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LAce Posted Monday, June 30th, 2003
Behind the Gingham Curtain
Fawn Pattison

Do you create scrapbooks of handmade paper to commemorate every special occasion? Embroider reproductions of medieval woodcuts on sachets of home-grown lavender for your underwear drawer? Bring home-made herbal elixirs to your friends’ sickbeds? Place delicate nonpareils in intricately-folded paper boxes atop each place setting to delight your dinner guests? Do you also work far more than your allotted 40 hours at a stressful or challenging job?

According to recent studies from the State University of New York at Nyack, you may be one of an estimated 2 million sufferers of a heartbreaking and manicure-wrecking syndrome known as arequiescera nervosa, or AN. But there may be an organization forming right in your neighborhood that can help you. Since the long-anticipated incarceration of AN poster-child and small-time crook Martha Stewart, survivors around the country have begun to connect, via the internet, in the glue aisle at craft stores, and even in their therapists’ waiting rooms, to finally share the grief and pain that they have long suffered in silence. AN support groups have formed in dozens of cities, from hip urban centers to sleepy suburbs across the country, like this one in Knightdale, North Carolina.

“I was knitting and hand-felting 2 to 3 dozen pairs of lambswool baby bootees a month,” says a Knightdale attorney and mother of two who asked that her name be withheld. She is sitting on a plastic folding chair in the fluorescent-lit meeting room at New Bern Avenue United Methodist Church which is usually reserved for AA meetings, surrounded by a dozen mostly young, smartly-dressed women. “I stored the wool in a cedar chest packed with herbs I dried from my garden to imbue the bootees with natural scent, and after they were finished I would wrap them in paper I made from the lint in my dryer. But only the lint from blue or white laundry. I hate the way colored clothes make the lint turn gray.” Her comrades nod sympathetically. But such generous gestures can turn bitter, as this woman’s tears acknowledge. “After more than a year of this, I couldn’t even give the damn things away,” she sobs.

This arequiescera nervosa support group was organized by suburban-Raleigh investment banker and AN-survivor Rita Reddick, whose breakthrough came as she watched news footage of Martha Stewart’s trial on CNN. “I was fascinated watching her in that courtroom, my hero, looking so bedraggled, and then I suddenly had this amazing realization that she wasn’t thinking about the next coat of varnish on a découpage project – she probably learned découpage from an article in her own magazine! All she was thinking about was her money. She had all these legions of sweatshop crafters doing all the work while she surfed Wall Street. It’s a good thing they caught her. She made my life hell – and lots of other people’s too.” Reddick is now divorced, a mother of two young children both diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. After 10-hour days at the firm and a 40-minute commute, says Riddick, she would come home to clean up and look after the two children and then stay up til two or three a.m. sewing outfits for her children to coordinate with the colors of her garden’s peak bloom times, and making other projects from Martha Stewart Living, after the kids went to bed. Her husband begged her to stop. “I was on speed, anti-depressants, and probably high sniffing spray-adhesive to boot,” she laughs.

But arequiescera nervosa is no laughing matter. Many of the AN survivors at this suburban-Raleigh church are casualties of divorce, and those who are single say they have a hard time keeping relationships together. “It’s hard to get to know someone, you know, intimately, when you’re thinking of checking the auction again on that perfect antique egg cup you saw on e-bay,” giggles one AN-survivor sporting a conspicuous hand-knitted cotton wrap. Relationship trouble is more than just a side-effect of AN, says Dr. Marianne Rasmussen, the SUNY-Nyack psychologist who led the recent AN studies. “Martha Stewart doesn’t cause AN, she just perpetuates it. Among the predominantly-female sufferers of this syndrome we so often find that compulsive crafting goes hand-in-hand with workahaulism, OCD-like organizing and re-organizing, and other means of escape. In many cases AN is like a mirror; it provides a highly-controlled environment where women can escape from relationships, jobs, or other situations that seem to be spinning out of her control.”

