by Tania Pabon
Juana shushes her advisors with her left palm, her right pointer finger threatening to execute royal power. Leave me with my husband. The King lies to her left, his body stiffening on their bed. Juana stands over seven feet tall. One of her male advisors is kneeling next to her, pleading to return Felipe’s body to his casket. “The Madness of Joanna of Castile” by Lorenzo Vallés shows Juana asking for more time, convinced her husband will rise from the dead. The oil on canvas takes up an entire wall at the Museo del Prado in Madrid. On the adjacent wall hangs “Queen Joanna the Mad.” Juana’s stunned face looks upon Felipe’s closed casket as her court waits, some cross-legged on the ground leaning on each other, some standing with arms tight across their chests, all of them looking bored and exhausted. At 30, I am only a few years older than she is here, wind blowing in her hair, husband’s enclosed body at her feet. My cousin, José, pinches my elbow asking to move on. I don’t want to leave her.
The Museo del Prado is one of the few places open on Sunday in Madrid, so we weave around the museum leisurely. Eve reaching for the apple, Adam half-heartedly hesitating. Helen of Troy being kidnapped. My mother and I stop in front of a crucified Jesus, one of hundreds. She takes in his slung head, her eyes trying to meet his, but he’s never painted looking at us, his face pointed only toward the heavens above or the earth he’s leaving. “Poor Maria,” my mother shakes her head, mourning the virgin mother’s loss.
There are fewer Juanas than there are Marias, but the obsession of Juana as object is just as heavy, perhaps heavier. Juana has become a myth by virtue of her silenced story. With no advocates, the artist can keep her flat on their canvas at the mercy of their brush. To paint Maria you need pale primary colors—the delicate yellow of her halo, the softened red of her robe, her hooded cloak in cloudy blue. Juana is painted with a complicated palette—brick orange for the wooden chair against which she reclines, murky green for the curtains shielding her from her dead husband’s quarters, an infusion of everything saintly and subdued and foggy for the black of her dress. I hurry past all the other women who receive a fraction of attention from painters, entering and exiting rooms of the Prado with an open map. Juana’s hiding with paintings that came after her, with paintings of kings and their horses.
“There’s one, post-insanity,” my cousin says, spotting her before I do. Juana sits by a fireplace accompanied by a nun, a maid of her court, and her young daughter Catalina. Catalina is pulling at her mother’s skirt for recognition, but Juana looks into me, eyes at half-mast, not even asking for help.
You can’t be post-insanity. I say this knowing what it is to come back from the blur.
I once adored my muddy life. Like tracking dirt into the house, my careless adventures collected in the nook of my elbows and the hollow under my ankles. Every bender, every one-night stand, and every lie amassed inside of me until I became a sty. On the days that I wasn’t catching up with the disembodied voices that had taken to following me, I preferred to lie under my comforter, hoping to melt into my mattress. I built a life with friends and a job in New York; my dirt sparkled under the glow of billboards and amber cigarette crowns.
The episode that prompted an intervention and my diagnosis involved me hitching a ride to JFK with a group of strangers I met outside of a Hoboken bar. I bought a one-way ticket to California at the JetBlue counter and boarded a flight without telling anyone what I was doing. I stayed in Los Angeles for a week in the same clothes. My phone died on day three. None of that mattered, because I was shiny. I appeared at a friend’s doorstep, he took me into his bed, and I was beautiful, adventurous, bold. When I revived my phone on day six, the flood of missed calls and text messages was enough to pull me back to reality. I flew back to New York the next day, and then I flew home to Puerto Rico alongside my parents and three haphazardly stuffed suitcases. I began seeing a psychiatrist based in San Juan a month after my 25th birthday. I was asked to be honest about behaviors my doctor called ‘symptoms.’ When we had exhausted my instances of impulsivity and recklessness, of indifference and heaviness, we began to dissect my family.
