Inferno: harrowing account of postpartum psychosis

Review: Catherine Cho’s clear-eyed memoir tells of potential cost of having children

Catherine Cho is courageous in sharing her story.

Catherine Cho is courageous in sharing her story.

Catherine Cho’s Inferno begins with her description of a Korean tradition: “After a baby is born, mother and baby do not leave the house for the first twenty-one days. There are long cords of peppers and charcoal hung in the doorway to ward away guests and evil spirits.” The mother should keep her body warm and eat seaweed soup, to give her strength. After 100 days, the family should throw a big party, a “celebration of survival, with pyramids of fruit and lengths of thread for long life”.

Catherine and her husband James were recently married Korean-Americans living and working in London in 2017– a place and time when the overwhelming majority of newborns survive their first 100 days. While their Korean-born parents reminded them about “sitting out” the period after birth, Cho writes, “I didn’t see why we had to pay attention to Korean traditions or superstitions, as I thought of them”. Instead, she made what she calls a “fateful” decision: she and James would spend several weeks of their parental leave in the US, taking their baby home for an extended visit to their friends and families. Soon enough, this urge to celebrate the birth with a vacation collided with the reality of her son’s round-the-clock demands.

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