Book Reviews

Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman | Book Review

Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman | Book Review Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman
Genres: Fiction
Original Publication Date: 1967
Source: I purchased this book
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four-stars

Diary of a Mad Housewife is a classic of women’s fiction that gave a wry voice to the nascent feminist stirrings of the 1960s and helped incite a revolution in the consciousness of a generation. When Bettina Balser begins to suspect that she is going mad, she starts a secret diary as a form of therapy. Through her observations of herself and those around her, Bettina seeks meaning in her exceedingly dreary life.

Diary Of A Mad Housewife

Bettina Balser is thirty-six years old.

She is a Smith College graduate who is now a housewife. She lives with her husband Jonathan and two young daughters in comfortable circumstances on Central Park West in New York City.

While she was at Smith, Tina decided that she wanted to be a painter. She actually lived in Greenwich Village after college, and tried To Paint:

Mornings and evenings I worked in a Village bookstore, and went to classes at the League in the afternoons.

She eventually had a breakdown and was treated for three years by a male psychiatrist, Dr. Popkin, who tells her to give up painting (after looking at her paintings) and be a housewife and mother.

Dr. Popkin says:

Those dibs. Those daubs. Those fecal smears. They are a graphic expression of all the conflicts, aggressions and hostilities you had repressed for so long. These so-called paintings are not art, or even excuses for art. They are excuses. Period.

Tina goes on to say:

I finally learned to accept the fact that I was a bright, but quite ordinary young woman, somewhat passive and shy, who was equipped with powerful Feminine Drives – which simply means I badly wanted a husband and children and a Happy Home.

Marriage

She met Jonathan at the local meeting of the Democratic Club. He was a lawyer, and at the time he had strong political ambitions. When that didn’t work out, he went for the money.

He’s now wildly ambitious in his career. Everything must be perfect – the apartment, the children, their appearances.

Yes, appearances must be kept up at all times. The cracks can never show. Jonathan wants to impress the people at his firm and also in the theatrical world.

He has an interest in getting involved with New York theater, either financially or in other ways. He doesn’t realize that the theater people he’s trying to impress don’t take him seriously.

Tina’s days are spent doing errands and chores, although she has a full-time housekeeper so she actually doesn’t have to do much cleaning and cooking.

She spends most of her time buying the fancy foods that Jonathan wants to have, picking up her children, planning parties, and arranging for others to take care of the really hard work in their lavish 8-room apartment.

Tina, however, is quite depressed. She has let her appearance go and is neglecting to take proper care of their home.

Tina believes that she is going mad. Mad from boredom and a lack of direction in her life.

She is secretly taking pills and alcohol to try to cope with her life.

Her Accounts

So she decides to write a secret diary. No one else must know about it.

She calls her diary her “Accounts.”

Yes, Accounts does very well indeed. For example — an Account of what happened here this morning at 7:22:

Throwing a clean shirt minus two buttons down on his bed with disgust, Jonathan went to his chest for another and said: “Tina. Tina, I’m really very worried about you.”

She later writes in her Account:

What I really am and have been since midsummer is paralyzed. What I am is paranoid as a coot, What I am at times is so depressed I can’t talk, so low I have to lock myself in the bathroom and run all the faucets to cover the sound of my crying.

Tina eventually has an extramarital affair with a man she meets at one of the endless parties they attend.

Analysis

Tina is an interesting character. She is very much a product of her time – an intelligent young woman who is supposed to throw all of that away – her excellent education, her talents – and be a perfect wife and mother.

She seems to have no close friends. She doesn’t even try to make friends. Could this be a symptom of what we now might call clinical depression?

It never occurs to Tina to get a job or take up painting again, or to volunteer her time to some charity. Instead, she has an affair with a man who is even more selfish than her husband.

She does, however, pour all of her frustrations into her diary.

Jonathan is a jerk. He is self-involved. He does appear to care about Tina, but mostly about how she appears. He wants her to go back to her psychiatrist who previously treated her.

Both of them are keeping secrets from one another. Some of them will be revealed near the end of the book. Some will not.

I do think the ending is tied up much too neatly and abruptly.

Further Reading

Today (August 7, 2023) would have been Sue Kaufman’s 97th birthday.

She died at the age of 50 apparently from a “long illness” although there are some varying accounts of the actual cause of her demise:

The Life and Death of Sue Kaufman: An Update

There is a film version of this book with an unforgettable performance by Carrie Snodgress as Tina. Richard Benjamin’s version of Jonathan is an even bigger jerk than he is in the book. At least in the book he has some redeeming qualities. He would drive anyone mad.

There is a full version of the film on YouTube but it won’t show up on my blog (search for Diary of a Mad Housewife full movie“).

Here is a trailer:

Hudson Valley Writers Guild (there are some spoilers about the ending to the book):: The Next Chapter – Hidden Gems: “Diary of a Mad Housewife”

Please read my reviews:

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg

You can check out my posts on New Jersey Memories:

National Guard Militia Museum

Frelinghuysen Arboretum, Spring 2023

The Secret Garden

Thank you for reading The Literary Lioness!

About Sue Kaufman

Sue Kaufman was born in Long Island, New York. She received her degree from Vassar College in 1947. Her works appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, and The Saturday Evening Post. Her first novel came out in 1959. In 1967 she wrote Diary of a Mad Housewife, which would be filmed in 1970. She died in 1977 at the age of 50.

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