“My mom used to have issues,” I said, outing my mother to my therapist. I told him about being twelve years old, sitting with my mother and father in a restaurant. A few minutes after receiving our drinks, my mother’s face reddened. She hung her head and stared at her place setting, tears escaping the corners of her eyes. My father put his hand on the nape of her neck and motioned for the waitress to bring the check, citing a family emergency. There had been no trigger, no whispered fight between my parents or upsetting phone call. I had never seen her lose her composure so deeply, but I knew she cried at night on the other side of our shared bedroom wall.
My mother wanders into the gallery where my cousin and I are standing. She nudges me and points to Eduardo Rosales Gallina’s “Doña Isabel la Catolica Dictating Her Will.” Doña Isabel is Juana’s mother. In the scene stretching from floor to ceiling, Isabel lies on her deathbed—white sheets, white pillows, white nightgown—lips parted mid-sentence, as a notary transcribes the Queen’s last wishes onto parchment. “I wonder what she’s saying,” my mother says. She looks up at Isabel reverently as if she were Maria.
“She’s leaving the kingdom to Juana,” I say. I catch my mother’s suspicious gaze on me, but I won’t look away from the dying queen. I feel justified by Isabel’s faith in Juana.
“Juana must not have been insane until later,” my mother says, leaving me with Isabel before she has to think too hard about what it means to bear a mad child.
Queen Isabel bore many children, and the most famous is not remembered as her mother’s daughter. Despite the immense investment Isabel made to prepare her for governance, Juana is The Mad Queen. There are no paintings of Juana as a girl at the museum. I can't find her sitting at an elaborately carved desk, an instructor looking over her shoulder as she practices writing in one of the five languages she’s fluent in. She doesn't stand poised with her chin parallel to the intricate carpet reciting romantic poetry. She was given to Felipe the Beautiful in marriage at age sixteen, a political arrangement orchestrated by both families that happened to work well, as Juana and Felipe loved each other dearly. I want to see her on her wedding day, for her to look at me with joy. But the artists only want her in madness. They want her empty and vacant so they can color her in with their fallacies, foggy, and torrential.
I’ve told my mother I do not want to have children for years. And for years my mother has told me I will change my mind. More years piled on top of my decision, paperweight after paperweight, holding down my statement. The more resistant I became, the more she insisted I would change my mind. “You don’t know what it’s like to be a woman yet,” she would say as she walked away from our conversation.
After my bipolar diagnosis, I attempted to simultaneously delve into and get over my faulty thought process. My mother was concerned with securing an appropriate future for me. In her mind I was on a timeline; I was in my mid-twenties and I’d wasted my prime. She understood that wellness comes gradually, but she wanted me to achieve it immediately. The benchmarks I used to measure my stability were different than my mother’s. Every day took a different kind of energy. Every day I had to learn myself. I worked for easy goals: to be able to sit and read for a while or to be able to focus enough to drive.
With my diagnosis I had a new reason to not be a mother, one my own mother couldn’t dispute: I didn’t want to risk passing on the disorder or relapsing. But as I continued to improve, guilt settled in my chest. I wanted to give my mother a peace offering for having made her face something in herself. Unable to gift her my future, I let her take control of my day to day. She helped me pick out clothes and fixed my makeup. Try this on. With the other pants. No, you’re right, terrible. Follow me to the grocery store. Come along to the bank. I was her paper doll, shoulders stiff and mouth drawn closed. The more she dressed me up, the better she felt. I lost bits of me to her—my opinions, my likes, my wants. I was buried under the things she projected onto me. I convinced myself silence was better than discord.
The temperature in Sevilla is over 90 degrees. I see it glistening on foreheads and rolling down temples. Outfits are immediately made incomplete as businessmen abandon their jackets and young women tie their scarves to their purses. Everything I’m carrying, down to my insanity, has somehow expanded in the heat. We end up paying for a guided tour to the Catedral de Santa Maria de la Sede just so we don’t have to wait in line under the oppressive sun.
Our guide, a red and round Sevillian man named Manolo, lectures us on architectural basics. Stained glass windows depicting the life of Jesus for those who couldn’t read, the altar bathed in gold brought in from the new world—ornately gated and reserved for royalty. Carved doorways that lead to the Catholic church’s treasure, necklaces, crowns, and chalices. We walk from shrine to shrine, one made entirely from red marble, another dedicated to Maria.
