me into a women-under-30 therapy group, an experience which filled me with schadenfreude: I was the only one who hadn’t tried to commit suicide. At least I felt mentally healthy compared to everyone else.
I left Group and turned to books, mostly the literature of trauma and madness. One of those books was The Butterfly Ward, a debut short story collection by Margaret Gibson, who was only a handful of years older than me, and mentally ill to the point where she had been institutionalized.
Gibson was shockingly good at pinning her experiences to the page and making you shiver with the visceral truth of them. She wrote stories about mental illness in an era that favoured lengthy institutionalizations, shock treatments and lobotomies. Set in the mental wards, rooming houses, gay clubs and streets of 1970s Toronto, the book was something new for CanLit: urban, gritty, darkly funny, occasionally violent, and written in a sharp-edged, minimalist style that owed something to The Bell Jar. But while Plath’s roman a clef was a deep dive into her own psyche, Gibson was able to turn her gaze outwards at the wider world of what she called “crazies.” A reviewer for the Vancouver Province described the experience of reading The Butterfly Ward as “like small bombs behind the eyes [that] explode and shatter one’s own quiet. It isn’t a simple book...it’s an engagement and as such you better have a good grip on your own fears and paranoias before entering its pages.”
In 1977, when Gibson was only 29, she won the Toronto Book Award for The Butterfly Ward. She shared the honour with another Margaret – Atwood – who co-won for Lady Oracle. Gibson’s married name, Gilboord, appeared on the first hardcover edition even though she was separated from her husband.
When I was a young office assistant for the Writers’ Union – my summer job briefly turned into my first full time job in 1980 – Gibson was a member. Over the phone, she sounded fragile; other writers who counted her as a friend were protective of her, suggesting quietly to me that I be gentle with her.
She wrote that book they turned into that movie, someone told me.
The movie she was talking about was Outrageous!, based on a story in The Butterfly Ward called “Making It.” Shot in Toronto, the 1977 film starred female impersonator Craig Russell, more or less playing himself, with Canadian actress Hollis MacLaren as Liza, an escaped mental patient, based in part on the character in Gibson’s story and in part on Gibson’s real-life friendship with Russell. Funny, frank and sexy, the movie depicted Liza’s “madness” as the source of her literary talent, and also celebrated the newly out-of-the-closet, promiscuous gay lifestyle of the 1970s. The film was popular, but controversial. Despite the fact that homosexuality was no longer a crime in Canada, many Canadians had grown up thinking of gays as depraved, mentally ill or both. The emergence of AIDS in the early 1980s re-hardened those attitudes and tainted the sexuality portrayed in the movie and book. The Butterfly Ward, Outrageous! and Craig Russell would all be victims of the AIDS epidemic, in different ways.
Although The Butterfly Ward’s world of mental institutions was unknown to me, the love-the-one-you’re-with culture it portrayed was familiar. While struggling with the impact of my Bell Jar summer, I was also coping with the fallout of a couple of intense but ill-considered love affairs and what can only be called a date rape. I had been emotionally steamrollered, but the culture of the seventies left no room for sustained heartbreak. You got over it and moved on. Instead, I clung to the fear that no one would love me again. Not to mention that I would never write again. Gibson’s ability to function through trauma – to do that high wire act of storytelling and life – gave me hope. I returned to my typewriter, finished my degree, moved to Toronto and wrote some freelance articles. But I wasn’t quite brave enough to fully embrace becoming a writer. It seemed too dangerous, too fraught with ways to fall down in despair and never get back up again. Instead I found steady work at ad agencies, writing about cat food, tampons and cell phones. It would be years before I returned to writing fiction in a serious way, and in doing so, went back to the era of The Butterfly Ward.
If you came of age in the seventies, you may remember it fuzzily and fondly: the Bee Gees. Shiny synthetic shirts and wide legged pants. Complex hairdo’s. We tend to forget the psychic uneasiness of that era and what it was like to be young and vulnerable. I’ve written three novels that draw strongly on the paranoia of the times, its weird mash-up of liberation, licentiousness, free sex, experimentation and the fallout that came with it. I make my characters suffer through sexual abuse, grief, violence and deep depression. Reviewers have noted a “tragicomic grittiness” in my work. I owe a lot of that to Gibson. And so, almost forty years after reading the book, I decided to revisit it.
