Memoirs and Biographies
Resources

 email page    print page

All Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?""My Madness Saved Me"10% Happier365 Days49 Up56 UpA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Book of ReasonsA Can of MadnessA Child's Life and Other StoriesA Dangerous LiaisonA Fight to BeA First-Rate MadnessA Good Enough DaughterA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Lethal InheritanceA Lethal InheritanceA Life ShakenA Life Worth LivingA Little PregnantA Message from JakieA Million Little PiecesA Numerate LifeA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyA Slant of SunA Special EducationA Tribe ApartAbout FaceAddicted Like MeADHD & MeAEIOUAgainst Medical AdviceAgents in My BrainAileen - Life and Death of a Serial KillerAlgernon, Charlie and IAll Out!All Seasons PassAlphavilleAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAlzheimer'sAn Anthropologist on MarsAn EducationAn Unquiet MindAngela's AshesAngelheadAnna Freud: A BiographyAnnie's GhostsAnother Bullshit Night in Suck CityAnthology of a Crazy LadyApples and OrangesApproaching NeverlandAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAs I Live and BreatheAs Nature Made HimAt Home in the Heart of AppalachiaAt the End of WordsAvalancheBad BoyBad GirlBeautiful BoyBeautiful WreckBecoming AnnaBen Behind His VoicesBequest and BetrayalBereftBertrand RussellBlackoutBlanketsBloodlettingBodies in Motion and at RestBoneBorn on a Blue DayBoyBoy AloneBoyleBrain on FireBreaking ApartBreaking the SilenceBrokenBulimics on BulimiaBuzzCamus and SartreCharles DarwinChasing the HighCheeverCherryCity of OneCluesClumsyComfortComplications Compulsive ActsConfessions of a Cereal EaterConfessions of a Former ChildConfessions of a Grieving ChristianConfessions of the Other MotherConfidingConquering the Beast WithinContesting ChildhoodCrackedCrazyCry Depression, Celebrate RecoveryDamned to EternityDancing at the Shame PromDante's CureDaughter of the Queen of ShebaDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDays With My FatherDefeating the VoicesDementia Caregivers Share Their StoriesDepression and NarrativeDescartesDetourDevil in the DetailsDiagnosis: SchizophreniaDirty DetailsDirty SecretDivided MindsDivine MadnessDon't Get Too ComfortableDown Came the RainDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDrinkingDriving My FatherDrunkardDryEarly Embraces IIIEinsteinEinstein and OppenheimerElectroboyElegy for IrisElijah's CupElliott Smith and the Big NothingElsewhereEnough About YouEpilepticEvery Girl Tells a StoryEverything In Its PlaceExamined LivesExiting NirvanaFaces of Huntington'sFamily BoundFast GirlFearless ConfessionsFind MeFinding Iris ChangFirst Person Accounts of Mental Illness and RecoveryFirst Person PluralFixing My GazeFlanneryFolie a DeuxFor the Love of ItFortress of My YouthFranz KafkaFraudFree RefillsFreudFreudFreudFriedrich NietzscheFrom Joy Division to New OrderFumblingFun HomeFuriously HappyGalileo Get Me Out of HereGirl in Need of a TourniquetGirl Walking BackwardsGirl, InterruptedGirl, InterruptedGirls on the VergeGoing BlindGoing Through Hell Without Help From AboveGraysonGrowing Up JungGuttedHalf a Brain Is EnoughHardcore from the HeartHead CasesHeal & ForgiveHeal & Forgive IIHeavier than HeavenHeinz KohutHeinz KohutHello from Heaven!Hello to All ThatHer HusbandHer Last DeathHigh PriceHole in My LifeHolidays On IceHolidays on IceHope's BoyHouse of Happy EndingsHouse of Happy EndingsHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill MeHow to Lose Friends & Alienate PeopleHow to Make Love Like a Porn Starhow to stop timeHumeHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurry Down SunshineI Feel Bad About My NeckI Never Promised You a Rose GardenI Remain in DarknessI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'd Rather LaughIf I Die Before I WakeImagining RobertIn Search of FatimaIn the Realms of the UnrealIn the Wake of SuicideInside TherapyInternInvisible No MoreIt Happened to NancyIt Takes a Worried ManJack Cole and Plastic ManJean-Paul SartreJohn Stuart MillJourneys with the Black DogJust CheckingKafkaKantLa SierraLab GirlLast Flight OutLearning to FallLet Me Make It GoodLife As We Know ItLife InterruptedLife ReimaginedLimboLincoln's MelancholyListening in the Silence, Seeing in the DarkLittle PeopleLive For Your Listening PleasureLive Through ThisLiving in the Shadow of the Freud FamilyLiving With SchizophreniaLiving with SchizophreniaLockeLonelyLong ShotLook Me in the EyeLooking for The StrangerLoose GirlLosing Mum and PupLosing My MindLove Is a Mix TapeLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLove You, Mean ItLuckyLudwig WittgensteinLyingMad HouseMad PrideMadame ProustMadnessMagical ThinkingMalignant SadnessManicMarcel ProustMarcus AureliusMary BarnesMaverick MindMe Talk Pretty One DayMeaningMelanie KleinMemoirMemoirs of an Addicted BrainMemoirs of My Nervous IllnessMen-ipulationMisconceptionsMiss American PieMockingbird YearsMomma and the Meaning of LifeMommies Who DrinkMonkey MindMore, Now, AgainMortificationMy Age of AnxietyMy Body PoliticMy Brain Tumour AdventuresMy DepressionMy Father's HeartMy First Cousin Once RemovedMy Flesh and BloodMy Horizontal LifeMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Sister LifeMy Stroke of InsightName