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Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Binby Norah Vincent
Synopses & Reviews
The journalist who famously lived as a man commits herself- literally
Norah Vincent's New York Times bestselling book, Self-Made Man, ended on a harrowing note. Suffering from severe depression after her eighteen months living disguised as a man, Vincent felt she was a danger to herself. On the advice of her psychologist she committed herself to a mental institution. Out of this raw and overwhelming experience came the idea for her next book. She decided to get healthy and to study the effect of treatment on the depressed and insane "in the bin," as she calls it.
Vincent's journey takes her from a big city hospital to a facility in the Midwest and finally to an upscale retreat down south, as she analyzes the impact of institutionalization on the unwell, the tyranny of drugs-as-treatment, and the dysfunctional dynamic between caregivers and patients. Vincent applies brilliant insight as she exposes her personal struggle with depression and explores the range of people, caregivers, and methodologies that guide these strange, often scary, and bizarre environments. Eye opening, emotionally wrenching, and at times very funny, Voluntary Madness is a riveting work that exposes the state of mental healthcare in America from the inside out.
"Vincent's first trip to a mental institution — to which the writing of Self-Made Man drove her — convinced her that further immersion would give her great material for a follow-up. The grand tour consists of voluntary commitments to a hospital mental ward, a small private facility and a boutique facility; but Vincent's efforts to make a big statement about the state of mental health treatment quickly give way to a more personal journey. An attempt to wean herself off Prozac, for example, adds a greater sense of urgency to her second research trip, while the therapists overseeing her final treatment lead her to a major emotional breakthrough. Meanwhile, her fellow patients are easily able to peg her as an 'emotional parasite,' though this rarely stops them from interacting with her — and though their neediness sometimes frustrates her, she is less judgmental of them than of the doctors and nurses. The conclusions Vincent draws from her experiences tend toward the obvious (the better the facilities, the better chance for recovery) and the banal: 'No one can heal you except you.' Though keenly observed, her account never fully transcends its central gimmick." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Norah Vincent, a self-styled "immersion journalist" who achieved success with "Self-Made Man," an account of the 18 months she spent in disguise as a man, has now followed that accomplishment with "Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin." The subtitle here is important, I think. During a four-day stay in a lockdown facility because of the mental stress she suffered researching her... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) first book, Vincent was over-medicated and exposed to the appalling conditions that the mentally ill sometimes endure during treatment. She resolved to make this the subject of her next book — not just to report on those conditions but to immerse herself in them, i.e., to commit herself, as a so-called crazy person, to three institutions to see how they actually work. She spent 10 days in a grimy, urban public hospital, another 10 days in a small private mental institution somewhere in the Midwest and two weeks at a seaside alternative-treatment center. Call me crazy, but even including the first four days that gave her the idea, I don't see how that adds up to a year. There's also the issue — for me at least — of whether Vincent was/is mentally ill, or was pretending to be, or perhaps a combination of both. (As in: when a woman is encouraged to play dumb, and she does, until one day you realize, "Jeez, that woman isn't playing; she's dumb as a plank!") Ten or 15 years ago, the author felt enough mental distress that she went to a therapist. She was given Prozac and then other prescription drugs that today she very much regrets taking. It seems she was suffering from depression. But was it depression in the actual, clinical sense? After all, during the breakdown following "Self-Made Man," when she entered the "loony bin," as she persists in calling these places, she was able to "play sane" enough to talk herself out of the facility in just four days. For the purposes of this book, Vincent only pretended to take the heavy medication that the Big City Warehouse pressed upon her, and then, for the second part of the experiment, in the rural treatment center, she deliberately went off a low dose of 20 milligrams of Prozac she'd been taking all along. Not surprisingly, she started acting nutty. (The craziest thing you can do is go off your medication, because guess what? You can become mentally ill again.) But even during the ensuing depression that sometimes left her lying in a fetal position in her empty bathtub, the author was able to perk up enough to have interesting conversations with the psychiatrist in charge, go for afternoon runs in town, stop in a bar for an occasional beer — in other words, get on with her life. And in the alternative-treatment center, of course, she has a wonderful time doing deep breathing, getting rebirthed, composing sand mandalas. She makes some genuine personal breakthroughs and emerges a happier person. This book is very nicely written. It addresses timely topics that need to be addressed: the general perfidy of the pharmaceutical corporations; the laziness of doctors who prescribe rather than listen; the overly cozy relationship between doctors, drug companies and the American government. But I have some serious concerns about "Voluntary Madness." Vincent — and at least she is honest about this — has an enormous bias against drugs as a treatment for mental illness, and, more disturbing, she appears not to believe in mental illness at all. She thinks we can cure it by ourselves or, better yet, avoid it altogether. "I'm not saying," she writes, "that eating right and exercising, nurturing your heart and challenging your brain, will save you. It won't. There is no saving, of course. You never 'arrive.' You move. You get on with it. That's the prescription. In the end, and after a long, long trip, there's only one thing I can tell you about happiness, about well-being, as I understand it. You want to be happy? You want to be well? Then put your boots on." These are the rousing last words of this account, and I think that advice would work perfectly well for a neurotic, self-absorbed individual who sees self-inflicted unhappiness and even an occasional suicide "attempt" as a way of getting attention and establishing a reliable identity. I have two pretty close friends who have lived that way all their lives up into their 70s. But what about severe schizophrenia and the torment of voices you can never stop? What about severe clinical depression, the real kind, which is to Vincent's ailments as cancer is to the common cold? What if a severely mentally ill person gets hold of this book and decides to go off his or her medication and commits suicide? As a person whose grandmother and aunt killed themselves before there were drugs for this sort of thing, I can't help but be concerned. I think anyone who's suffered with a loved one afflicted by these tortures will share my concerns as well. Reviewed by Carolyn See, who may be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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From the "New York Times"-bestselling author of "Self-Made Man" comes this eye-opening, emotionally wrenching, and at time very funny work that exposes the state of mental healthcare in America from the inside out.
From the author of The New York Times bestseller Self- Made Man, a captivating expose of depression and mental illness in America
Revelatory, deeply personal, and utterly relevant, Voluntary Madness is a controversial work that unveils the state of mental healthcare in the United States from the inside out. At the conclusion of her celebrated first book--Self-Made Man, in which she soent eighteen months disguised as a man-Norah Vincent found herself emotionally drained and severely depressed.
Determined but uncertain about maintaining her own equilibrium, she boldly committed herself to three different facilities-a big-city hospital, a private clinic in the Midwest, and finally an upscale retreat in the South. Voluntary Madness is the chronicle of Vincent's journey through the world of the mentally ill as she struggles to find her own health and happiness.
About the Author
Norah Vincent is the author of the New York Times bestseller Self-Made Man. Previously, she wrote a nationally syndicated op-ed column for the Los Angeles Times. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Village Voice, and The Washington Post. She lives in New York City.
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