In an eerie, unsettling debut memoir about postpartum psychosis, Cho delves into her 2018 breakdown after the birth of her son, Cato. Cho started showing signs of distress when she and her husband, James, traveled from their home in London to visit James’s parents in New Jersey and threw Cato a traditional Korean party to mark his 100 days of life. As James’s overbearing parents questioned Cho about Cato (“Why wasn’t he rolling yet?”), Cho began losing her grip: she started suspecting she was under surveillance, her son suddenly appeared to have “flashing red pupils,” and she heard voices telling her, “Your son needs to die.” Soon, Cho was involuntarily committed to a psych ward by doctors, where she bobbed in and out of lucidity, tore at her clothes, and saw demons during her 12 days there. The author spends little time on the science behind postpartum psychosis (“the reasons for postpartum psychosis aren’t fully understood”), and punctuates her story with discussions of Korean culture and the pressure Korean families place on mothers and wives to be accommodating; her narrative culminates with Cho getting medicated, then tentatively reestablishing a physical bond with her son and accepting him as her own (“I remembered him... I was a mother again”). This piercing narrative about motherhood and a fraying human mind will slowly and creepily pull the reader in and leave a chill. (Aug.)
In novels such as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, depictions of women separated from their children and confined as "mad" should provide a metonym for living with issues such as postpartum psychosis. Yet as Cho clearly illustrates in this debut, these fictions cannot be disentangled from facts. For women who experience barriers (cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic, etc.), maternal care cannot rightly be called such and, in fact, these obstacles often result in high mortality rates for mothers and their babies alike. With lyrical and often discomforting writing, Cho boldly recounts her involuntary hospitalization following the birth of her son. Her recollections also shed insight into the inequities of maternal care in the Unites States and the stigma of mental illness, especially among people of color, intertwining those thoughts with ones on motherhood in general. The most affecting passages are ones in which Cho tries to recall memories of husband and son while recovering in the ward and, later, trying to adjust to her identity as a mother. "I was a mother. I was still trying to figure out what that meant." VERDICT A candid memoir that reminds readers how much work we need to do to ensure that maternal care and mental illness are divested of stigma.—Emily Bowles, Lawrence Univ., WI
A publishing professional makes her writing debut with a memoir that details her experiences with postpartum psychosis.
As Cho notes, she and her husband, James, were two Korean Americans who never paid "attention to Korean traditions,” but as they planned for a trip across the U.S. to show off their infant son to friends and relatives, "the rules [of their culture],” which included a "hundred-day celebration" for their baby, suddenly mattered. Then, a week before the event, Cho experienced a harrowing break with reality. Not only did the author believe she was Dante’s Beatrice, responsible for leading her husband out of hell; she also believed her baby son had "devils’ eyes.” James took her to a psychiatric hospital. In the dream state of madness, she felt "removed from time,” and memories from childhood and adolescence intermingled with the present. It was as though she was caught in "an infinite loop" in which events, including a past abusive relationship, happened "again and again but with slight variations.” Cho’s sense of self fractured to the point where she could not recognize the faces of members of her husband's family in pictures. At the same time, the psychosis also seemed to bring her closer to the ancestors who fled North Korea at the beginning of the Korean War and sacrificed connections to loved ones they would never see again. Thinking of them, the author remarks that her experiences "felt so familiar, pre-written somehow,” as if the psychosis somehow replayed a kind of epigenetic trauma. Cho also candidly describes the depression that gripped her in the months following her break. “I wondered if [my son] could sense it,” she writes, “this stranger who had taken his mother’s place.” Haunting and emotionally intense, this powerful memoir explores the hidden connections that tie families across generations, offering poignant meditations on the meaning of motherhood and identity.
A compelling look at a mysterious mental illness.
"The intensity of the first-person perspective here gives this section the claustrophobic dread of a psychological thriller. . . .Inferno is a disturbing and masterfully told memoir, but it’s also an important one that pushes back against powerful taboos. . . .Discussions of severe mental illness in mothers continue to induce discomfort and judgment in those who have never experienced it, and embarrassment and shame in those who have."
