Women in crisis: what Medea and Phaedra teach us about mental illness

Ancient texts have a cosmic way of speaking to people in our time: for instance, a New York woman who killed her two children, and my mother, who killed herself

Pascale, my daughters school director, first told me about Lisette Bamengas case one morning during pre-school drop-off in Brooklyn. Lisette was Pascales own daughters third-grade teacher at Public School 58, and she was facing lifetime imprisonment for killing her two children, who were four months and four years old, in July 2012.

Many parents of Lisettes students, Pascale among them, testified in her favor and helped raise money for her defense. Pascale told me about the trial, and the progress she and her fellow supporters made in getting Lisettes undiagnosed postpartum psychosis acknowledged in the sentencing process. Pascale insisted on telling me, I thought, until I realized I was one of the few able to listen, and definitely the only mom to take interest in the case as I regularly asked for updates. After a while I had to tell Pascale I could have been Lisettes child.

My mother took her own life in July 2009. She struggled since adolescence with what she called manic depression, and what I remembered the medical establishment describing as I asked around, desperate to understand as close to schizophrenia. She suffered from severe postpartum depression bordering on psychosis after my birth and, before me, my sisters. She almost killed herself many times before her final attempt: which wasnt an attempt or a call for help, it was irrevocable and deliberate. Unwillingly, very much involuntarily, she had nearly killed me and my sister more than once.

In Euripidess tragedy Medea, maddened by grief, the eponymous character murders her children in revenge for her husbands adultery. Ive worked at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the last seven years programming what we call here humanities, meaning events that provide context around our season, literary events and more unusual things. I had seen Medea at BAM before working here, and Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warners production reminded me so brutally of my mother, I couldnt even weep.

Jonathan
Jonathan Cake and Fiona Shaw in Medea. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
As Pascale was telling me about Lisette I kept wondering what I could do with this information. It felt as though she was telling me for a reason. I started thinking of Medea of which Lisettes story is almost a perfect replica and Phaedra too, who fatally falls in love with her stepson, destroying them both. This story is also about betrayal, and women in crisis easily blur in my mind as a sketch-like portrait of my mother.

Now Isabelle Huppert will perform in Phaedra(s) in the upcoming Next Wave festival, in Krzysztof Warlikowskis adaptation which conflates Seneca, Coetzee, Racine and Sarah Kane. For those like me who were lucky enough to see Huppert in Psychose 4:48, Claude Rgys adaptation of Kane, in the Harvey, her return in a role bearing traces of her past character on that same stage promises to deliver a palimpsest of ineffable beauty and cathartic vigor.

Lisettes story also made me think of Bryan Doerries, whose work I had the chance to present at BAM in different contexts. Bryan has created visionary programs for populations in crisis, including combat veterans, through his Theater of War project, which gave its title to his powerfully intimate memoir. Bryan directs dramatic readings of ancient plays for communities of trauma as a catalyst for healing dialogue, using theater and a variety of other media to address pressing public health and social issues.

Meanwhile Bryan and I had become friends, and he told me in confidence Bryan is also a translator of ancient Greek that he was developing a production of Medea, in which he hoped the actress Elizabeth Marvel would agree to star. There you go, I thought to myself: heres what you have to do. I asked Bryan if he would be interested in creating a program like Theater of War, specifically tailored around Lisettes story with parts of Medea and Phaedra read by, ideally, Marvel. Bryan said yes immediately, Marvel agreed, and BAM had a date open on the programming calendar.

Krzysztof
Krzysztof Warlikowskis Phedre(s): a study in betrayal. Photograph: Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

The event, along the lines of Bryans ingeniously structured process, will feature readings of Euripidess Medea and Senecas Phaedra, and be followed by a panel of respondents, who serve as a sort of chorus to present their views on what they heard, and relate it to their own lives, to todays world. Theres something transcendent Bryan might say cosmic about the way texts written thousands of years ago still speak so directly to events in our time. Bryan uses the word cosmic a lot because the cosmos sometimes seems to be sending him signs when hes on the right track. Our preparations for this program were so seamless they did seem helped somehow by forces invisible to us.

We asked Pascale to be among the respondents on the panel, to be a chorus member so to speak, and talk about Lisette, if she would, and her involvement in her story. She said she was glad to do it. Actually she almost cried; I saw her eyes well up. She apologized, said she had been feeling emotional, that she was still reeling from the trial where she witnessed Justice Martin Marcus deliver what she described as the most moving speech shed ever heard, and sentence Lisette to eight years in prison instead of a possible life sentence, or 20 years as the prosecution demanded. The judge talked a lot about the schoolchildren and their parents involvement, and how much their testimonies influenced his decision.

We sent out invitations to our event, and I asked Pascale specifically to invite fellow parents, and Lisettes advocates. She sent an invitation to Lisettes mother, who was touched and gladly accepted. She said the event would also celebrate Lisettes birthday: 20 June.

In their displays of cruelty and passionate excesses, the Greek gods remind mortals of their limits, they caution against transgression, against madness, against the ex- what is out of, what is beyond. Mortals must stay within, they warn, within laws that govern humanity. Lisette trespassed and yet her kin didnt cast her out. Instead they tried to understand.

  • Medea & Phaedra: Tragedies of Passion, Betrayal and Revenge takes place at BAM, New York, on 20 June. Tickets are free: details here

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jun/16/medea-phaedra-tragedy-women-theater-bam-brooklyn

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