This volume is divided into three sections totalling about 30, usually very short, chapters, with a Post Script. The title is from an Emily Dickinson poem (“Much Madness is divinest Sense–To a discerning Eye–”).
It opens with an insightful “Brief History of Women and Mental Illness,” by co-editor Nili Kaplan-Myrth, concisely charting the fluidity of boundaries, diagnoses and cures from the 16th century to present day. The shifts between and creations of new disorders often included hospitalization for social or moral transgressions. And, with women intrinsically measured as a deviation from the “norm” and institutionally and culturally marginalized, their “mad” voices were “muted,” unspoken and unheard.
There have been standout memoirs of personal battles with mental illness, such Kay Redfield Jamieson’s An Unquiet Mind and John Bentley Mays’ In the Jaws of the Black Dogs. In contrast, these first-person recountings are brief and varied, and entirely by women. What about the topic is unique to them? There are a few obvious examples, like postpartum depression, the lion’s-share roles of caregiving for children and parents and the stresses of single motherhood. Poverty is arguably a women’s health (and overall well-being) issue, though of course far from solely a feminine one. But the true unifying factor might be the silence, often self-imposed, that cloaked these experiences, often for years.
“Madness has a huge impact on family systems,” Diane Reid writes in “Luck in the Darkness.” Shannon Evans, in “Caring in Advocacy,” tells of a confusing and shocking emergence of hostility and delusion in her sister. “She tries to bite my mom, take the car and drive, with wild eyes. Mom takes the keys, my sister takes a swing; I take the phone and call the police. We all wait, breathless. Can you imagine?” Others talk about dementia in a mother and father or anxiety and isolation in oneself. As Kylie Riou quotes in “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay,” depression, like cancer, “is essentially a solitary experience; a room in hell with only your name on the door.”
A spectrum of healthcare professionals–family physicians, transition-house crisis counsellors–also weigh in with a lot of questions and some answers. The problems are big and can seem intractable. “Women are routinely pathologized for legitimate responses to the unjust conditions of their lives,” Donna F Johnson writes in her very strong contribution “The Power of Seeing.” Some tales have tragic endings. Some do have happy ones. Many have a kind of non-ending, because the struggle continues, the journey is ongoing.
By the way, I wouldn’t call this a self-help book for anyone suffering right now. Reading about, say, depression, while you’re depressed, can make you feel worse, even if the account you are reading is about recovery. This is not meant to detract from the great value of the important, textured, lived material that has been gathered here.
Much Madness, Divinest Sense: Women’s Stories of Mental Health and Health Care
Edited by Nili Kaplan-Myrth and Lori Hanson