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‘The Quiet Room: A Journey Out of the Torment of Madness’ by Lori Schiller ****

The Quiet Room by Lori Schiller, which was first published in 1994, was February’s choice for my Mad Woman’s Book Club.  It sounded incredibly intriguing to me, and created quite a lot of buzz with other members.  Schiller’s account of her schizo-affective disorder, which contains elements of both schizophrenia and manic depression, has been written with the guidance of Amanda Bennett, a Wall Street journalist.

Schiller’s diagnosis was not reached until she was twenty-three years old, and a graduate of Tufts University in Massachusetts.  Prior to this, she is in an almost constant state of turmoil; she wakes up hearing voices whilst at a summer camp when she is seventeen, and they remain with her.  To her strength, she does not let anything interfere with her education, but soon after she has finished her degree and is looking at beginning a career in a shared apartment in New York City that she is immersed within the mental care system.  ‘Along the way,’ writes Schiller, ‘I have lost many things: the career I might have pursued, the husband I might have married, the children I might have had.  During the years when my friends were marrying, having their babies and moving into the houses I once dreamed of living in, I have been behind locked doors, battling the Voices who took over my life without even asking my permission.’  Schiller’s description of these voices is often chilling.9780446671330

We are given Schiller’s opinion of events throughout, as well as those of her parents, brothers, friends, and psychiatrist – pretty much everyone who experienced the worst of it with her.  This use of multiple perspectives helps to fill those memory gaps which Schiller has about some of her darkest points, and gives a fuller picture of the disease and its effects.  The position of retrospect which Schiller, of course, has to take, is fascinating to draw out here.  It comes in a sort of double dose, I suppose; the book was written with several years of distance, but reading it in the 21st century allows one to see just how much things have altered with regard to  treatments being tailored to individuals rather than the mass.  The same can be said for the diagnostic process.  Those I know who have suffered with mental illness suggest that diagnoses are not made in such a trial-and-error manner as they appear to have been in Schiller’s case.

At the beginning of The Quiet Room, I felt quite distanced and wasn’t overly engaged with it.  It changed dramatically at around the fifty page point for me though, after which I could barely put it down.  Schiller’s case is harrowing; it takes an awfully long time for a diagnosis to be reached, and many treatments fail to work for her, either exacerbating her symptoms or making her withdraw further into herself.  One feels an awful lot of empathy for her.

The Quiet Room presents enlightening and scary details about firsthand drug use, which Schiller turns to when the more traditional treatments fail to work for her.  It is certainly a no-holds-barred memoir.  Throughout her ordeal, Schiller shows great bravery; when released after one of her earliest hospitalisations, she applies for a job in a psychiatric hospital.  The reading process involved here is intense, and rather draining at times.  It is difficult to really enjoy a book of this sort, but it is not difficult to admire the writer and her courage in making such a horrific story publicly available.  The Quiet Room is honest and powerful, and a must-read if you are at all interested in mental illness and its effects.

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‘Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945’ – edited by Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris ****

Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945 has proved a difficult book to get hold of.  I eventually sourced an inter-library loan which came all the way to my University’s library from Cardiff.  Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris have presented one of the first books of its kind here, bringing together the voice of women who were incarcerated in American institutions against their will over a 105-year period, and giving them ‘the opportunity to speak for themselves’.  Twenty-six first person case studies have been included in all, offering a ‘rare privilege’ to the reader.  ‘As a whole,’ the editors write in their introduction, ‘these narratives offer a clear picture of women’s lives from both within and outside the asylums in which they lived.  Individually, they provide some of the most harrowing tales of the abuses of the psychiatric system’.44099

Women of the Asylum has been split into four separate, distinct sections to cover the rather vast historical period – 1840 to 1865, 1866 to 1890, 1891 to 1920, and 1921 to 1945 – which all loosely relate to particular periods in treatment, or important turning points within political discourse. Geller and Harris also discuss their decision to split the period up into smaller chunks due to shifting moral and social conditions in the United States.  They write that ‘the nineteenth-century women of the asylum are morally purposeful, philosophical, often religious.  Their frame of reference, and their use of language, are romantic – Christian and Victorian.  They write like abolitionists, transcendentalists, suffragists.  The twentieth-century women are keen observers of human nature and asylum abuse – but they have no universal frame of reference.  They face “madness” and institutional abuse alone, without God, ideology, or each other.’