–The New York Times Book Review
“Inferno is a brilliantly frightening memoir about Cho’s two weeks on the psychiatric ward, elegantly interwoven with tales from her past. . . .[Cho writes] herself into motherhood and into a form of sanity that does not leave behind the insights enabled by psychosis. “
“Fascinating. . . .beautifully written. . . .This is a highly accomplished memoir. Cho deftly weaves the strands of her experience to create something striking and original.”
"A beautifully written account of how a new mother ends up in a psychiatric facility with postpartum psychosis, interwoven with reflections on the influence of her Korean parents."
–The Guardian, "50 Brilliant Books to Transport You This Summer"
"This debut memoir is an engrossing and frightening account of the author’s post-partum psychosis and subsequent commitment to a psychiatric hospital; it’s a candid story of motherhood, mental health and love."
–Ms. Magazine "August 2020 Reads for the Rest of Us"
–GMA.com "New Must-Read Books for the Ultimate Escape in August"
"Cho's harrowing memoir recounts her experience of postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son, Cato. . . .Throughout, Cho meditates on the ways in which Korean culture has informed her ideas of motherhood and mental health, and her expectations around both. It’s a vigorous and affecting read."
–Buzzfeed "29 Summer Books You Won't Be Able to Put Down"
"Inferno is an exploration of how we understand ourselves and our identities."
–Bustle, "19 Book Releases to Look Forward to in 2020
"[Cho's] memoir discusses the route she had to take in order to put her life back together, beginning with bravely examining the dark parts of her past in order to understand herself again.
–PureWow, "10 Nonfiction Books We Can't Wait to Read in 2020"
"This piercing narrative about motherhood and a fraying human mind will slowly and creepily pull the reader in and leave a chill."
–Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Sublime. . . .it’s the resilient thread of devotion in [Cho's] lifeto her husband, her family, the curious memory of her sonthat laces through the pain and draws her back into the world. Cho’s expression of her experience of madness is poetic, and like much good poetry, it points its finger to the lies in our so-called reality: that our health system is healthy; that our expectations of motherhood are rational."
–BookPage, (starred review)
"Haunting and emotionally intense, this powerful memoir explores the hidden connections that tie families across generations, offering poignant meditations on the meaning of motherhood and identity. A compelling look at a mysterious mental illness"
“Completely devastating. Completely heartbreaking. Written in luminous, spiralling prose.”
–Daisy Johnson, author of Everything Under
“A fierce, brave, glittering book that charts with unflinching honesty the shift from one reality to another and the family ghosts that - without always knowing it - we all carry. I was drawn into Catherine’s story but I was also drawn into her mother’s, her grandmother’s, and those too with whom she shared that time in a psychiatric unit. But most of all it offers hope. Even from that place of darkness and confusion.”
–Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
“Inferno does just as the title suggests, it throws you into the flames of the author's psychosis so that you are in there with her, fighting for your next breath. I've rarely read such a powerful account of madness. Gripping, chilling and ultimately hopeful, this is one not to miss.”
–Lisa Jewell, author of The Family Upstairs and Then She Was Gone
“I was hooked from the very start, by the “dear reader” letter setting the scene for all that followed. It is at heart a love story, but one in which unimaginable, wonderfully depicted, mental torture intrudes. In sharing this pain, and exploring its cultural and other causes, Catherine Cho does a great service to the cause of breaking down stigma surrounding mental ill health. Above all though she has written a beautiful book.”
“Utterly compelling and beautifully written, Inferno is one of the bravest and most beautiful books I have ever read. I devoured it in one sitting and loved every page.”
–Alice Feeney, author of Sometimes I Lie
“This book is utterly brilliant: poetic, truthful, frightening, clever. I held my breath at both the power of the prose and the writer’s unflinching honesty. Catherine Cho is most certainly a writer to watch.”
–Christie Watson, author of The Language of Kindness
“A powerful and poignant book. The difficult and haunting brutality of both psychosis and relationships was so beautifully and honestly portrayed.”
–Bev Thomas, author of A Good Enough Mother