Elizabeth J. Donaldson, ed. Literatures of Madness: Disability Studies and Mental Health. Literary Disability Studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 242 pp. $119.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-319-92665-0.
Reviewed by Susan Anderson (Sheffield Hallam University)
Published on H-Disability (April, 2019)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)
Literatures of Madness is an important collection that offers a stimulating range of perspectives and starting points for exploring intersections between mad studies and disability studies. Elizabeth J. Donaldson opens with a short tribute to the life and work of Shulamith Firestone (1945-2012), the feminist and scholar whose memoir of experiences of psychiatric treatment Airless Spaces (1998) “should be a classic in a canon of literature about mental illness” (p. 3). Rather than imposing an interpretive stamp at the beginning, Donaldson instead offers three elements of Firestone’s life and work as a framework that holds together the contributions to the volume. This is a fitting way to begin a collection that foregrounds collaboration and collectivity and whose contributors repeatedly emphasize compassionate and empathetic inclusiveness as an alternative to divisive schemas of normativity.
Part 1, “Mad Community,” focuses on points of connection in disability and mad studies networks. It explores potential and actual communities, imagined and real, online and in the physical world. For example, Elizabeth Brewer explores the relationship between “coming out” narratives in disability studies and mad studies. Brewer highlights the problem caused when disability studies distinguishes between physical and “mental” disability in a way which implies that the latter is undesirable. She convincingly argues for disclosure as a form of community building, implicitly raising the question of whether scholarship is structurally inimical to this approach because of the studiedly neutral tone of author erasure in most disciplines (as seen, for instance, in the often-repeated exhortation to students to avoid, at all costs, the use of the first person in academic writing).
Part 1 continues with PhebeAnn Wolframe’s analysis of online discussions of mad representation and highlights responses that critique and reframe portrayals of madness, identifying this as a process of “maddening” as analogous to “cripping” or “queering.” Wolframe describes the complex combination of both collectivity/community and individuality/uniqueness of experience articulated by the commentators on the MadArtReview website, which comes into conflict with the limitations imposed on community building by the requirement of anonymity in research ethics procedures. Wolframe finds an alternative in Persimmon Blackbridge’s novel ProzacHighway (1997) that envisions more fully, through fiction, the possibility of online spaces to bring together mad and queer people in genuine community.
Fiction also opens up possibilities for community in Rose Miyatsu’s discussion of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1971). Miyatsu notes that scholarly criticism of the novel has tended to read the protagonist’s interactions with other mentally ill people as disposable staging points on the way to recovery and/or feminist awakening and that such scholarly readings of female madness as a metaphor for rebellion ignore the “psychic pain” being depicted (p. 55). Ultimately, the chapter movingly concludes that the novel itself is a cornerstone of an emerging literary community for those looking for a “safe place to be in pain” (p. 58).
The section concludes with a frank discussion by Erin Soros of the problems of writing on madness in indigenous writing, when “madness” and “indigeneity” are themselves colonial and colonizing categorizations, and writing has been a tool of colonial oppression: “whiteness ... in fact through traumatic rupture has produced Indigeneity, as itself on the exterior cusp of reason” (p. 75). Soros suggests that the colonial framing that researches indigeneity as a form of pathology can also be categorized as a form of “writing madness.” One way forward, she suggests, is focusing on the aesthetics of the work instead of pathology, though there are no simple solutions offered here.
Part 2, “Mad History,” considers representations of madness in the context of their specific historical moments, beginning with Karyn Valerius’s discussion of the intersection of psychiatric disability and gender in the works of Louisa May Alcott. Valerius notes that “madwoman narratives that devalue women as the irrational sex also stigmatize psychiatric disability” and suggests that concentrating on gender as the locus of abuse leaves “the denigration of psychiatric disability” unchallenged (p. 98). This is followed by Donaldson’s own contribution to the collection where she seeks to reclaim the asylum fiction of Mary Jane Ward as an important historical resource for understanding both the literary genre and the development of mental health activism in the US in the twentieth century. Donaldson resists simplistic narratives of linear, steady progress but shows that Ward’s life and career does give some justification for optimism about the “legacy of advocacy by people with mental illnesses” (p. 123).