The women focused upon here, some of which you will have heard of (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for instance), and others who were publicly unknown, all ‘wanted to right the wrongs they saw being perpetuated by what they perceived to be autocratic families, domineering physicians, unfeeling attendants, and misguided lawmakers’ in one way or another.  Regardless of their social class, whilst trapped within the asylums, none of the women were ‘treated with any kindness, sympathy, or medical or spiritual expertise’.   Each account here was written once the woman in question had been handed her freedom once more, and many were later published as warnings to others about the horrors which the asylum held, or as a process of self-healing.  Some of the women took direct action afterwards, campaigning for change, and others faded into relative obscurity.

As one would expect, I’m sure, some incredibly shocking accounts are presented here; for instance, the way in which ‘any sign of economic independence or simple human pride in a woman could be used against her, both legally and psychiatrically.’  There was also the fear that an individual would be driven to become mad solely due to her incarceration, or that she would remain in an asylum indefinitely, with no hope of ever escaping.

Some incredibly interesting questions have been posed throughout – for instance, whether such firsthand accounts can be trusted due to the mental imbalance which their authors may be suffering from, or the possible delusional aspect of their condition.  Each of these women, regardless of her circumstance or the amount of time in which she was locked away – and the periods vary drastically, from two months per year as a ‘rest cure’ of sorts, to the horrific stretch of twenty-eight years, such as Adriana P. Brinckle had to face – has legitimacy; each has her own story to tell.

In Women of the Asylum, Geller and Harris have presented a far-reaching and well-researched account, which has been introduced in a wise and lucid manner by Phyllis Chesler.  The concluding message seems to be this: ‘Whether they were rebels, social misfits, visionaries or madwomen is left for the reader to decide’.  If you can get your hands on this important and invaluable piece of literary gold dust, I would urge you to read it.

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One From the Archive: ‘Girl, Interrupted’ by Susanna Kaysen ****

First published in April 2014.

I am probably one of the few not to have seen the film version of Girl, Interrupted, and was drawn to it instead by the quote which compares it favourably to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar on the back page.  I have coveted this book for years, and finally managed to find a copy in Fopp on my most recent trip to London. 

Girl, Interrupted, which was first published in 1993, is a highly acclaimed autobiographical work.  It tells of its author, Susanna Kaysen, who, as an eighteen-year-old in 1967, was sent to McLean Hospital to be treated for depression.  She spent two years on the teenage psychiatric ward, which had previously treated such patients as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Ray Charles.  The information within the pages of Girl, Interrupted was found within her patient file, which she obtained from the hospital after she had been released.

I find books which deal with mental illness and recuperation fascinating, and I love being able to see so far into the human condition, reading about things which I have thankfully never personally experienced.  Here, Kaysen has interspersed her short chapters with photocopies of documents from her file, some of which contain some rather shocking and unsettling information.  One cannot imagine how awful it must have been to read the views of the nurses and doctors upon these sheets, even a long while after they were written.  Each chapter is an episode; a memory fragment, of sorts.  There is no real order to them, and that is what makes Girl, Interrupted so eminently readable.

Throughout, Kaysen writes both wisely and beautifully.  As well as outlining her own experiences – she and her roommate were deemed the ‘healthiest’ people in the hospital – she tells of other patients: ‘We watched a lot of things.  We watched Cynthia come back crying from electroshock once a week.  We watched Polly shiver after being wrapped in ice-cold sheets’.  She writes bravely of force-feedings, medication which could turn friends to zombie-like beings in just a few hours, and the horrific electroshock therapy which some of the patients were regularly subjected to.  Kaysen informs the reader of the gradations of ‘craziness’ which existed in McLean.