Returning to The Butterfly Ward turned out to more complicated than I expected. To my surprise, the book is out of print and no longer circulates in the Toronto Public Library system (although 47 copies of its Toronto Book Award co-winner, Lady Oracle, are available). I couldn’t find The Butterfly Ward online, either as a pdf or an eBook. One copy is archived at the Toronto Reference Library where you can look at but not borrow it. But before resorting to a second-hand copy from Abe Books, I sought help from the hive mind on Facebook: did any friends remember the book and, more importantly, own a copy? Most writers old enough to remember the book were more familiar with the movie clearly than the book. Then, I heard from Eufemia Fantetti.
Like Gibson, Fantetti’s debut short story collection, A Recipe for Disaster and Other Unlikely Tales of Love (Mother Tongue Press, 2013) was an award winner, capturing the Bressani Prize and a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award. Fantetti is also one of the founders of InkWell creative writing workshops, a non-profit that helps people with mental illness develop the writing chops they need to tell their stories.
Although she would have only been a kindergartener when the collection was published, The Butterfly Ward is one of Fantetti’s favourite books. She owned a paperback reprint from 1979, given to her as a gift by a high school teacher who knew that Fantetti was an aspiring writer, growing up in a household with a mentally ill mother. The book followed Fantetti from apartment to apartment, back and forth across the country, for years. But now that she knew the book was out of print, she was hesitant to lend it to me: if I lost it or didn’t return it, how would she ever find another copy?
After promising on the heads of my children to treat the book with extreme care and return it to her promptly, we met at a coffee shop where she hesitantly opened her purse and pulled out a Zip-Loc bag containing the precious paperback. The handover had the whiff of an illicit drug transaction, a comparison Gibson would have loved.
I slipped the book carefully onto the table. The cover featured a highly stylized, multi-hued illustration of a woman’s face in profile, based on Gibson’s author photo from the hardcover edition I remembered. She was beautiful: high cheek-boned, Titian-haired, doe-eyed.
In all-capped, black and orange letters, the 1970s serif typeface blared:
THE BUTTERFLY WARD
THE BOOK FROM WHICH THE CONTROVERSIAL FILM OUTRAGEOUS WAS TAKEN.
The blurbs on the back include one that mistakenly claims: “WINNER OF THE FIRST CITY OF TORONTO BOOK AWARD.” Wrong: Gibson co-won that honour with Atwood in the third year of the awards.
When I got home and gingerly opened the book, I discovered that Eufemia Fantetti had good reason to worry: the pages had yellowed, the type was fading, and the spine was in danger of falling apart in my hands. The writing, however, felt remarkably contemporary.
Gibson was clearly writing with a sense of urgency and rage, even panic. Yet, despite the fact that the stories are often about mania and obsession, she kept tight control over her narrative. Her stories show the lives of characters with mental illnesses from the inside out: no victimization, no sentimentality, no editorializing. She forces you to observe these lives and opens a space for your emotions, but never tells you how you should feel.
The first story in the collection, “Ada,” is narrated by Jenny, the 29-year-old daughter of a “good Toronto family,” who has been institutionalized for seven years. Her life, and those of the other women on her ward, feels as if they’ve been put on hold.
Here, she describes their morning routine:
All the women are waiting in the bathroom, waiting to get their toothbrushes and hair brushes unlocked from the little cabinets, we push forward to the dented mirrors like cattle. Everybody was pushing and elbowing each other and saying 'screw off' or 'watch it, will you!' Sometimes I think the bathroom must be hell itself with the dented mirrors and the keys hitting the latches of the cabinets and the stink from the toilets and all those women in rumpled bathrobes and slept-upon hair and unclean teeth pushing and groaning their way toward the two mirrors, sleep in their eyes, veins protruding on the feet of the thin ones. But I am one of those women, I have been for seven years. I hardly ever think about escaping anymore.
