The theme of mental illness is prevalent throughout Art Spiegelman’s story of his family’s experiences before, during, and after the Holocaust, Maus I: My Father Bleeds History. An emphasis should be placed here on “before,” as the early parts of Maus reveal a long history of mental health issues affecting the author’s mother, beginning with a bout of post-partum depression following the birth of the big brother Art will never know due to the child’s death during the Holocaust. Issues of mental health are a recurring theme in the pages that follow, especially the particularly wrenching section titled “Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History,” in which Spiegelman describes the emotional trauma understandably associated with his mother’s suicide after the war and with Art’s own struggles with depression during this period of time. In this chapter, the author describes his father’s discovery of his dead wife, her wrists slashed, and Art’s statement that he had been living with his parents, “as I agreed to do on my release from the state mental hospital three months before.” Add in his father, Vladek’s own idiosyncrasies and the obvious mental health issues stemming from his experiences in concentration camps, such as his extreme thriftiness, a common reaction to having lost everything during the Holocaust, including family members, and Maus is a testament to the emotional toll on those who survived.
The chapter in which Anja, Art’s mother, commits suicide resonates throughout the book, as Vladek’s subsequent marriage to another survivor of the Holocaust ensures that the emotional trauma associated with that experience remains the dominant feature of their home. Art has held deep-seated resentments towards his father as well as guilt for his mother’s death – a situation seriously exacerbated by his relatives’ and family friends’ tendency to blame the son for the mother’s suicide, evident in the panel that shows a concentration-camp-prisoner-clad Art being berated by one such “friend,” “Now you cry! Better you cried when your mother was still alive.!” [Emphasis in original] Art relives memories of his depressed mother approaching him with desperate reaffirmations of a son’s love for his mother, to which Art responds blankly, even rudely. The guilt he carries will never really disappear.
“Survivor’s guilt” is a real phenomenon, and Art’s sense of guilt for his mother’s suicide and Vladek’s deep-seated guilt for having survived the concentration camps dominates Maus. Vladek’s contentious relationship with Mala, his second wife, repeatedly exposes the emotional wounds left over from the war, although Vladek’s personality was clearly formed prior to the deadly anti-Semitism that targeted Jewish communities across Poland and Germany before the advent of the Final Solution.
Spiegelman’s handling of mental health issues in Maus is handled through exposure of those issues and his own therapeutic decision to detail and report on his father’s life. Such writing (and drawing) was central to his own efforts at coming to terms with his own guilty feelings and with his struggle to better deal with the demons that haunted him. There was no way the experiences of living through the Holocaust would not adversely affect those who survived, as well as the children of those who survived. Art's memories of a dysfunctional family dominated by the difficult Vladek and of his mother's suicide reveal emotional wounds that were still very open.