“People wonder why Maria is always sculpted with eyes closed,” Manolo points to the lids of the virgin mother in front of us. “Her eyes are actually open, but you can only look into them if you kneel at her base.” My mother draws in breath as if she’s been given a divine gift. She makes her way toward the encased sculpture along with the other tourists and falls gently to her knees, chest bent forward and head tilted up in hopes of catching Maria’s eye.
Men, women, and children come to the statue to look at Maria the way the artist meant for her to be looked at. The men avert their gazes quickly, stand and rush their wives to continue to the shrine of Jesus’ resurrection. The wives stall as they pull their children down by the sleeves so they too can learn how to revere the virgin.
“You could do it with any of them.” Manolo’s dismissive hand refers to every statue of Maria. She is depicted the same everywhere—an eternally humbled presence with no fear or anger. I walk away from her easily.
There was not another queen named Juana for years. Later monarchs avoided the name as it was possible that the name of a crazy woman was cursed by the devil. Queen Joanna of Castilla retained her title until death, even though her father Fernando, and then her son Carlos, took over her royal duties long before then. When Fernando deemed Juana too erratic to rule, she was kept as a figurehead. Eventually, Fernando confined Juana to a palace in Tordesillas against her will. Carlos instructed her caregivers not to speak or engage with his mother from fear that she would become upset or violent. Juana died in that palace after 46 years of solitary confinement.
My apartment in New York—a cozy studio for one—was my comfort when I returned to the city at twenty-eight for more schooling. I had earned the right to live alone, had named myself as sick, and I continuously worked at recovery. But I had dulled. Everyone around me was convinced they’d gotten me back. It only made me wonder if they’d known me to begin with. In this unbalance, my apartment was my source of quietude.
Upon returning from Spain, my parents and cousin stayed with me in that New York before flying back to Puerto Rico. They took over my surfaces and used my toilet paper. I trailed behind them like a helium balloon, lassoed to their will by a string. I concentrated on Juana to cope.
I read about the decline of her mental stability and wondered if she noticed her good days becoming sporadic and her bad days becoming her baseline. Sometimes she would refuse to speak, other times she would only speak to the large cat she hallucinated. Did she not know to ask for help, or did she not trust anyone enough to do so?
“Haven’t read enough about Juana yet?” my mother asked, white blouse in her hands and black suitcase at her feet. Her eyes were on my computer, an article about Juana’s lineage on the screen. I tilted the computer screen down slightly, instinctively, as if her question had exposed me.
“Most historians say she was bipolar,” I said. “It ran in her family. Juana’s grandmother suffered from manic episodes.” This wasn’t the answer she was expecting. Eyes narrowed, my mother turned the shirt in her hands in on itself, as if each bend and fold were helping her to understand my answer.
I waited for the realization that what ran through my depths was not of my own invention, that my mother and I carry this disposition together as our matriarchs did, dormant or pulsing. I wanted to feel validated in my illness, to feel tethered to my mother in a way I never had before.
“Those people lived so long ago, it will be impossible to really know what they went through. History is not one-sided.” She placed the compacted blouse in her suitcase, and I shut my computer. My mother returned to Puerto Rico the next day, leaving me with my silenced queen. I was happy to share my newly vacated studio with Juana. We could both use the company.
Published October 14th, 2018
Originally from San Juan, Tania Pabon is now a writer based in New York. She holds an M.A. from the University of Puerto Rico, and an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared in Briller Magazine and Gravel, is forthcoming in Breadcrumbs Mag, and was chosen for AmpLit Fest’s Emerging Writer Showcase 2018.
San Francisco-born, New York-based artist Tauba Auerbach has described her work as an attempt to reveal “new spectral and dimensional richness… both within and beyond the limits of perception.” Engaging a variety of media, ranging from painting and photography to book design and musical performance, Auerbach explores the limits of our structures and systems of logic (linguistic, mathematical, spatial) and the points at which they break down and open up onto new visual and poetic possibilities.