All the AnimalsNeural MisfireNietzscheNietzsche: The Man and His PhilosophyNinety DaysNo Hurry to Get HomeNo Impact ManNo More ShavesNolaNotebooks 1951-1959NothingOdd Girl Speaks OutOedipus WreckedOf Spirits & MadnessOn Being RapedOn the Edge of DarknessOn the MoveOne Hour in ParisOne Hundred DaysOphelia SpeaksPagan TimePassing for NormalPeople Who Eat DarknessPerfect ChaosPerfect ExamplePermanent Present TensePersepolisPlanet of the BlindPlaying with FirePlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPoisoned LovePollockPOPismPortraits of Huntington'sPoster ChildProzac DiaryPsychiatrist on the RoadPsychosis in the FamilyPuppy Chow Is Better Than ProzacQuitting the Nairobi TrioRaising BlazeReasons to Stay AliveRebuiltRecovered, Not CuredRelative StrangerRescuing JeffreyRestricted AccessRevengeRewind, Replay, RepeatRichard RortyRiding the Bus With My SisterRobert Lowell, Setting the River on FireRoom For JRosemaryRough MagicRunning After AntelopeRunning with ScissorsScattershotSchizophreniaSchopenhauerSecond OpinionsSectionedSeeing EzraSeeing the CrabSet the Boy FreeSex & Single GirlsSex ObjectShakespeareShe Bets Her LifeShe Got Up Off the CouchShut the DoorSickenedSilencing the VoicesSimone de BeauvoirSinging in the FireSkin GameSlackjawSlut!SmashedSome Assembly RequiredSome Kind of GeniusSometimes Madness Is WisdomSongs from the Black ChairSongs of the Gorilla NationSoren KierkegaardSpeak to MeSpeaking Our Minds: Revised EditionSpecial SiblingsSpentStandbyStick FigureStill LivesStretchSunset StorySurviving OpheliaSwing LowTales from Both Sides of the BrainTales of PsychotherapyTalk to HerTell Me Everything You Don't RememberTellingTelling Tales About DementiaThe Accidental BillionairesThe AddictThe Anatomy of HopeThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe BeastThe Bell JarThe Best Seat in the HouseThe Big FixThe Body SilentThe Boy on the Green BicycleThe Boy Who Loved WindowsThe Buddha & The BorderlineThe Burn JournalsThe Camera My Mother Gave MeThe Cancer Monologue ProjectThe Center Cannot HoldThe Chelsea WhistleThe Churkendoose AnthologyThe Day the Voices StoppedThe Devil WithinThe DisappearanceThe Discomfort ZoneThe Doctor Is InThe Eden ExpressThe Family SilverThe Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State HospitalsThe Fasting GirlThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Geography of BlissThe Glass CastleThe Good DoctorsThe Hillside Diary and Other WritingsThe Incantations of Daniel JohnstonThe Last AsylumThe Last Good FreudianThe Last Time I Wore a DressThe Liars' ClubThe Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet HiltonThe Lives They Left BehindThe LobotomistThe Long GoodbyeThe Looked After Kid: Memoirs from a Children's HomeThe Loony-Bin TripThe Madness of Our LivesThe Making of a PhilosopherThe Making of Friedrich NietzscheThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Man Who Shocked the WorldThe Man Who Tasted ShapesThe Marvelous Hairy GirlsThe Maximum Security Book ClubThe Me in the MirrorThe Memory PalaceThe Mercy PapersThe Mistress's DaughterThe Naked Bird WatcherThe Naked Lady Who Stood on Her HeadThe Night of the GunThe Noonday DemonThe Notebook GirlsThe NursesThe Only Girl in the CarThe Orchid ThiefThe Other HollywoodThe OutsiderThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThe Philosophical IThe Pits and the PendulumThe Pornographer's GriefThe Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner The Professor and the MadmanThe Psychopath TestThe Quiet RoomThe Red DevilThe Rescue of Belle and SundanceThe Ride TogetherThe Rules of the TunnelThe Secret of LifeThe Shaking Woman or A History of My NervesThe Shared HeartThe Shiniest JewelThe Siren's DanceThe Statistical Life of MeThe Story of My FatherThe Strange Case of Hellish NellThe Summer of a DormouseThe SurrenderThe Talking CureThe Thought that CountsThe Three of UsThe Undoing ProjectThe Vagina MonologuesThe Velveteen FatherThe Winter of Our DisconnectThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaThe Years of Silence are PastThe Yellow HouseThe Yipping TigerThick As ThievesThinThis Close to HappyTiger, TigerTits, Ass, and Real EstateTo Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the WorldTo Walk on EggshellsTransforming MadnessTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTruth Comes in BlowsTuesdays with MorrieTweakTwitch and ShoutUltimate JudgementUndercurrentsUnholy GhostUnlikelyVoices of AlcoholismVoices Of Alzheimer'sVoices of CaregivingVoices of RecoveryVoluntary MadnessWaiting for DaisyWar FareWashing My Life AwayWastedWaveWe're Not MonstersWeather Reports from the Autism FrontWeekends at BellevueWhat Did I Do Last Night?What Goes UpWhat I Learned in Medical SchoolWhat's Normal?When a Crocodile Eats the SunWhen Breath Becomes AirWhen Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?.....When It Gets DarkWhen the Piano StopsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhere Did It All Go Right?Where is the Mango Princess?Where the Roots Reach for WaterWhile the City SleptWhile They SleptWho Was Jacques Derrida?Why I'm Like ThisWildWill's ChoiceWinnicottWinnieWish I Could Be ThereWith Their EyesWomen Living with Self-InjuryWomen, Body, IllnessWrestling with the AngelYou Must Be DreamingYour Voice in My HeadZeldaZor

