Fiction, Indie, Loved-it, Women's

[Women’s] A Story of Oppression And Healing That Will Make You Cry Going Widdershins by Sherrye Cohn

Going Widdershins was recommended to me by a friend whose opinions I trust. And still, what I expected from the blurb was a whimsical, maybe upbeat tale of living differently and finding a safe haven of sincere values in an unsafe world. But what I got was so much more. What I got was a book I highlighted the living daylights of (I have never marked so many things in a book to date!) It was a book that almost made me cry with its sad yet true reality, its incredible depth and painful accurateness of the collective feminine condition of life described so well and with such feeling. Going Widdershins could be one of my most sincere reads of the year, and it went straight into the “to definitely reread” shelf. I’ll try to tell you what moved me so much, but I also don’t know if I can – because if I start talking, I might never stop.

Emilena Lamb is frantically admitted to the hospital by her worried husband – she is highly catatonic, unresponsive, mute and deaf, but not because of any physical reasons. She is soon whisked off into the psychiatric ward and ascribed the condition of hysteria – an ailment known to be suffered by only women, at the time (it’s 1958). Emilena’s husband seems genuinely worried and can’t understand what has happened. Meanwhile, even though she regains consciousness, all she can do is growl and act like a frightened animal. It is clear she will not be able to return to normal life and must stay in the ward for quite a while longer. But with no changes forthcoming, the hospital can’t keep her and must assign her to the out of town facility of Summerland, led by an eccentric lady who isn’t your traditional psychiatrist. Sam, Emilena’s doctor, follows along to take care of her and we slowly develop a better sense of what happened and why, and, most importantly – what could be done about it.

Why Did Women ‘Go Hysterical’?

A GIF of a lady in a silent 1920’s film, having a fright and swooning, taking the drapes down along with her

Hysteria is… more of a term of convenience than an actual illness, and it was very commonly used up to probably the mid-late 20th century (but I’m no specialist) to describe basically ‘anything wrong with a woman’, especially if that ‘anything’ was of a mental origin. Actually, the name originates from the medical naming of the womb, implying that this only happens to women because they have one (actually, in the early days it was thought ladies go nuts because their wombs start moving about and rise up basically up to their heads… yeah.) Hysteria was most commonly thought of as a mentally-sexual problem – because obviously that’s all a woman is – your baby factory and your pleasure factory. The actual causes of psychosis, depression and many other ailments not being considered at all while ‘treating’ the patients, it’s no wonder that the conclusions mostly led to them staying in the asylums for most of their lives afterwards. So you might now know that where Emilena stands is not a good place with a lot of good options.

The Repercussions Of Living ‘Like An Angel’

This is discussed so much in the book. Part of why hysteria was mostly found only in women, and later diminished as a phenomenon wasn’t because our brains suddenly evolved and stopped having the problem – obviously. The roots of hysteria as an ailment stem in the oppression of women and quite literally not giving them any other choice but to basically go off their rocker to be able to change their situation. Saying goodbye to your ambitions and your education once you get married; Having no say in when, how or even if you have your sexual needs met (or rather, how you are butchering your body and soul to meet someone else’s because it’s apparently your duty); Not being allowed to express any anger, because ‘it’s not Christian and it’s not befitting a good wife’; Not being allowed to get a divorce or even be defended when your husband beats the living daylights out of you. That was a woman’s life largely up to the late 20th century, and for some women, it still is this way. Quite frankly, I’m surprised there were so ‘few’ cases of hysteria – I would expect at least half the female population to flip in these conditions.

The roots of hysteria as an ailment stem in the oppression of women and not giving them any choice but to go off their rocker to be able to change their situation. Going Widdershins by @CohnSherrye discusses this in detail: Click To Tweet

Anyway, the bottled up rage and pain never goes away. And neither does the guilt. This book does such a great job of explaining the reasons of why and how oppression kills a person inside and squashes any light that they might possess. It also lets one understand how bad it is for a society to do this to its members. It’s not just about the women – it’s also about the men. By hurting a part of what makes their world, they don’t realize they’re hurting themselves. And this goes bigger. There’s a Mother Earth theme to the book as well. Disconnecting from the female, we disconnect from the whole system and that’s how our culture has led to the destruction of our environment.