Girl, Interrupted is a fascinating and heart-wrenching account of living one’s formative years in such an institution as McLean.  Unlike that of some of her peers within the hospital, Kaysen’s story has relatively happy elements to it, in that she came out of the other side and was brave enough to share her story.  Her self-awareness and the use of retrospective, along with the power which every single word holds, makes Girl, Interrupted a truly stunning memoir, and one which I urge everyone to read.

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American Literature Month: ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ by Ken Kesey **** (Classics Club #4)

Unusually for me, I actually watched the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest before acquainting myself with the story in its original form.  I enjoyed it so much, however, that I wanted to pick it up in paperback as soon as I possibly could.  I subsequently made it part of my Classics Club list so that I had more chance of actually reading it.  It also slotted in nicely with my stack of American Literature Month reads.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey’s 1962 debut novel, is set in an Oregon State Mental Hospital, ‘with a strict, unbending routine’.  The whole is ruled over by the tyrannical Nurse Ratched, surely one of the most memorable and truly formidable characters in literature.  The arrival of R.P. McMurphy, ‘the swaggering fun-loving trickster with a devilish grin’, serves to shake things up; he ‘battles Nurse Ratched and the ward regime’, challenging everyone’s beliefs about the concept of madness as he goes.  ‘Who, of them all, is really insane?’ asks the book’s blurb.

The novel’s title is taken from a children’s folk rhyme.  It is narrated by Chief, a largely silent character: a ‘six-foot-eight sweeping machine, scared of its own shadow’.  He begins the tale by telling us of the way in which: ‘They’re mopping up when I come out the dorm, all three of them sulking and hating everything…  When they hate like this, better if they don’t see me.  I creep along the wall quiet as dust in my canvas shoes, but they got special sensitive equipment detects my fear and they all look up, all three at once, eyes glittering out of the black faces like the hard glitter of radio tubes out of the back of our old radio’.  Chief is such an interestingly-positioned narrator: ‘They don’t bother not talking out loud about their hate secrets when I’m nearby because they think I’m deaf and dumb.  Everybody think so.  I’m cagey enough to fool them that much…  They can’t tell so much about you if you got your eyes closed’.  One cannot help but believe in every word he says, particularly with regard to the following statement: ‘It is still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it.  But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen’.

Many narrative techniques can be found within One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Chief’s voice could almost be termed prosaic in a couple of instances, but he serves to move the story along incredibly well, and the pace of the whole is just about perfect.  The present tense has been used to good effect too.  Chief is most informative; he tells us how the wards are split up and how the whole is managed, and shows us the diversity of the patients.  The way in which Kesey has used different levels of insanity works marvellously.  He is also adept at demonstrating the brutality within the institution, particularly with regard to some of the treatments used.

The exaggerations which Chief makes about Nurse Ratched serve to make her come across as a grotesque and terrifying character: ‘She’s going to tear the black bastards limb from limb, she’s so furious.  She’s swelling up…  She really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor…’.  He also describes McMurphy in a memorable manner: ‘The way he talks, his wink, his loud talk, his swagger all remind me of a car salesman or a stock auctioneer’.  Of himself, and his reasons for being committed, McMurphy says: ‘If it gets me outta those damned pea fields I’ll be whatever their little heart desires, be it psychopath or mad dog or werewolf, because I don’t care if I never see another weeding’ hoe to my dying day’.  The exaggerated elements throughout One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest become almost make-believe in their style; there is a definite and rather well adjusted strand of magical realism which can be traced from time to time.

Kesey’s dialogue is most amusing in places, and the entirety of his debut has been well stylised.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is incredibly engrossing and well worth a read, even if you are familiar with the film – the shift in perspective alone makes it a worthwhile exercise.

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American Literature Month: ‘Disturbing the Peace’ by Richard Yates *** (Classics Club #52)

I absolutely love Richard Yates’ writing, and made the decision to add a couple of his books to my Classics Club list.  The 52nd entry is his fourth novel, Disturbing the Peace, which was published in 1975.