“Ada” is a story about the inter-relationships among women who are, to varying degrees, damaged by both their mental illnesses and the treatments they receive –– none more so than Ada. An “incandescent” poet when Jenny first met her, Ada’s personality and intellect have been deadened by a lobotomy: “One day they took Ada away, somewhere downstairs and she came back the way she is now. She paints little stick figures and sings nursery rhymes to herself.” Because Jenny has been in the institution so long, she remembers Ada “when she was Ada.”
Gibson’s characters in “Ada,” and other stories set in institutions, exist in a closed, tightly controlled world. Long stretches of boredom are broken by bursts of violence and pain. Yet Gibson never tries to make you feel sorry for her characters: she simply wants you to watch them “function,” a word the author uses ironically.
In the collection’s best-known story, “Making It,” a pregnant mental patient, Liza, is living in an apartment she used to share with Robin, a gay man and female impersonator who has gone to Los Angeles to star in a show where he portrays Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Tallulah Bankhead and other stars. Based on Gibson’s friendship with Craig Russell, with whom she lived after leaving her husband, the story is written in the form of letters back and forth between Robin in L.A. and Liza in Toronto. Robin tells Lisa about his success on stage portraying Judy, Peggy and the rest, contrasted with lovers who find him exciting as a woman but disappointing as a man. Liza, meanwhile, struggles to “function.” In one letter, she describes the public health nurse who checks on her twice a week: “Her briefcase full of my brains and the brains of others like me bulges under her arm...I can see her now getting on the Scarborough bus, knocking the snow from her boots, clutching her briefcase full of brains, pleased with my progress.” This story evokes the Toronto of 1976 with a sharp eye, as Liza travels around with her friend Marvin, who has recently left the hospital:
I was wondering why the insides of buses always look like winter even when it is not winter. I think it is the yellow light that does that. Marvin has promised me that the baby and I will not be put in a camp once he becomes Superman. Marvin is very fond of me in his own neuter way.
“Making It’ may have been the best known of the book’s stories, but for its unflinching depiction of mental health treatments in the nineteen-seventies, I found the most powerful story to be the one for which the book was named. “The Butterfly Ward” describes a diagnostic procedure that sounds a little like waterboarding. Patients are forced to drink huge quantities of water after taking a medication that causes them to bloat. They are then immobilized and subjected to a lengthy brain scan with pins skewered into either side of their jaws. The narrator, Kiva, calls this “being pinned to the butterfly board." She undergoes the treatment many times; when not “being pinned,” she hangs out, goes to the tuck shop and watches daytime TV. Kiva and the other patients are portrayed as if they are insects, trapped, tortured and observed by doctors and nurses. At one point, she imagines the feelings of a new patient on her ward who has been pumped with water and is now being “pinned” to the board:
They came for Mrs. Watson at 10 o’clock, it is now 10.20. I know that for certain because the Phil Donahue Show is just beginning. Mrs. Watson with her secret fortune is now pinned on the biggest butterfly board of them all. There is no anesthesia for the dying butterfly...nothing can interfere with the test. She lies on the sterile table, hands clenched by her sides. Dr. Carter will tell her to unclench her hands. Two long needles, one on either side of her face, have been driven through her jawbone. Pinned. Dr. Carter will tell her to lie perfectly still, the butterfly will lie pinned like that, still and dead for half an hour. Dr. Carter and others will peer into her bloated brain but only Dr. Carter will matter.
Stories about mentally ill people were not new in 1976: Gibson would have been writing in the shadow of the better known 1962 Ken Kesey novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the 1975 film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson that turned the sadistic head nurse of a mental ward (Nurse Ratchett) into an instantly recognizable, much parodied trope. Despite the unsympathetic portrayal of Dr. Carter in “The Butterfly Ward,” Gibson rarely paints her doctors and nurses as villains or monsters; at worst, they are well meaning but ineffectual. Gibson was also a contemporary of novelist Timothy Findley whose experiences with mental illness informed his first novel, The Last of the Crazy People (1967), as well as his 1993 novel Headhunter. According to a Books in Canada interview with Gibson, she and Findley were friends and admirers of one another’s work. Perhaps the seventies, with its particular brand of taboo-bashing and the coming-out of queers and the ‘crazies,’ as Margaret called them, was a particularly rich time for her stories.
