Book Review: Inferno by Catherine Cho

Inferno: A MemoirTitle: Inferno: A Memoir by Catherine Cho
Genre: Biography, Mental Health, Non-Fiction
Pages: 256
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication Date: 19th March 2020
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Rating: ★★★★★

When Catherine left London for the US with her husband James, to introduce her family to their newborn son, she could not have envisaged how that trip would end. Catherine would find herself in an involuntary psych ward in New Jersey, separated from her husband and child, unable to understand who she was, and how she had got there.

In an attempt to hold on to her sense of self, Catherine had to reconstruct her life, from her early childhood, to a harrowing previous relationship, and her eventual marriage to James.

The result is a powerful exploration of psychosis and motherhood, at once intensely personal, yet holding within it a universal experience – of how we love, live and understand ourselves in relation to each other.

I have just finished an incredible biography by Catherine Cho.  It is about her experience of postpartum psychosis, which affected her almost 100 days after she had given birth.  Her Korean heritage offers a tradition where mother’s keep their babies inside for the first 100 days to keep them safe from evil, but Catherine isn’t superstitious and so plans a trip with her husband and child which will end with a 100 day celebration party. However, not all goes to plan as Catherine becomes increasingly stressed and begins to lose control as her mental health pays the terrible toll.

I understand the risks of birth on a woman’s mental health, but I really had never heard of it triggering psychosis to the extent written in Cho’s book. Fortunately I don’t know anyone who has suffered from this condition, but apparently it can affect 1-2 in 1000 women, so it’s more common than you might think.

Reading her account was almost like being drawn into a good piece of fiction. As she recounts her anxiety and delusions, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember this was real for her. I can’t even begin to imagine how terrifying it was to disconnect so much from reality, and how frightened her family must have been for her.  She switched between thinking she was a child, an old woman, and herself. She believed her family were trapped in purgatory and she saw demons everywhere.

I’ve had anxiety-induced impulsive images before (which were unsettling before I learnt what was happening), so I could relate to that feeling of ‘losing your mind’ and of control becoming a confused concept.  My Aunt has also worked with Dementia patients who suffer from hallucinations, and some of her stories always stuck with me, particularly the one of a man who would see aircraft hovering outside his window all the time, and another man who was followed around by an elderly woman.  I love reading books about psychology and mental health, and so this book was such an indulgence.  Though Cho’s suffering was uncomfortable, I am grateful for an insight into her experiences, which has definitely raised my awareness of postpartum conditions.

I have a lot of admiration for Cho’s brave decision to share her story with the world. Not everyone will understand, but for others I think it shows the very real risks of childbirth on a woman’s mind and body, and the absolutely essential need for stable and funded mental health services. Though Cho lives in England, her episode happened on holiday in America, so that added pressure of those frightening medical bills must have been an awful strain on the family. I’m so relieved for the NHS; the idea that receiving help for an uncontrollable lapse of mental health could see a family in debt is something I can barely fathom (yet is the reality for so many people).

This incredible read brought about some brilliant discussion points, it was educational, and it was honestly just a wonderfully written biography.

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*I received a copy of this book for free to review, however all thoughts are honest and my own.

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