Disturbing the Peace centres upon a salesman named John Wilder, who is in his mid-thirties, and an alcoholic.  We as readers find out a lot about him in the novel’s first passage, in which he refuses to return home to his wife Janice and son Tommy for the following reason: ‘”You really want to know, sweetheart?  Because I’m afraid I might kill you, that’s why.  Both of you.”‘.  Following this revelation, and a further spiral downwards, John spends a short spell in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital.  He essentially disturbs the peace of the community in which he lives, and sends shockwaves through his once-perfect family life.

As with a lot of Yates’ other works, a large portion of his cast of characters are beset by a slew of problems.  The whole is very well written, and we really get a feel for the muddle which John’s life has so quickly become.  Yates deftly captures the human psyche and reveals it for us to see.  Disturbing the Peace is very gritty, more so than Yates’ other books.  In places, it feels a lot darker than many of his other plots; or, rather, the darkness within it is more sustained.  Unfortunately, the novel is not as gripping or as well-developed as his other novels.  Whilst it is certainly of interest, it is definitely not a book which I would recommend to begin reading Yates with.

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‘The Offering’ by Grace McCleen ***

The Offering is Grace McCleen’s third novel, and follows The Land of Decoration and The Professor of Poetry.  The prologue of McCleen’s newest offering (pardon the pun) begins in Lethem Park Mental Infirmary in an unspecified part of England in June 2012.

Our wise and rather eloquent narrator is Madeline Adamson, a patient at the infirmary: ‘People have been staring at me a great deal lately.  I have become something of a celebrity…  Their eyes used to pass over me as if I were a chair or a cabinet; now they widen and darken, as if the chair had sprouted arms and legs’.  Madeline is both interesting and honest, and it feels throughout as though she is channelling her innermost, unutterable thoughts for the sole benefit of the reader: ‘Now, however, I find I am contented to drift from one moment to the next and if several hours pass in which I have done nothing other than consider my hands in my lap or the birds beyond the window, it does not matter.  I celebrate time.  I press it into my hands’.  She goes on to tell us of the monotony of her life, where some of the only things which differentiate between one day and the next are ‘whether Alice has been cheating at Guess Who?‘ and whether dinner will consist of ‘curried lamb or cottage pie’.

Madeline has been a patient for twenty one years, first admitted for what was believed to be depression at the age of fourteen.  Her newest doctor, Dr Lucas, believes her to have ‘dissociative amnesia’, and thinks that a traumatic incident in her early life caused part of her mind to be erased.  When she was thirteen, Madeline moved to an unnamed and rather hostile island with her preacher father and depressive mother, and it was at this point in her life that things began to spiral out of control.  We learn about her present and past simultaneously, and McCleen does a marvellous job of weaving the two together by way of diary extracts and sessions of hypnotism.

As in The Land of Decoration, biblical parallels are drawn throughout.  The Offering also has a lot of themes in common with the former – an incredibly religious parent (in this case, Madeline’s father), a troubled young protagonist trying to make sense of herself and her world, and the eternal striving to please those around one.  There is a sense that in both novels, the religious aspects do tend to saturate the plot at times; evidently religion is important in the lives of both narrators, but they do take over other elements in the story.  Similarly too, the whole has rather an uncomfortable feel to it.  Psychologically, The Offering is interesting, and is sure to startle and impress.

McCleen’s descriptions enable us to cast a vivid picture of Madeline’s world: for example, another patient, Robyn, is ‘blue-veined, whiteskinned, fragile as a bird, hair so fine I can see the skull gleaming through it – is moaning, a meaningless sound we would miss if it stopped’, and of her environment, ‘I am a student of surfaces.  I seek footholds in traces, animation in shades, intent in implacable geometry, meaning in the intractibility of metal and concrete and stone’.  Madeline’s narrative voice is well built; it is interesting to see the story from the perspective of someone who is at once vulnerable and powerful.  The whole for me was redolent of S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep.  Unexpected turns are taken, and novel’s ending is clever.

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One From the Archive: ‘Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England’ by Sarah Wise ****

First published in October 2012.

The book aims to ‘revaluate our image of mental health and society in the nineteenth century’, and is said to be ‘both page turning and scholarly’.

