Review: Mad, Bad, Sad: Women and the Mind Doctors by Lisa Appignanesi

Mad, Bad, Sad: Women and the Mind Doctors by Lisa Appignanesi – W. W. Norton & Company – Contemporary, Historical, Nonfiction – Buy it here – Our Rating: Four pipes

Award-winning British novelist Appignanesi (The Memory Man) has written a fascinating if somewhat diffuse study of how, over the past two centuries, women’s ability to live creative lives has been controlled by culture, and how their unsuccessful attempts to rebel frequently lead to mental illness-itself a slippery, ever-evolving cultural concept. Appignanesi’s sources are wide-ranging but largely literary, based upon letters, diaries, articles and fiction from feminist writers such as Betty Friedan, historians like R.D. Laing and Jacque Lacan, psychologists such as Melanie Klein, and troubled subjects like Zelda Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. Beginning with the lives of mentally ill women in the 19th century, Appignanesi moves chronologically through the history of psychology-as ideas like schizophrenia replace earlier notions of hysteria-and its relationship to the creative woman, using in-depth profiles of Virginia Woolf, Alice James and others. Looking at the complex cultural, political and familial circumstances under which mental illness emerges, and their implications for the present (in which depression and eating disorders have become major problems), Appignanesi convincingly asserts that “symptoms and diagnoses… cluster to create cultural fashions in illness and cure,” suggesting provocatively that “what is at issue here is not psychic disorder so much as social deterioration of a radical kind.” 

Lisa Appignanesi’s Mad, Bad, Sad: Women and the Mind Doctors is excellent in more ways than one: it fills a void within the Psy fields for an historical development of the professions centered on the experiences of women, it goes into great detail whilst constructing said narrative, and it maintains reader interest through lengthy analyses of more than 300 years of history. [Side note. Some parallelism, an oxford comma, the phrase “an historical?” The grammar freak in me sighs with content.]

In all seriousness, this book is excellent. Although I encountered it through a university course, and although it’s certainly based on well-researched history, it’s a mainstream, not an academic, publication. I am certain that an erudite (precocious?) American middle schooler could read and understand this book if s/he wanted to: Appignanesi has a background in journalism, so her writing is clear and concise. It doesn’t hurt Mad, Bad, Sad’s readability that the concept of madness has always been highly stigmatized, so reading about it seems alluringly deviant – especially considering its feminine focus – and definitely engaging. You want sexy? This book has an in-depth discussion of Marilyn Monroe’s mental health struggle and eventual suicide. You want creepy? Appignanesi writes about Mary Lamb, an 18th Century Englishwoman who had a psychotic break, grabbed a dinner knife, and killed her parents, who carried a straightjacket with her for the rest of her subsequent days and willingly confined herself to madhouses. You want glamorous? Mad, Bad, Sad does hideously wealthy 20’s flapper and author Zelda Fitzgerald justice, and does dozens of other women the same.

Luckily for middle schoolers, and possibly readers who don’t feel like intellectual activity on an afternoon off, Appignanesi builds her more controversial and theoretical claims about the Psy fields into the structure of her book. For example, she challenges many historical classifications for and treatments of madness, and makes each challenge under an aptly titled chapter or section. Want to hear about women who suffered from schizophrenia, and what their experiences reveal about the possibly controversial nature of the modern ailment? Reference the section titled “Schizophrenia.” Those unconcerned with readability will be happy to know that her challenges can lead to many hard-to-answer questions about the nature of madness and its place in society, questions that will take more to answer (read: more analysis and introspection to answer) than Appignanesi chose to provide in what’s essentially a history book about women.

It should be noted that generally, books on women marginalize women’s experiences by relegating women to the realm of critical theory, instead of incorporating them into theory: women, and other “minority” groups, are added to the theoretical pot as if they modify, instead of constitute, the social norm. For those for whom being woman is normal, or for those who recognize that being woman is normal, Mad, Bad, Sad is a valuable resource, the first comprehensive chronology of the role women played in mental health history.

I have only one qualm: as I was reading, I detected an undercurrent of anti-Semitism within this book. Bias alert: Semite here. Because I read Mad, Bad, Sad on Kindle, I had the luxury of searching with the keyword “Jew” to substantiate my claim, and discovered that the Jewish race-ethnicity was referenced negatively multiple times. Famed 20th century psychoanalyst Sabina Speilrein, best known outside of Psy circles as being one of Jung’s early patients, was actually called “a plotting Jewess” within this otherwise excellent text [note to non-Jews: avoid this phrase]. This is why I bumped Appignanesi’s magnum opus down to four pipes. For you, readers, I am resisting the urge to say that her bigotry was Bad and made me Mad and Sad, but I guess I couldn’t contain myself. Despite her obviously inexcusable bias, Appignanesi has done women, the Psy fields, and society at large good by writing this much-needed history of women and madness. Go read it and tell me what you think, and shanah tovah.

– Kristen

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