Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present

Lisa Appignanesi
Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present
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Susan Eilenberg writes:

The mind doctors (as Appignanesi calls them) have often enough shown themselves to be not merely mistaken but delusional, in the grip of a fantasy no less nonsensical and destructive than those of their unhappy subjects: the story, long attributed to Hippocrates, of the hysteric’s wandering womb, seeking semen and turning all about it to chaos and confusion, maintained its hold (and its adherents their authority) for centuries. Under the influence of more recent theories, mind doctors have pierced their patients with needles, shocked them and induced seizures, cut away pieces of their bodies, created artificial memories and artificial selves. Whether by these means they have healed more than they have harmed is questionable. Whether the suffering their patients endure can entirely be distinguished from the effects of such treatments and from the social contexts from which such treatments derive is questionable too. But in Appignanesi’s view mental therapy has for the most part acted in parallel with or as a special medium for the pressures from which, through their illness, the mad, the bad and the sad have sought to escape.

(LRB 23 July 2009)

Lisa Appignanesi’s disquieting history of how women have been treated (or more usually mistreated) by the mental health profession offers a series of fascinating case histories, beginning with Mary Lamb and including Virginia Woolf, Zelda Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. Male theories about the causes of female illness have resulted over the centuries in ineptitude and ‘treatments’ of staggering cruelty. Meanwhile, in advising a friend on how to deal with her deranged mother, Mary Lamb seems to provide the best prescription: ‘Let your whole care be to be certain that she is treated with tenderness . . . it is a thing of which people in her state are uncommonly susceptible.’

Published by Virago Press Ltd
15 January 2009
ISBN: 9781844082346

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