Norah Vincent Illness : Tales Of Ordinary Madness

For obvious reasons, first-person descriptions of breakdown and despair were rather uncommon until lately. To admit to having a mental illness is to open oneself up to suspicion, discrimination, and prejudice; even the nicer terms, like “patient” and “survivor,” as opposed to “loony” or “headcase,” have a stigma.

The second challenge is memory: even individuals wanting to share their experiences may discover that they have been drugged or disoriented due to a lack of a writing tool (the pen is an instrument of self-harm, literally as well as metaphorically, and ballpoints are banned from most psych wards).

It makes sense why mental illness is still so taboo. Halfway through her book, Norah Vincent expresses it like this: “You are aware of how awful you felt and your desire to never experience that again. However, you don’t truly recall the specifics or the nature of the anguish.”

Innovative literature has found creative ways to close that gap. The Furies, Dionysus, Medea, Electra, and other ancient Greek characters all exhibit insanity and frenzy. Shakespeare contains instances of madness, such  as Lear being “slashed to the brains” as a tempest rages through him and Ophelia being “split from herself and her just judgment.”

Norah Vincent Illness

The asylum poems of John Clare and the “awful” sonnets by Robert Hopkins (with their “cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed”) are masterful depictions of the twisted and troubled psyche. Since the turn of the century, notable works have included The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, poems by Anne Sexton, and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by Tom Stoppard, Equus by Peter Shaffer, and Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections also contains a memorable section about a dementia patient hallucinating turds.

Whether it’s fiction or not, a book like J Bernlef’s Out of Mind, a Dutch novel in which a smart guy attempts to make sense of losing his senses ( “Everything happens suddenly and abruptly. The day is filled with fissures and holes; there is no longer a flowing movement “), produces its own brand of reality.

Less educated literature runs the risk of exoticizing and even sanctifying mental anguish when good intentions replace hard understanding. Few of the numerous contemporary philosophers and theorists of lunacy (RD Laing, Erving Goffman, Foucault, Lacan, Thomas Szasz, Oliver Sacks) run the same risk of being on the outside looking in, whatever their rigor or righteous indignation.

The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon by Kay Redfield Jamison, Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, The Catch of Hands by Benedicta Leigh, Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel, and The Scent of Dried Roses by Tim Lott are just a few of the personal non-fiction works that have proliferated alongside them.

The Centre Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks, The Father I Had by Martin Townsend, and The Devil Within by Stephanie Merritt have all been added to the genre in the last two years, along with more specialized works on (to stick to the first letter of the alphabet) anorexia, Asperger’s syndrome, anomie, autism, agoraphobia, and addiction in all its forms.

Norah Vincent spent a year disguising herself as a guy for her final assignment as an “immersion” journalist. But is it possible to pass for a mental patient? Isn’t even trying to be unethical? She responds right away, saying that this time her purpose was genuine and not a ruse. She has a history of depression, hypomania, panic attacks, paranoia, and sexual preoccupation.

In 2004, she also had a breakdown. Despite the fact that she was imprisoned for much less than a year to write Voluntary Madness—just 34 days, in fact—the book is full of startling details because of her natural curiosity (also known as pushiness and nosiness) and meticulous note-taking (after her ballpoint was confiscated, she used a Crayola). Even if the writing occasionally comes out as frenzied, mannered, or exaggerated, that still seems appropriate and proves she isn’t just an objective observer.

Tales Of Ordinary Madness

She explains, “When you check yourself in with only a backpack to your name, saying you are suicidally depressed, they take you at your word,” and with surprising ease, she commits herself to three different facilities: Meriwether, a big-city mental health facility; St Luke’s, a small private hospital in the Midwest; and Mobius, an experimental therapeutic community. Her results are essentially in line with expectations. Meriwether is cruel, filthy, and hopeless.

Though she doesn’t go into depth, Vincent’s defining experience was being abused as a child. As a boy, John O’Donoghue was similarly abused by a priest who tried to frighten him away from Satan by seizing his genitalia. His book opens with a dramatic, barely understandable narrative of the incident. The untimely passing of his father, who died when John was 14 and had to deal with both his mother’s and his own grief, left him more traumatized.

When she spirals out of control, he feels guilty “Not a man, am I. I was unable to keep us together. I separated us “- speeds up his transition from a foster family to a mental health facility. He receives ECT at the of age 16. His mother passes away a year later. John is sectioned five times over the course of the following 15 years and spends time in four different mental hospitals, including Claybury, Friern, Banstead, and the Whittington hospital’s psychiatric unit.

He is taken to HMP Pentonville where the inmates appear to be scarier and crazier than any he has ever been locked up with during a later psychotic episode in which he steals a pair of white pants in anticipation of the return of the Lord. Life and luck finally start to change after Pentonville.

The onset of O’Donoghue’s mental health issues was unusually early. Sally Greenberg, the daughter of Michael Greenberg, is only 15 years old when a mental hurricane hits. She gets a vision that we are all born geniuses but that as we grow up, genius is beaten out of us as she observes two girls playing on a playground.

She cruises the streets of New York, collaring everyone who will listen and a lot of those who won’t, convinced that she has been chosen to give this message and so save the world. Her father compares his daughter’s oracular mania to “being in the company of a rare force of nature, such as a tremendous blizzard or flood: damaging, but in a way also astounding.”

Greenberg is forced to face uncomfortable truths about his relationships, his job, and his own propensity for violence during the drama’s long, hot summer setting. (He smacks Pat once, at which time the cops are summoned.) He is terrified by Sally’s madness and her ferocious black eyes with their peculiar new sparkle, which resembles polished coal. But so does her catatonic, numb state after she is released and goes home. He takes some of her medication to better comprehend what she’s going through, but when a visitor rings, he comes out as humorously distant and unprepared.

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