A GIF of a young girl walking on a meadow and looking up to the Earth which is in the sky above her

But Back To Emilena’s Situation

Sam, Emilena’s doctor, is a good psychiatrist. He’s always wondered if he chose right in choosing the profession his father wanted for him. Which is why he is able to see outside of the conservative way of psychiatric logic, and he doesn’t harbor close minded ideas about what ‘hysteria’ is, unlike the rest of Sam’s colleagues. And it’s exactly what Emilena needs her doctor to do.

Going Widdershins by @CohnSherrye does such a great job of explaining the reasons of why and how oppression kills a person inside and squashes any light that they might possess. @AvalinahsBooks gives it ★★★★★ 5 stars: Click To Tweet

Sam slowly works through what information is available to learn why this has happened to Emilena. And it’s no easy task, because she can’t hear or talk anymore, and everyone else is incredibly unreliable. Sam slowly learns that her husband might not be completely truthful about their marriage and how it was doing. He learns that while she was incredibly forthcoming in her good deeds in the church, Emilena never fit in and was even often mocked, excluded. She could never express her feelings because nobody wanted to hear about her true self. And while she was already trying to find her own beliefs, her own self, it was slightly too late.

What’s more, Sam stars regarding Emilena’s wild reaction not as a threat, but as a coping and defending mechanism, rather than something that needs fixing. It’s Emilena’s own way to fix herself and be happy – although she might never come back to how life was before for her. An outlook like Sam’s might be considered ground-breaking in the psychiatry of the day and would have never been accepted among his colleagues. It’s no wonder that his colleagues are now trying to set him up for failure in front of his superiors.

Healing Can Come In Many Forms

A GIF of Edward Scissorhands saying “People are afraid of me because I am different”

So through this outlook of Sam, we are introduced to the idea that there is not just one mode of living, and there are many ways to heal and be at peace. This is a very revolutionary idea for 1958 – and in some ways, it still is even now. This isn’t even about womanhood anymore – it’s about the fact that we are all different and we might choose different ways of living. That for some, being mute and living in a place with other patients might be preferable than living ‘the proper life’, because that life crushes your soul. It’s a New Agey kind of thought, and it appeals to me very much – and I think it works very well in today’s growing movement of diversity. In this regard, I’m not talking about racial or sexual diversity, but rather neurologic diversity, mental condition diversity – that all the members of society should be accepted for who they are and it should be okay to be the way you were born – removing the stigma of being ‘special’ and making it just about members of society that come in many forms and shapes, as well as many neurotypes and internal builds.

In Going Widdershins by @CohnSherrye, we are introduced to the idea that there is not just one mode of living, and there are many ways to heal and be at peace. Click To Tweet

So This Is Not Just A Book About Emilena, It’s One About Sam

Or in other words, it’s not just about the female, it’s about the male, and about how they intertwine. It’s not just about finding peace and healing – it’s also about finding your new self, saying goodbye – to your old self, as well as to those who were dear to you. Moving on involves letting go, and Sam learns that it wasn’t just Emilena who was a patient of Summerland – so was he. Change comes at times when you don’t expect it, and when you don’t even think you needed it.


It should be plain obvious by now that I simply adore this book and think it’s perfect. I have not said even close to enough of what I wanted to say in this review, but can we really do a wonderful book justice, ever? Or at least feel like we did? I can only urge you to read Going Widdershins and find out for yourself why I loved it so much. It’s a perfect companion to books such as Freshwater, Heart Berries and An Unkindness of Ghosts:

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi   Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot   An Unkindness of Ghosts


Of course, when we are speaking of such difficult topics, you can’t really expect not to have any triggers. However, they’re not open situations – they’re mostly just things in Emilena’s past that are talked about with empathy and understanding. So even if it’s a trigger for you, it might be easier to deal with it being mentioned than just reading about it out of the blue. That said, the triggers are rape, domestic violence, bullying, mental health issues such as depression and self-hate and issues of self-worth, neurotic overcontrolling parents and loss of loved ones.

I thank the author and publicist for giving me a free copy of the book in exchange to my honest opinion. Receiving the book for free does not affect my opinion. You can buy the book here at Book Depository and buying using this link supports the blog.

Is the subject of the oppression of women as close to your heart as it is to mine? And have you read any of these books yet?