Ghosts, fortune telling, reincarnation and mythology, so much a part of her cultural heritage, now bleed into everyday life, as the doctors and nurses of the psychiatric ward appear to her as demons and angels. Cho moves between her time in hospital, where she writes in a continuous present as she tries to piece together her memories of who she is, and an account of the events that led her there, from childhood through an early abusive relationship to her marriage and motherhood. Her description of the slide into psychosis is one of the most chilling evocations of madness I have read, all the more terrifying for the calm and measured prose in which she delivers it; it’s hard to believe this is her first book.
When Cho’s son was three months old, she and her husband James travelled from London to the US to introduce their baby to family and friends. There, relatives questioned Cho’s decision not to observe Korean traditions about newborns, compounding the anxiety and insecurity of her early motherhood. What followed was a period of postpartum psychosis, including a 12-day stay on a psychiatric ward. Cho weaves fractured memoir with Korean history and culture in a raw exploration of mental illness.
Cho lays out what she recalls of her psychosis in a few pages towards the end of her story. There’s frustratingly little analysis, and she offers no opinion on the extent to which her history fed into it. There’s rather too much, instead, on her purgatorial time served in the psych ward. But she was unlucky to become ill across the pond. In the UK, the NHS would have placed her in a mother and baby unit in an attempt to maintain her bond with Cato. It’s also unlikely she would have been prescribed such sledgehammering medication over here.
Given that becoming a mother is haloed with sentimentality for too many people, Cho is courageous in sharing her harrowing descent into postpartum psychosis. With its clear-eyed view of how a family’s cultural expectations can torment a well-educated, cosmopolitan woman giving birth for the first time, Inferno is a welcome addition to the small and growing shelf of memoirs where, as in Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work and Anne Enright’s Making Babies, women tell true stories of the often overwhelming cost of bringing a child into the world.
Inferno is a brilliantly frightening memoir about Cho’s two weeks on the psychiatric ward, elegantly interwoven with tales from her past. We hear about her childhood, raised by Korean parents in an austerely silent American home, where Cho had to protect her brother from her father’s violent rages. We hear about her relationship with a near-murderous boyfriend, and then about her courtship with James, whose kindness promised to erase the past. There’s no easy cause and effect here, no suggestion that past trauma causes the psychotic breakdown. But the past experiences resonate, and in fleeing her vulnerable son Cho also flees her own vulnerable younger self... the real strength of the book is its revelations about motherhood and mental illness. Running through her psychosis is fear about herself as a mother. She fears for her baby and that she will forget she’s a mother altogether. These are common anxieties, and one of the book’s most compelling suggestions is that even ordinary motherhood resembles psychosis. The sense of being outside time, the terror of being responsible for another life, the feeling that the word “mother” defines us and yet remains dissociated from much of our mental life
One of the many fascinating things about this beautifully written book is that it asks us to consider what counts as normal behaviour and what doesn’t. The hinge moment that sees Cho’s transformation, at the age of 31, from an anxious new mum into a patient in a psychiatric facility with a diagnosis of post-partum psychosis is when she looks at Cato and see that his eyes have turned into devils’ eyes: “Dark eyes with flashing red pupils.”