In chapter 8, Tatiana Prorokova argues for the importance of lesbian pulp fiction as a historical source for understanding twentieth-century lesbian identity and community more broadly, and specifically by examining the novels of Ann Bannon. The foregrounding of physicality in the portrayal of desire in Bannon’s “Beebo Brinker” books (1957-62) has implications for disability in that the books’ sensationalism ultimately reinforces the denigrating stereotyping of both lesbian women and disabled women as in some sense “no ‘true’ woman in a traditional, patriarchal, and heterosexual sense of the word” (p. 136). This essay is then productively juxtaposed with Andrew McEwan’s discussion of the poetry and performance art of Hannah Weiner and Dora Garçia, whose work, according to McEwan, offers a form of “radical dis/humanism” (p. 151). This term is derived from Daniel Goodley and Katherine Runswick-Cole, in which “the problematizing ‘dis’ and the normative ‘human’ compose a poetics of radical multi-voiced interruption” (p. 151). In McEwan’s analysis, both Weiner and Garçia “resist inclusions of marginal and outsider positions that only create new or deferred forms of exclusion” (p. 160). Instead they combine “normative desire and disabled critique ... as not a binary theory but an interruptive and multi-voiced theory” (p. 161).
Part 3, “Mad Survival,” is grouped around fiction in which moments of respite can be identified. In Gail Berkeley Sherman’s examination of Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964), this comes in the shape of the novel’s use of language difference. Both in terms of the fantasy language Yri and in terms of the German used by the psychoanalyst in the narrative, the novel shows that “while language can dehumanize the other, it is essential to empathy, ethical response, and ongoing dialogue” (p. 169). This is also supplemented with non-linguistic communication, particularly in terms of the image of the face to invite the reader to “recognize difference and respond with empathy” and thus move beyond indifference (p. 171). Instead of inverting the valorization of sanity versus the stigmatization of insanity, the novel uses a Levinasian ethics to demonstrate that responding empathetically to difference as difference (not trying to incorporate it into the self) is foundational to moral behavior. Thus, the specificity of Jewishness (erased in the 1977 film adaptation) is central to the ethics of the novel.
Srikanth Mallavarapu examines two novels by Jerry Pinto and Amandeep Sandhu as case studies of the Indian context of mental health and illness, examined through the lens of Arthur Kleinman’s model and particularly in terms of the family rather than the individual as the unit of analysis. The repeated references to “suffering” in this piece may jar with some readers, however, so it needed to be made clear whether this is the way in which the novels themselves characterize mental illness. Mallavarapu concludes that the novels “map out the struggle to construct meaning in a world that resists it” (p. 196). This raises the question of whether the meaning-making strategies of fiction might do a disservice to the experiences and characters they are imagining. That is, do these novels inevitably impose a false sense of closure and meaning by their very form? Multiplicity is more in evidence in Drew Holladay’s examination of Michelle Cliff’s Abeng (1984). Holladay argues that Cliff represents the “differential treatment of disability based on racial identity” through the portrayal of a range of characters of different racial backgrounds and genders (p. 204). White characters continue to live comfortable lives, and in the case of Judge Savage, insanity is used as an excuse to move past his mass murder of slaves on the eve of emancipation. Mad Hannah, a black woman, by contrast, has to “face a double challenge of unrelenting poverty and racial prejudice alongside mental disability” (p. 207). Holladay suggests that the character of Clary provides an example of the potential for “radical inclusion” rather than continuing to see mental difference as metaphorical and/or something that is to be resisted, overcome, or excluded (p. 210).
In chapter 13, Jessica Gross opens by asserting the value of comics as an art form for dealing with the complexities of mental illnesses. The comic under discussion (Paul Hornschemeier’s 2009 Mother, Come Home) explores the trauma of a loved one’s assisted suicide. In the context of disability, this could usefully have been contextualized with at least a nod to the complexity and importance of debates around assisted suicide and euthanasia in disability communities. The comic presents the aftermath of David’s assistance in the suicide of his wife and culminates in a parallel scene of suicide where David takes his own life while ensuring his son is present (and to a certain extent complicit). By depicting the “traumascape” of the father character, the comic forces the reader to see how things appear to him, bringing “disrupting, individualized experience” into dialogue with the clinical version of the same thing and with his son’s efforts to understand his father and his own experiences. This, argues Gross, is what “graphic medicine” (that is, comics that deal with health care) can achieve (p. 224). Because of their combination of different media, comics are particularly appropriate as a form for representing and juxtaposing differing viewpoints.
The collection of differing viewpoints is also one of the strengths of the edited collection format, and this group of essays presents a collection of impressive range and interest. In this review, I have echoed the terminology used by the authors of each essay. However, a more substantial introduction would have been useful in terms of establishing some of the practices around terminology in the collection (in other words, what is understood by “mental disability,” “psychiatric disability,” and “mental illness,” and how/whether they differ), even if that is one of diverse positions and practices. The collection’s polyvocality is still one of its strengths, nevertheless, and it is clearly underpinned by a commitment to intersectionality. Thus, the essays of this collection powerfully demonstrate the importance of literary and fictional models for envisioning alternatives to structures of exclusion and misunderstanding.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-disability.
Susan Anderson. Review of Donaldson, Elizabeth J., ed., Literatures of Madness: Disability Studies and Mental Health.
H-Disability, H-Net Reviews.
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