Ruminations on Aimee Mann’s “Queens of the Summer Hotel”

— Misogyny in Medicine

Administration Building, McLean Hospital, Belmont Massachusetts. The “Summer Hotel.” Photograph by John Phelan, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Ennui: en·nui (änˈwē). Noun. A feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement. Example: “She succumbed to ennui and despair.” Ennui is French for boredom. The word often appears in the college scholastic aptitude test (SAT) to weed out average students from those who are Ivy League bound. With just average SAT scores, I knew I was not Ivy League material. However, I could see Harvard University from my dorm room at Boston University (BU) — the Charles River separates the two universities and Cambridge from Boston.

I first encountered the word “ennui” when I was at BU. I was immersed in the rock and roll music scene and not the academic scene. The word “ennui” was used in the title of the Hall & Oates song, “Ennui on the Mountain,” a song about craving stardom, achieving it, yet not feeling the “high.” I had long since forgotten the meaning of the word, but intermittently throughout my career I had been a victim of its dispiriting effects.

I stumbled upon “ennui” again while listening to Aimee Mann’s song “I See You,” a tune from her new album Queens of the Summer Hotel (released November 5, 2021). Both the song and the album convey the plight of women confronted by a male-dominated psychiatric profession in the 1960s. “Queens” is not Mann’s first foray into the world of mental illness. Her previous album, aptly titled “Mental Illness,” won a Grammy award in 2017. Only now Mann specifically calls out the men of medicine for hastily and incorrectly diagnosing women and labeling them “crazy” simply because they are female.

“Queens of the Summer Hotel” was conceived for a future musical stage adaptation of Susanna Kaysen’s 1993 memoir “Girl, Interrupted” — and James Mangold’s 1999 Oscar-winning film by the same name — detailing Kaysen’s real-life teenage experiences at McLean psychiatric hospital in 1967. The title was inspired by an Anne Sexton poem to her psychiatrist, Dr. Martin T. Orne (1927–2000), who suggested that Sexton begin writing poetry to help unbottle her feelings. “I had this idea of calling a mental institution a summer hotel because that just has a lot of weight to it,” Mann explained to SPIN.

It’s unclear whether Mann actually attributed the moniker to the heavy lifting occurring in the therapeutic relationship between Sexton and Orne, described as one of the most intriguing in the annals of psychiatry. Dr. Orne tape recorded his sessions with Sexton to help compensate for her memory fugues. After Sexton’s death, Orne made the tapes available to Sexton’s biographer without her explicit permission, drawing the ire of the American Psychiatric Association and others. Sexton’s poem to Orne was written early in her career, after she attempted suicide and while she was a patient at Westwood Lodge psychiatric hospital:

“You, Doctor Martin, walk
from breakfast to madness. Late August,
I speed through the antiseptic tunnel
where the moving dead still talk
of pushing their bones against the thrust
of cure. And I am queen of this summer hotel
or the laughing bee on a stalk of death…”

The reality is that Kaysen titled her memoir after a famous baroque painting by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, considered a master of the use of light. The painting is “Girl Interrupted at Her Music” (c. 1660–1). Mann’s song, “At the Frick Museum,” does not mention the painting by title, but it alludes to the final pages of “Girl, Interrupted” where 30-something Susanna Kaysen feels drawn to Vermeer’s painting, recalling how her life was interrupted 16 years earlier, around the time she first saw the painting (on a high school trip) and was hospitalized at McLean:

“A strange vignette
In paint and frame
I knew that, yet
I’d heard my name
Like a drеam I’d forgotten
Now it’s gone…”

It is noteworthy that the poets Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath are the subjects of a waltz in “Queens.” Along with Sexton and Kaysen, Lowell and Plath were residents at McLean (at different times) and exhibited suicidal tendencies (Plath and Sexton completed suicide). Mood disorders were their defining feature — a gift as well as the source of their suffering — and a common malady among poets. Lowell is famous for saying: “I write when I’m manic and revise when I’m depressed.” Mann’s song about him and Plath depicts the titular pair walking “together down the primrose path” and slowly peels the layers away to detail their downfall:

“Robert Lowell
And Sylvia Plath
Paint and plaster, stripped down
To the lath
One now broken
One now dust
Victim of a
Mental wanderlust…”

Strangely, Lowell mentions a Vermeer painting — most likely “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” (c.1662–3) — in a poem written toward the end of his career. In the poem, “Epilogue,” Lowell compares the writing process to painting — he appears to want to be able to write the way Vermeer paints. Yet, Lowell is self-critical, claiming that sometimes everything he writes seems garish to him. It is known that Lowell especially admires Vermeer’s laser focus on people (usually women) completely absorbed in their discipline. Lowell seems to be saying that form and technique are as important in writing as they are in art, and writing poetry is a bright light that gives meaning to his life.

Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name

If I had shown more interest in the humanities, I would have known about Robert Lowell’s distinguished, albeit tortured, career and his legacy at my college alma mater. In the late 1950s, Lowell led a workshop at Boston University whose students included Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. This legendary group gathered in the same small corner classroom (room 222) where BU’s creative writing workshops continue to meet. Lowell referenced Boston University in one of his most famous poems, “Walking in the Blue,” about his stay at McLean:

“The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My hearts grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the “mentally ill.”)…”

I digressed into the humanities because much of the material on “Queens” traverses medicine and the humanities. British humanities and women’s rights scholar Elinor Cleghorn argues in her book Unwell Women that the medical profession is mired in myth and misbeliefs about women. The history of medicine shows that men donning white coats have controlled the fate of women, and doctors’ knowledge about women's’ susceptibility to illness and dis-ease has been shaped and distorted by prejudicial beliefs dating back to ancient Greece. Centuries ago, it was believed that a disconnected and “wandering womb” (uterus) was to blame for a variety of ailments, including excessive emotion, or hysteria. Hence, hysterectomy, from the Greek word hysterika, meaning uterus, became a viable cure for physical and mental disorders in women.

Although the idea of the wandering uterus has become folklore, proven a fallacy by advances in medical research and technology, it has left a legacy of needless suffering in women and a reminder of how the medical profession has failed them. There is a pervasive aura of distrust and disbelief around women’s medical complaints due to ingrained attitudes passed down through generations. The sexist and systematic discounting of women’s physical and mental symptoms makes them vulnerable to misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis, which imperils their health.

Feminists have written that hysteria “epitomized the cult of female invalidism.” Nowhere is this more evident than in Mann’s song “Give Me Fifteen.” She describes a cocky male doctor boasting of his ability to diagnose women in just 15 minutes. How does he do this? Mostly by not really trying to understand women because they “are so simple after all.” The brazen doctor prescribes tranquilizers and shock treatment as a 1960s equivalent of hysterectomy. “It’s enraging, and every woman has absolutely experienced it — not being taken seriously,” Mann told the Los Angeles Times.

Undoubtedly the most powerful song on “Queens” is the lead single, “Suicide is Murder.” It addresses the repercussion of suicide — loved ones are “cursed, and part of them will also die” — and bespeaks the psychoanalytic notion that behind every suicide there is a homicide. Mann informed Rolling Stone, “I started to write this song because I’ve known people who committed suicide and friends who’ve had loved ones die from suicide. I think the phrase ‘suicide is murder’ took on a meaning for me as it’s the worst thing to have to deal with in the aftermath. It’s just terrible. Because every person who knows the person who committed suicide will blame themselves in some way for not noticing or stepping in or doing something. They’ll till the end of their days, say, ‘was there something I could have done?’”

Yet, “Queens” ends on a hopeful note, the aforementioned “I See You.” The song is a bittersweet denouement encouraging women to battle mental illness and accept support from friends. The narrator of the song reassures a woman that she’s not alone — “There is a girl over a cliff, trying to break her fall — I see you … whether it’s black despair or just ennui, I can see.” When the “older” Kaysen views Vermeer’s paining at the Frick Museum, she sees it differently than she did in high school. Kaysen comments to the girl interrupted at her music — or perhaps to a younger version of herself, or both — “I had something to tell her now. ‘l see you.’”

Mann told Variety that “I See You” is the song she most identifies with “because that’s really about me understanding and acknowledging that there are a lot of people out there who are struggling, and part of the struggle is feeling that people do not understand or will not believe them. Especially if it’s PTSD [which Mann has said she has suffered from] — that’s such a huge part of it is to feel like people will believe you.”

And so, with “I See You,” “Queens” takes one last shot at doctors — indeed, a plea — to take women’s health concerns seriously, especially concerns about mental health. The message to women is honest and direct: fight for the care you deserve. If it’s any consolation, women today comprise the majority of first-year medical students, and medical schools are attracting and enrolling more racially and ethnically diverse classes. The medical profession is also working to revamp its practices and eliminate explicit forms of discrimination and more subtler microaggressions — indirect expressions of prejudice that contribute to the maintenance of existing power structures — and quash man-made myths about women’s bodies and minds. In the end, however, it is physicians who must acknowledge and rectify their own biases in order to best serve their patients.

Here’s another word likely to trip up high school students taking the SAT. Misogyny: mi·sog·y·ny (məˈsäjənē). Noun. Dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women. Example: “In her search for a diagnosis, the patient felt she was struggling against thinly disguised misogyny in the canons of medicine.”