Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ophelia for Sale

In an Elaine Showalter's essay "Representing Ophelia," I came across the following truly weird information: Victorian culture was so fascinated by madwomen that famous hospitals were equipped with photography studios complete with cameras, lights, costumes, and props, so that the most delectable madwomen could be photographed at the doctor's pleasure.

Showalter explains:

"the iconography of the romantic Ophelia had begun to infiltrate reality, to define a style for mad young women seeking to express and communicate their distress. And where the women themselves did not willingly throw themselves into Ophelia-like postures, asylum superintendents, armed with the new technology of photography, imposed the costume, gesture, props, and expression of Ophelia upon them. In England, the camera was introduced to asylum work in the 1850s by Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond, who photographed his female patients at the Surrey Asylum at Bethlem. Diamond was heavily influenced by literary and visual models in his posing of female subjects. His pictures of madwomen, posed in prayer, or decked with Ophelia-like garlands, were copied for Victorian consumption as touched-up lithographs in professional journals.

Reality, psychiatry, and representational convention were even more confused in the photographic records of hysteria produced in the 1870s by Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot was the first clinician to install a fully equipped photographic atelier in his Paris hospital, Salpetriere, to record the performances of his hysterical stars. Charcot's clinic became, as he said, a 'living theater' of female pathology; his women patients were coached in their performances for the camera, and, under hypnosis, were sometimes instructed to play heroines from Shakespeare. Among them, a fifteen-year-old girl named Augustine was featured in the published volumes called Iconographies in every posture of la grande hysterie. With her white hospital gown and flowing locks, Augustine frequently resembles the reproductions of Ophelia as icon and actress which had been in wide circulation."

How's that for a bizarre interchange of literature, art, and life?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Particle or Wave?

I've been deeply impressed by Judith Herman's book Trauma and Recovery, which claims that normal responses to trauma can mimic any number of mental illnesses. Referring to adult survivors of childhood abuse and neglect, she explains that sometimes, trauma survivors carry into adulthood an extraordinary capacity to dissociate, shut down feelings, and go numb--responses that served them well while they were being abused or neglected but that are disastrous in adult relationships. These symptoms--along with a pattern of intense, short-lived relationships--frequently result in a diagnosis of "borderline personality disorder" or even "multiple personality disorder."

At some point, Herman says, the defensive structures built in childhood by abused or neglected children can break down. When the defensive structures break down, the personality DIS-integrates, and the result, according to Herman, is misdiagnosis: "When and if a breakdown occurs, it can take symptomatic forms that mimic virtually every category of psychiatric disorder. "

This led me to thinking about the whole enterprise of diagnosis, a process that one psychiatrist I know considers "more of an art than a science." With mental illness, for which there are no blood tests or brain scans, diagnosis--the act of naming a set of symptoms--is an entirely verbal and sociocultural act. It's interesting that we use a non-physical, immaterial diagnostic process to name illnesses that are increasingly considered to be physical/genetic/biochemical in nature. I am surprised that more people don't feel skeptical about the obvious paradox in this situation.

This paradox certainly explains why career mental health patients, unlike patients with diabetes, often receive several different diagnoses over the course of their lifetimes. The same set of symptoms, depending on who's looking, could viably be called multiple personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or even garden variety codependency (although the last two are not in the DSM-IV, so no one in a hospital would receive these diagnoses). It reminds me of the particle/wave paradox in physics: in certain experiments, light acts like a wave; in other experiments, light acts like particles. So is light a wave or a bunch of particles? We are uncertain. Maybe light. Maybe wave. Maybe both.

Considering the verbal/sociocultural basis of the diagnostic process with mental disturbances, it would seem advisable to approach diagnosis with the same humility and openness practiced by quantum physicists. Maybe it's this. Maybe it's that. Maybe it's both. Depends on who's looking and what tools they are using to observe. Maybe we just don't know exactly . . .

