Bertha

Nonfiction

by Eleanor Howell

I’m twenty-five; I’m stoned and floating home from the park. I’m listening to a podcast about crafting narrative on television, and I’m color-coding my anxiety. Yellow is uncomfortable but manageable: stomach cramps because of a phone call I have to make. Orange is not great: googling vague symptoms and thinking about death a lot while trying to fall asleep. Red is a crisis: nausea and sobbing for three days because I think (erroneously) that I have chlamydia.

 

It was around this time that I named her—the anxiety. I named her Bertha. The madwoman in the attic. I was working early mornings as a baker. Every evening I walked to Laurelhurst Park to sit under trees as tall as apartment buildings, listen to pop-culture podcasts, and smoke weed introspectively. Free therapy. 

 

Bertha is sneaky. She likes to pose as me. She gloms onto my brain like a limpet to a rock. Because I can’t see her, and because her voice sounds like mine, I often confuse her for myself. She pretends to be rational. She encourages me to say stuff that I later regret. 

 

Bertha’s logic is hard to shake. She reminds me to feel anxious. She tells me that any moment I don’t spend planning for every conceivable disaster is a moment wasted. Once things have fallen apart, she says I will feel stupid for having felt happy. 

 

In a campy horror film, Bertha is the vampire, and I am the dim human who lets her in. 

“I brought you cookies,” she says, extending her hollow arms over my threshold. 

“Yum!” I say. “Get in quickly, they say there are vampires out here.”

(The audience groans and boos.)

She steps in, points to my AirPods. 

“Are you afraid those will give you brain cancer?” 

“No,” I say. I take them out. 

She says, “Isn’t it late? Shouldn’t your boyfriend be home by now?”

I look at my silent phone. The part of my gut that sits by my sacrum kinks, like a key turning in a lock. 

(Get out of there! the audience yells, but they know it is too late.)

 

Sometimes as I’m going to bed, Bertha cracks open her attic door and tiptoes to my room with a teetering candle. She crawls into bed with me and wraps her legs around me, and as I close my eyes we are off, on a Tilt-A-Whirl of Dark Thoughts. She is a marvelous storyteller. Our anti-fantasy fair rides are increasingly nauseating and spectral. Too many turns together. I can hear the screams, feel the weight on my chest as I learn about the death of someone I love, see the breaking glass and blood pooling, feel the fear and the grief of that last moment of being alive. I gasp myself out of it, throw the blankets off, beg her to leave me alone.  

 

In the Victorian Gothic novel, I am Jane (Eyre) and Bertha is Bertha (Mason). Or am I Bertha? The infuriating thing about Jane is that she never asked how Bertha had become Bertha—never wondered who she had been before she was locked in the attic of her captor (husband). The attic is a metaphor. There are countless attics, throughout time, stuffed full of suffering women.

 

In my undergrad English classes, the theorists Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argued that Bertha is Jane. They said Bertha is Jane’s “secret self,” the vessel of Jane’s rage. Bertha is the woman in the mirror who says what Jane can’t bear to hear. It’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you. Bertha is no fool, which is why she was locked in an attic by a man. 

 

And here I am thinking I am Jane, when without Bertha there is no Jane. Two hundred years ago, they would have pried us apart—now, Bertha and I can live in the same body. She’s a shitty roommate—but she does not define me, and I do not define her. 

 

It was a bit flip of me to name my anxiety after such a mistreated character as Bertha Mason. But before I named her, Bertha was just Anxiety, a touch of OCD, and maybe some untreated PTSD from a world-tilting car accident. Disembodied like that—she had no one to cling to but me. I see her clearly now and she sees me. 

 

In some ways, I should thank her. Without her I would never buckle my seatbelt, or lock my doors at night, or carry keys in my fist like little shivs when I walk down an empty street late at night. I would be free without her, maybe—wildly free—but I have to channel my fears somewhere. If I must live with her, perhaps she can be a conduit of my rage. 

 

The fucked-up thing, I say to Bertha when my anxiety is orange, is that you’re not wrong. I’m reading Twitter (Bertha’s favorite food) and obsessing over articles about the climate crisis and abortion bans. If I don’t let her tip me over into red, she reminds me to stay angry. 

 

She’s quieter now that I know who I’m talking to, but she won’t ever leave. When I stand on a high place, like a jutting vista overlooking treetops and train tracks, Bertha holds my hand, sweetly. She asks me what it would be like to fall. 

 

I answer seriously; I feel the jolt of air and the crack of my bones. Her breath becomes my chilly sweat. Then I shake my hand free; I tell her to wait in the car. I take advantage of the silence and enjoy the view.  

Eleanor Howell is a writer and former baker living in the Pacific Northwest. She recently earned her MFA at Western Washington University and  is the nonfiction editor at Sweet Tree Review. She writes fiction and nonfiction about  feminism, pop culture, cults, romance plots, sex, and living in bodies. Her fiction has been published in The Southeast Review.

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