Related Topics
Review - "My Madness Saved Me"
The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf
by Thomas Szasz
Transaction Publishers, 2006
Review by Tony O'Brien, RN, MPhil.
Aug 22nd 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 34)

Thomas Szasz is a name synonymous with critique of psychiatry. From the time of his 1960 publication "The Myth of Mental Illness" Szasz has maintained a caustic stance towards his fellow psychiatrists, and anyone else who supports the idea of mental illness and psychiatric treatment. Szasz is now 87, and his cutting edge remains. If anything this latest book goes further, castigating psychiatrists, patients, antipsychiatric theorists, deconstructionists and patient advocates alike: all are the misguided allies of the psychiatric enterprise, equally complicit in its oppressive practices. Szasz is one of the most prolific critics of psychiatry, and one of the most trenchant. In a publishing career spanning almost half a century, Szasz has published an extraordinary number of books (the front of the current publication lists 30), as well as over 60 journal papers indexed to Medline. Of Szasz's journal publications a little over half are full length essays; the remainder are relatively brief responses, letters and opinion pieces. Szasz's oeuvre contains no research, and only two co-authored publications, the mark of a singular man. The themes of Szasz's work are familiar: psychiatric coercion, the myth of mental illness, assault by the therapeutic state on the freedom of the individual, the appropriation of scientific discourse to legitimise repressive practices.

My Madness Saved Me is Szasz's analysis of the life of English novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf. It is not an objective analysis; Szasz makes no claim to disinterest in unpicking the life of one of English literature's most troubled souls. Szasz's start and end point is that psychiatry is a sham, and that Woolf, being an intelligent and skilful manipulator of people, exploited the gullibility and conceit of contemporary medical practitioners. She played the role of madwoman to perfection. Historians, especially historians of psychiatry, have been similarly duped into believing Woolf to be mentally ill. She is a celebrated case of "mad genius": a woman whose madness and creative skills have a common basis in an innate characteristic that is the peculiar lot of the gifted lunatic. Szasz is derisive of Woolf's claims to madness, and of Woolf as a person, describing her (p. 46) as "a conformist, an exhibitionist...a first class snob and [a] coward." Later she is described as "boorish, meddling and nasty" (p. 52). Szasz also takes the trouble to single out feminist theorists who have characterized Woolf as a misunderstood victim. Woolf was no victim in Szasz's estimation; she was a responsible agent. There are two parts to Szasz's analysis. One is that mental illness has no validity as a concept and so no-one, including Virginia Woolf, can be mentally ill. The other is that there are better explanations for Woolf's behavior. Thus it is possible for Szasz to be wrong in the first part of his argument, and correct in the other. It may be that there are people who might properly be thought of as mentally ill, but that Virginia Woolf is not one of them.

