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Palin, Vanity Fair, and Postpartum Depression

July 5, 2009

Yes, I cracked and read Todd S. Purdum’s It Came from Wasilla in Vanity Fair. And something about it kept gnawing at the back of my mind, outside of the actual content about former VP candidate and now-former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. It was this:

Some top aides worried about her mental state: was it possible that she was experiencing postpartum depression? (Palin’s youngest son was less than six months old.)

This line is nestled between comments that Palin did what she wanted to, wasn’t sure who to trust, and didn’t maintain “civil discourse” with one adviser. No, it wasn’t a snippet from a discussion about Palin’s actual health, it was part of speculation as to why she couldn’t be predictable and play nice.

I’m no fan of Palin. I’m also, however, not a fan of speculation and assumption that a woman might have a mental health problem because she didn’t turn out to be easily handled. I am likewise not a fan of idle speculation about what can be a very serious condition, with no indication that there was any support or outreach being offered if this was truly suspected.

Katherine Stone at Postpartum Progress – which focuses on postpartum depression – has a very nice post on this as well, and expands on the frequent references to mental health in Purdum’s article:

I might actually have been able to shrug this article off to media ignorance about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, were it not for continued references throughout the article to mental illness. Purdum uses words, either his own or those of whom he chose to quote for this article, to describe Gov. Palin like “erratic” and “whack job.”

One of the subheadings of his article: “Polar Disorder.”

She asks: “Does Purdum think his constant references to mental illnesses will help to convince us all of what an awful person Sarah Palin is?”
Palin’s politics aside (I mean it, we’re not debating them here), I’m troubled by this idea that a candidate who could not be appropriately managed and molded must therefore have been herself mentally ill, and that perhaps that mental illness had to do with her ladyparts. You know, without any actual evidence or apparent support, or acknowledgment that people can both have mental health issues and be competent and manage to play well with others. In addition to the creepy sexism and ableism of it, let’s not forget that the people telling these stories have an incentive to blame all campaign missteps on some inherent and unaddressable “crazy” of Palin’s, and not any on their own shortcomings as vetters, handlers, campaigners, and staff members.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2009 5:30 pm

    Thank you for posting this — it’s great commentary.

  2. MomTFH permalink
    July 6, 2009 6:23 am

    Great post. I not only had a similar reaction to the Vanity Fair article, but I also previously read articles diagnosing her with other mental health conditions, such as narcissistic and borderline personality disorders.

    I am on a feminist bioethics listserve, and one of the members recently wrote about the sexism in mental health from the academic angle, and how some texts, professors or even diagnoses (postpartum depression) seem to pathologize being female. I was thinking about writing about this, and you beat me to it!

    • July 6, 2009 8:33 am

      Thank you. Relatedly, I’m no fan of Kristol either, but he makes a good critique of the “consulted the DSM” business:

      Is there any real chance that “several” Alaskans independently told Purdum that they had consulted the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders? I don’t believe it for a moment. I’ve (for better or worse) moved in pretty well-educated circles in my life, and I’ve gone decades without “several” people telling me they had consulted the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

      I mean, you might casually look something up in the DSM if you work in a medical center or in a medical library with subscription online access, but a campaign trail? Somehow I doubt it.

    • MomTFH permalink
      July 6, 2009 8:59 am

      Yeah, there were people in my medical school class who had never heard of the DSM.

  3. July 6, 2009 5:02 pm

    I also read the Vanity Fair article. To blame Sarah Palin’s lack of political acumen and lack of knowledge on post partum depression? I thought I had heard it all. Maybe Palin is just “hysterical” ya know, from the Greek word for uterus. Wow. Mental illness has been tagged on women for a long time, and has yet to stop.

  4. July 8, 2009 1:44 am

    I like it. I come here after came to to


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