After re-reading Eufemia’s copy of the book, I watched Outrageous! While the movie is based on only one story in The Butterfly Ward, it captures some of the raw spirit of Gibson’s entire collection. The movie is also a lively record of a time and place that seems familiar but is quickly fading in memory: Toronto the Good in the mid-1970s. The opening up of sexual mores, especially in the gay community. The popularity of drag queens, a.k.a. “female impersonators.” The casual sexism and racism, coupled with a rising feminism. A breath of rebellion in a city that was about as straight laced as they came. It was a moment in time, a flowering, like a daisy pushing its way through a cracked grey sidewalk. By 1983, AIDS had changed the zeitgeist; in 1990, it took Craig Russell’s life.
In a 2016 article in Brick Magazine called “The Fiction of Margaret Gibson,” novelist Lisa Moore wrote:
It’s hard to think of another Canadian writer who captures the urban poor of the 1980s and 1990s from the inside, as Gibson does, with lyrical prose, by turns staccato and lush. Hers are characters who have had lobotomies, victims of shell shock, violent men who have come out of decades of imprisonment, porn stars and drag queens, drug dealers, addicts, and alcoholics. She writes about the betrayal of trust between lovers, doctors and patients, husbands and wives, mothers and sons.
Moore describes Gibson’s life as one of occasional homelessness and extended bouts of sleeplessness when she would write obsessively. She also raised her son, Aaron Gilboord, while continuing her lifelong struggle with mental illness, which may have been either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Moore also mentions that Gibson was taking medications for epilepsy.
As I tuck Eufemia Fantetti’s much-loved copy of The Butterfly Ward back into the Zip-Loc bag from whence it came, I feel as if I’m re-interring a body that I briefly exhumed for scientific purposes. If a novel is a living thing – alive with ideas, images and characters – then The Butterfly Ward has been buried alive. As a society, we talk of breaking down barriers between the mentally well and the mentally ill. We make much of removing stigma, and once a year we send text messages to help a telecom company raise money for mental health. And yet, what may well be the greatest Canadian book ever written about the lives of the mentally ill, has gone out of print.
The Butterfly Ward deserves to be pulled out of the cemetery of lost books (notwithstanding the single copy in the Toronto Reference Library), so it can be discovered by new readers. Perhaps, as it did for Eufemia Fantetti, the book will go on to inspire writers whose lives have been affected by mental illness, or as it did for me, help me find my voice as a writer after a period of intense self-doubt. I like to think that Gibson would likely tell any writer in crisis what she told an interviewer a few years before her death in 2006: “Do your damned-est and never give up.”
Margaret Gibson Gilboord. The Butterfly Ward. First published 1976 by Oberon Press, Ottawa. This edition published 1979 by Totem Books, a division of Collins Publishers, Don Mills, Ontario.
“The Only Skin She Was Given: Eva Tihanyi speaks with Margaret Gibson”. Books in Canada: The Canadian Review of Books. (Undated interview). http://www.booksincanada.com/article_view.asp?id=92
Lisa Moore. “The Fiction of Margaret Gibson.” Brick: A Literary Journal. Issue 98. Posted November 23, 2016. https://brickmag.com/the-fiction-of-margaret-gibson/
Terri Favro is a novelist, essayist, comic book collaborator and copywriter. She is the author of three novels: Sputnik’s Children (a Globe100 and CBC Books Top 10 book for 2017), Once Upon A Time in West Toronto, and The Proxy Bride, as well as a popular science book, Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact and Speculation. A finalist for the CBC Literary Prize for Creative Non-Fiction, Terri’s essays and short fiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including the Humber Literary Review, Geist, Prism, Broken Pencil and Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction. Visit her at terrifavro.ca