Friday, April 30, 2010

Madness and Heroism

I just read Marya Hornbacher's NYT bestseller Madness: A Bipolar Life. It strikes me that thinking about madness as "mental illness" enables us--madmen, madwomen, and the medical establishment--to construct heroic narratives about battles with madness. The idea of mental illness--the idea of a lifelong biochemical bogeyman that, like cancer, strikes down innocent people who have to "fight" it--lets us think of ourselves as heroes in a struggle against natural forces that are ruthless and violent. In one way or another, memoirs of madness tend to be constructed as narrative in the same way: here is the monster I had to fight, here's how I fought it, see how I almost died in the battle, see how I won (or am winning) the battle, look at my battle scars, now listen to what I learned from the fighting. Often, these narratives cast medical science in a supporting heroic role: the faithful companion who hands the hero her sword. The idea of mental illness positions the medical and pharmaceutical industries themselves as heroic actors in a mighty struggle. It's very appealing from a narrative standpoint.

The heroic profits from mental illness must be appealing as well, at least to those who pocket them. From the NYT Business section, April 27, 2010: "The newer generation of anti-psychotics has surpassed cholesterol-lowering drugs to become the nation's top-selling category of medications, accounting for $14.6 billion of the nation's $300 billion in drug spending last year. . . . Seroquel, a pill usually taken once or twice a day that sells for more than $4 each, was the fifth-best-selling drug in the United States last year . . . " Now that's big business!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Madness and Trauma

I've been reading Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery, and have been thinking that there may be very little real mental illness in the world and a whole lotta normal aftereffects of trauma. Given how riddled with trauma the world is (1 in 3 women sexually abused in their lifetime, 1 in 4 women raped, war, racism, homophobia, child abuse), I cannot imagine how we could ever effectively distinguish between abnormal thinking and normal response to trauma, when NORMAL responses to trauma include dissociation, insomnia, depression, denial, repression, amnesia, relationship problems. Herman claims that complex post-traumatic stress responses mimic the symptoms of any number of so-called mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety disorder, multiple personality disorder. The problem with misdiagnosis is that the root causes of the symptoms never get addressed. It strikes me as strange that in my own experience with the psychiatry industry, I was never once asked whether I had ever been raped, sexually abused, or otherwise traumatized. Why isn't a patient's trauma history an automatic part of the diagnostic process? It should be.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Judith Shakespeare

I recently re-read Room of One's Own and find there the same claims about women and madness as Olive Schreiner and Phyllis Chesler make decades later--the idea that giftedness that goes against the tide of cultural expectation places a person at risk for madness. Woolf says that "any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half-witch, half-wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty." Woolf herself certainly would have known.

Woolf says something similar about the effects of women enjoying lively sexuality: "Chastity had then, it has even now, a religious importance in a woman's life, and has so wrapped itself round with nerves and instincts that to cut it free and bring it to the light of day demands courage of the rarest. To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her."

We still in the twenty-first century have to consider the connection between giftedness and psychospiritual breakdown--for women and for men. And we have to consider the crazymaking capacity of every social imperative that causes us to live restricted lives. I am not in favor of complete personal anarchy: it didn't seem to help the writer Djuna Barnes or or the artist Elsa Von Freitag-Loringhoven avoid breakdown. But their breakdown was, at least, accompanied by significant creative power. It may be that a certain degree of antisocial behavior is the price of creative potency.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Volcanic Madness

Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano features one of the best madmen in all of literature. The Consul, whose stream-of-consciousness occupies a large part of the novel, says, "The act of a madman or a drunkard . . . or of a man laboring under violent excitement seems less free and more inevitable to the one who knows the mental condition of the man who performed the action, and more free and less inevitable to the one who does not know it."