Wise has set out to show twelve true stories from Victorian times, in which sane people were locked away when declared ‘mad’ by their peers. Those included in Inconvenient People have been ‘selected to highlight the range of people who had to fight for their liberty against the imputation of insanity’. Her preface to the volume is rather informative, and leads incredibly well into the stories which follow.

We learn about the cases of Richard Paternoster, sent to Kensington House Asylum by his surgeon father; a doctor named John Quail, perceived as a ‘dangerous lunatic’ for ‘pestering Whitehall officials about a pension and remuneration he believed he was owed’; eminent Edward Bulwer-Lytton who cruelly confined his wife Rosina to an asylum ‘in controversial circumstances’; and Louisa Crookenden, mother of four babies who died in infancy and who later tried to commit suicide, amongst others. Each case reads like a short story might, and Wise has encompassed all the information available to her and presented it in an accessible format. Whilst the volume sets out to show the reader twelve stories relating to misconstrued lunacy, however, there are only actually ten featured, which is a shame.

As one might expect, Inconvenient People is rather information heavy, and unless being read for scholarly purposes, it is a far more beneficial volume to read one case at a time so as not to get too bogged down with all the facts.

The book contains a note on the terminology used throughout, ranging from ‘pauper lunatics’ who were unable to pay the fees for their care, to ‘single patient’, which ‘usually implied a wealthy lunatic in non-asylum care’. Informative maps have been included, along with illustrations which go with the text. The only downside is that some of these pictures have not been given captions, and therefore look as though they have been placed haphazardly with paragraphs that do not relate to them.

To conclude, Inconvenient People is an incredibly interesting book, and it is clear that Wise has put a lot of thought into the varied cases she has used and the way in which she has presented her information. It is an informative volume, which is equally as useful to a scholar of Victorian history or psychiatry as to an everyday reader interested in lunacy and social conditions of the nineteenth century.

The book aims to ‘revaluate our image of mental health and society in the nineteenth century’, and is said to be ‘both page turning and scholarly’.

Wise has set out to show twelve true stories from Victorian times, in which sane people were locked away when declared ‘mad’ by their peers. Those included in Inconvenient People have been ‘selected to highlight the range of people who had to fight for their liberty against the imputation of insanity’. Her preface to the volume is rather informative, and leads incredibly well into the stories which follow.

We learn about the cases of Richard Paternoster, sent to Kensington House Asylum by his surgeon father; a doctor named John Quail, perceived as a ‘dangerous lunatic’ for ‘pestering Whitehall officials about a pension and remuneration he believed he was owed’; eminent Edward Bulwer-Lytton who cruelly confined his wife Rosina to an asylum ‘in controversial circumstances’; and Louisa Crookenden, mother of four babies who died in infancy and who later tried to commit suicide, amongst others. Each case reads like a short story might, and Wise has encompassed all the information available to her and presented it in an accessible format. Whilst the volume sets out to show the reader twelve stories relating to misconstrued lunacy, however, there are only actually ten featured, which is a shame.

As one might expect, Inconvenient People is rather information heavy, and unless being read for scholarly purposes, it is a far more beneficial volume to read one case at a time so as not to get too bogged down with all the facts.

The book contains a note on the terminology used throughout, ranging from ‘pauper lunatics’ who were unable to pay the fees for their care, to ‘single patient’, which ‘usually implied a wealthy lunatic in non-asylum care’. Informative maps have been included, along with illustrations which go with the text. The only downside is that some of these pictures have not been given captions, and therefore look as though they have been placed haphazardly with paragraphs that do not relate to them.

To conclude, Inconvenient People is an incredibly interesting book, and it is clear that Wise has put a lot of thought into the varied cases she has used and the way in which she has presented her information. It is an informative volume, which is equally as useful to a scholar of Victorian history or psychiatry as to an everyday reader interested in lunacy and social conditions of the nineteenth century.

– See more at: http://www.nudgemenow.com/article/inconvenient-people-lunacy-liberty-and-the-mad-doctors-in-victorian-england-by-sarah-wise/#sthash.Yba6AdpD.dpuf

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