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Book Review: Mad, Bad, and Sad: Women and the Mind Doctors by Lisa Appignanesi

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The catchy title of Mad, Bad, and Sad: Women and the Mind Doctors says it all. With actual text finishing just under 500 pages and an extensive list of source notes, Appignanesi has provided readers quite the thorough read. From the history of psychiatry and early mental health institutions, to both the artistic and non-artistic woman, she discusses many cases of individuals who, either due to their madness, badness, or sadness, have been a little emotionally off course – causing them to sometimes commit crimes, or just perpetuate their own cycle of madness, badness and sadness with more self-loathing and/or self-inflicted injury, emotional or otherwise.

In addition, much is spent discussing Freud, as well as other “mind doctors” and their impact these theories have had upon the psychiatrist over the years. Some of the famous cases included are Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Alice James, Jane Fonda, Marilyn Monroe, “Sybil,” and numerous others. Appignanesi addresses depression, eating disorders, self-mutilation, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorders, drugs, abuse, incest, and many other ailments. Surprisingly, the book makes no mention of Judy Garland, the very talented actress and singer who not only attempted suicide several times, but also was the victim of drug addiction brought on by the Hollywood studios back in the 1930s and ’40s. It would have also been interesting had there been a discussion of Nelly Bly, the famous journalist who is known for having uncovered the brutality of the mental institutions during the 1880s by “faking” her insanity to the doctors.

Yet, these are quibbles, because as is, the book is quite informative and very well researched. Another positive note is that there isn’t any “preaching” going on throughout the narrative, and Appignanesi merely presents the cases, making her arguments, and moving on to the next. This book is, in a sense, a full meal to digest yet the topics cover a wide range. A primer served to give a history and quick analysis of both these cases and ailments, Mad, Bad, and Sad: Women and the Mind Doctors holds many fascinating moments that will keep readers turning the pages.

The book begins with several cases from the late 1700s, about women who were deemed “insane,” ultimately given to a care institution, and never brought to trial under the law for the destructive acts they committed. “In the summer of 1789, Margaret Nicholson had tried to stab George III with a blunt dessert knife,” Appignanesi writes. She mentions this point in the section where she discusses “Madness and the Law” and how people really didn’t know what to really make of mental illness, both from a psychological point of view as well as legal. She also discusses a case with a woman named Mary Lamb, who in a moment of rage took a kitchen knife on her mother. And like Margaret Nicholson, Mary Lamb too was never brought to trial under the law.

And what of these treatments used? Have they all worked? Appignanesi delves into the many mindsets and attitudes the culture has had regarding mental illness, and how exactly it has played a role in both the inhibition and hiding of certain ailments, to also impacting them (such as the case with eating disorders) and allowing such to “fall into fashion.”  Such would have been a good time to bring up individuals like Judy Garland, who was a well known “pill popper” by the time she hit her teens, and discuss exactly how such early an addiction (forced on by the studio) might have impacted depression throughout the rest of her life. Or in the case with 1930s actress Francis Farmer, who is believed to have undergone a lobotomy for her “badness” and rebellion against the era and also her mother.

Again, the fact that Appignanesi does not discuss Farmer or Garland are minor quibbles, for there are just so many women's cases, and certainly the book would have to be much longer to address most every single individual. Yet, the reason I bring this up is because Marilyn Monroe and Zelda Fitzgerald have been done to death (no pun), and although Farmer was never as big a star as Monroe, her ailments were as severe, if not more so, than Monroe’s. And the same goes for Judy Garland (not to mention she had infinitely more talent).

The fact that this book covers such a wide array of mental ailments, the very thing it accomplishes could also be a criticism, in that once a topic gets going Appignanesi doesn’t delve much below the surface. Then it becomes a reader’s choice of who or what case one might like to read more of, and which are fine left as they are. Personally, I would have preferred to learn more about the “Sybil” case – the woman with the multiple personality disorders, which was brought on by the horrid physical abuse her mother performed on her. But this case is merely mentioned briefly, and then Appignanesi moves onto another topic. While I am only an observer in all this, in addition to hearing that “Sybil” was a real woman, I had also heard that the Sybil case had been a hoax, yet Appignanesi doesn’t clarify this point, or address any of the controversy.

Of course, one could claim that is not the point of her book, and while that is partly true, this wouldn’t be a critical review if I didn’t address a few “criticisms.” But don’t let these little criticisms fool you, for if you are at all interested in this topic, and even more so, to have it handled in an objective, well-researched manner, then this is the book for you. Not something I would call “light reading” necessarily, but not rote and excessively academic either. Instead, Mad, Bad, and Sad: Women and the Mind Doctors fits just perfectly in that balanced place between. If only the mind could find the same.

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About Jessica Schneider