I like this idea of "laboring under a violent excitement." Madness--at least the ecstatic or drunken kind--is a violent excitement of the mind. It reminds me of Avital Ronnel's assertion that intoxication is a form of mental labor. When I read that, it occurred to me that madness is also a form of mental labor, which explains why artists and other kinds of creators are so prone to madness. It takes a violent excitement of the mind to create--but there are occupational hazards. And these hazards are compounded by drunkenness. But the altered perception of intoxication also opens up realms of the extraordinary, and it is perception of the extraordinary that produces epiphany.

The Consul and his companions in the novel court epiphany by getting drunk on mescal, a strong hallucinogen made from cactus: "There were, in fact, rainbows. Though without them the mescal . . . would have already invested the place with magic. The magic was of Niagara Falls itself, not its elemental majesty, the honeymoon town; in a sweet, tawdry, even hoydenish sense of love that haunted this spray-blown spot. But now the mescal struck a discord, then a succession of plaintive discords to which the drifting mists all seemed to be dancing, through the elusive subtleties of ribboned light, among the detached shreds of rainbows floating. It was a phantom dance of souls, baffled by these deceptive blends, yet still seeking permanence in the midst of what was only perpetually evanescent, or eternally lost. Or it was the dance of the seeker and his goal, here pursuing the gay colors he did not know he had assumed, there striving to identify the finer scene of which he might never realize he was already a part . . ."

Drunken revery. Violent excitement. Mad, and beautiful. In vino veritas est, but along with the veritas, for Lowry's characters, as for Lowry himself, comes dissolution and a kind of spiritual suicide. My book manuscript Women, Creativity, and Madness attempts to discover how the violently excited among us can get the veritas of madness without the suicide.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Madness on CAN-TV

Pardon my silence. I have been tracking down permissions for CAN-TV to show some Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington images when they broadcast my Women, Creativity, and Madness lecture this week. Showtimes are

Sunday, March 28, at 5, Channel 19
Monday, March 29, 12pm, Channel 19
Wednesday, March 31, 12pm, Channel 21
Friday, April 9, 12pm, Channel 21

As I've been working on the Women, Creativity, and Madness book, and helping CAN-TV with the broadcast these past two weeks, I have also been reading Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, (1641-1695) a Mexican woman of letters who, to avoid marriage, entered a convent to pursue her passion for reading, writing, and thinking. Sor Juana's literary pursuits angered her superiors in the Church hierarchy, who were not pleased that a woman of such sharp intellect dared to be a public intellectual. At least twice in her letter to Sor Filotea de la Cruz, which is a defense of the right of women to read, write, think, and publish, Sor Juana describes her passion for learning as a madness that she cannot control. "I looked on nothing without reflexion," she writes, "I heard nothing without meditation . . . . Thus . . . I saw and admired all things; so that even the very persons with whom I spoke, and the things they said, were cause for a thousand meditations. . . . This manner of reflection has always been my habit, and is quite beyond my will to control; on the contrary, I am wont to become vexed that my intellect makes me weary; and I believed it was so with everyone, as well as making verses, until experience taught me otherwise; and it is so strong in me this nature, or custom, that I look at nothing without giving it further examination. Once in my presence two young girls were spinning a top and scarcely had I seen the motion and the figure described, when I began, out of this madness of mine, to meditate on the effortless motus of the spherical form, and how the impulse persisted even when free and independent of its cause . . . "

Sor Juana's descriptions of her own thought process, which closely resemble how my thoughts feel, present madness as perpetual thinking, and perpetual thinking as madness. Like Sor Juana, I also thought that all people thought all the time about everything. My brother Jeffrey has informed me on a number of occasions, however, that this tendency to perpetual thought is a disturbance peculiar to me. Because I am surrounded with scholars, poets, philosophers, and artists almost all the time, it is easy for me to feel "normal"--like thinking is what everyone does. But it happens now and again, that when I wander outside my circled, someone points out how odd it is to think all the time. Thinking about things like time and space and being and power and existential purpose--the subjects that seem ordinary for scholars and other writers and artists--are apparently, not what normal people think about.