Even as the support groups gain in popularity, competing groups of young perfectionist crafters are forming all over the country. In Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, Washington DC, and Chapel Hill, just 40 miles from Riddick’s support group, clutches of knitters gather in coffee shops and other public spaces for Knitting in Public, or “KIPping,” a club that meets weekly and aggressively recruits new members. “We meet in coffee shops because we don’t want to hide what we’re doing, we want to spread the ethic of making beautiful, stylish things for yourself,” says Jenny Slichter, the Chapel Hill group’s unofficial leader, who occupies a strategic position in the front window of Caffe Druide as she knits. “We like to spread the dogma,” adds a Kallie, a pixie-like woman in horn-rimmed spectacles from the seat next to Slichter. Jenny and Kallie have gathered with several other stitchers tonight to work on their “Needles of Hope” project. Kallie explains: “In some parts of the world children are forced to work in sweatshops making cheap clothing for Sprawl-Mart shoppers, and they totally miss out on their childhood. So we’re making a book of fun, funky patterns that they can use to knit clothes for their dolls.” Besides charity projects, KIPping groups run websites, listservs, and hold regular gatherings to welcome new stitchers to town and inaugurate them into the sisterhood.

Rasmussen is dubious about the value of such social circles. “Women often gravitate towards these groups because they’re lonely, because they need companionship, because they’re looking for an escape from the high-pressure worlds they live in. Remember that these aren’t bored retirees; these women are executives, scientists, teachers, often working more than full-time and taking care of a home. They come into these groups seeking relief from high-stress situations, but what they’re pulled into is a highly-competitive world of perfectionism where they’re being pushed from one outlandish project to the next,” she says.

Back in Knightdale, Riddick agrees. She has been trying to convince her neighbor Lisa, a thirty-nine year-old neonatal nurse and accomplished potter, to join her growing support group. Instead, she attends bi-monthly meetings of the Weavers’ Guild. Lisa began raising angora rabbits three years ago for their wool, which she harvests, spins, dyes, and weaves into delicate, spidery shawls. “She started growing indigo and other things in her garden to make the dyes from,” says Riddick. “That’s when I realized she needed help. Not to mention that she repainted the inside of her house at least four times last year.” Stories like Lisa’s underscore one of the fundamental problems with women who suffer from arequiescera nervosa: they love their condition. Women like Lisa, says Dr. Rasumussen, don’t see themselves as being sick. “They’re superwomen, they’re exhilarated by their accomplishments,” she says, “they’re like June Cleaver with a 50-hour-a-week job.”

Riddick corresponds regularly with AN support groups from ten states. After the gathering in Knightdale, she sends an email to her friend Hillary, who facilitates a monthly meeting for AN-survivors in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hillary is a university administrator and mother of three who recently gave up her consuming dollhouse-building habit after being diagnosed with AN – she snapped after a miniature working dishwasher she had made leaked repeatedly, forcing her to handpaint the kitchen wallpaper three times. The two have become close friends, part of a sort of support group of support groups. It was Hillary who gave Riddick the idea of recruiting AN-survivors for her Knightdale group at the local Michael’s store using handbills she screen-printed on vintage handkerchiefs. “Another great meeting Hil,” writes Riddick, “we sat around, talked about our problems, drank coffee, and nobody made anything.”

Comments [post a comment]

Posted by Terrence Templeton on Monday, June 30th, 2003 at 9:35 AM
My wife uses our microwave oven to make shrinky dinks from used Happy Meal cartons. A neighbor called me at the office last week to report that she'd seen my children - Terry Jr., age 9, and little Melissa, age 5 - rooting through the trash cans in the MacDonald's play yard. I asked my wife about it, and she broke down crying. She said she can't help herself. "But honey," she said, "they're so cute!" Is there a support group in Virginia?

Posted by jocelyn johnson on Monday, June 30th, 2003 at 11:20 AM
I like this peice, it makes me laugh and hurts a little. Brutality and self loathing behind baby booties...sounds about right.

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