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Harper's Magazine
Friday, October 23rd, 2009
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Mad, Bad, and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors

by Lisa Appignanesi

Mad, Bad, and Sad

A review by John Leonard

Consider Hannah Green's rose garden, Sylvia Plath's bell jar, Virginia Woolf's lighthouse, and Marilyn Monroe's pills. Or such textbooks on falling apart as Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, R.D. Laing's The Divided Self, Erving Goffman's Asylums, and Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization. Not to neglect the revisionist analysis of Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Freidan, Susan Brownmiller, Phyllis Chesler, Julia Kristeva, and Juliet Mitchell. Nor the impassioned witness of Kay Redfield Jamison, Kate Millett, and Germaine Greer. If you've already read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, how about taking a look at Leon Daudet's Les Morticoles, in which the loony bin is a music hall where patients perform the Folies Hysteriques? Isn't it fortunate that Freud's Bertha Pappenheim and Jung's Sabrina Spielrein were more resourceful than their sad, fictional sisters, Shakespeare's Ophelia and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor?

I am trying to suggest the range, wit, wisdom, and richness of Mad, Bad, and Sad: Women and the Mind Doctors (Norton, $19.95). Lisa Appignanesi, both a novelist and scholar of literature, psychoanalysis, and feminism, leads us on a grand tour of derangement, from matricide to anorexia. Starting off at Mary Lamb's 1796 murder of her mother in their kitchen, with a case knife, and ending with, approximately, at Elizabeth Wurtzel's deliverance by Prozac, she looks into such hospital wards and madhouses as were available in the nineteenth century, and the preferred theories preached and therapies practiced before feud and pharmacology came to the rescue. Purgatives, leeches, blistering, and hypnosis, for instance, plus cold baths, antispasmodics, and electroconvulsions, were thought to be antidotes to fantasy, phobia, delirium, hysteria, monomania, melancholia, dissociation, possession, and the vapors, which in turn had likely been caused by heredity, syphilis, change of life, overwork, self-indulgence, religious ecstasy, romantic novels, or masturbation. These mind doctors wrote their own novel, a sort of Madame Ovary, with their female patients as helpless characters. Later, everything would be blamed on conflicted sexuality, which caused repression, regression, reaction formation, projection, sublimation, post-traumatic stress disorder, recovered memory, and satanic ritual abuse. Now, of course, we no longer really care why, or whether, madness might have anything to do with a crazy geopolitics and a broken social order, as long as we're allowed to medicate.

It's astonishing how often women were told that they were better off, with their wayward uterus, not reading or thinking or competing. It's disheartening to earn that Alice James suffered the theories, and that Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman suffered the practice, of a windbag like Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. (At least the bully got his due from Gilman, in her savage novella The Yellow Wallpaper.) It's paradoxical that so much of the twentieth century's obsessive faith in the mother-child relationship as the crucible of sanity can be attributed to female psychoanalysis such as Helene Deutsch and Melanie Klein. And it is scandalous that Freud in America should first have been co-opted for Disneyland, shorn entirely of his tragic sense of life, and then subsequently reviled by gender-war ideologues. Appignanesi is smarter. Freud, "the modernist who launches the discontinuities of self and dream emphatically on to the stage of literature and art," taught us how to listen. A time is coming, she believes, after all of us have woken up from our thralldom to the pharmaceutical industry, when men as well as women will want more meaning, wish finally to be understood, and need again a talking cure.

John Leonard was the New Books columnist for Harper's Magazine and a media critic for New York Magazine, The Nation, and CBS News Sunday Morning. His books include Lonesome Rangers, When The Kissing Had To Stop, and The Last Innocent White Man In America.

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