The book is relatively brief; only 100 of its 126 pages are devoted to Woolf. The two remaining sections focus more on the activities of psychiatric publicist Kay Jamison than it does on Woolf, and on an historical analysis of "the mad genius problem". But in a short amount of space Szasz performs a thoroughgoing character assassination of Woolf and her husband Leonard, dismissing any claim for Woolf as a person with mental illness deserving sympathy and compassion; instead she is callow, racist, pretentious and conniving. Leonard is a pathetic dupe ensnared by his scheming wife into a loveless, sexless marriage, redeemed only by Virginia's concession that he could act as her nurse, protecting her from the ravages of madness. Woolf's suicide was not the result of mental illness, it was a self chosen act of self aggrandizement performed in fulfillment of her self chosen role of lunatic extraordinaire.

In the first chapter Szasz sketches Woolf's early life, and it's not long before the arch critic is up to his old tricks. There is no attempt to outline events free of authorial interpretation. Szasz might argue that any rendering will be an interpretation, and so it will, but readers are entitled to at least a stance of objectivity before Szasz takes over and gives his construction of events. For example Szasz takes issue with Woolf's biographer, her nephew Quentin Bell, who stated that from early age Virginia 'knew she had been mad, and might be mad again'. Szasz won't allow this. Virginia was only thirteen, he protests. She can't have 'known she had been mad', she can only have known what people told her. Szasz seems to discount as personal knowledge the views of a thirteen year old who had not yet learnt to reason about concepts such as madness and psychiatric power. There is a quick lesson on the myth of mental illness for those who have missed it over the years. This includes Szasz's definition of medicine, his views on the invalid use of metaphor to talk about "mental" illness, a summary of Kant's contrast between analytic and synthetic arguments. The conclusion is the usual one, that psychiatry is a non-science built on fallacious reasoning for the sole purpose of oppression. There is no halfway point. Subsequent chapters explore Woolf's madness and marriage in more detail, including a suicide attempt that Szasz seems to suggest was in part engineered by Leonard. There is a chapter on Freud, who was known to Woolf. Much of that chapter is taken up with Szasz's views of Freud rather than analysis of Woolf's views.

In relation to Szasz's claims about psychiatry as a medical science I can do no better than bring the attention of readers to an excellent article by Michael Schwartz and Osborne Wiggins (2005). Few psychiatrists and almost no philosophers trouble themselves to respond seriously to Szasz. In the case of psychiatrists, they frequently fall into trap of their own making by meeting Szasz on empirical rather than conceptual grounds. Szasz argues that the concept of mental illness is incoherent, and it is this claim that Schwartz and Wiggins address directly. Citing the rather exaggerated claim by prominent psychiatrist E Fuller Torrey that schizophrenia is a "biological brain disease", Schwartz and Wiggins reject that claim, noting that Torrey and Szasz occupy similar territory with regard to their philosophical commitments about medicine. Both agree that the focus of medicine is the body (rather than the person), and both agree that claims for the legitimacy of psychiatry rest on its status as a natural science. Torrey believes that psychiatry has achieved such a status; Szasz denies such an achievement. Schwartz and Wiggins discuss psychiatry as a practical rather than a natural science, and make the telling point that this is true of medicine generally, not just the discipline of psychiatry. Thus medicine is not (as Szasz believes) a natural science concerned solely with illnesses that have a known biological basis; it is social and cultural institution concerned with the complaints that people present to physicians and, where possible, the alleviation of those complaints.

If Szasz makes few friends amongst psychiatrists for his views on mental illness as a myth this comes as no real surprise. Szasz has long since given up any expectation that there is any common ground to be found between himself and those who he sees as wedded to the ill conceived project of appropriating medical science in the name of social control. But Szasz may well have made some new adversaries for his views on the role of sexual abuse and trauma in the development of psychosis. He discounts Virginia's experiences of abuse at the hands of her brothers, citing the example of her sister Vanessa, who lived in the same family and may well have experienced similar abuse. Szasz notes that we don't know about the effects of abuse on Vanessa because "she never complained about them" (p. 92). By contrast, Virginia became obsessed with her abuse: "she treasured it as a memory justifying the lifestyle she had chosen for herself, and with the consequences of which she was now stuck" (p. 92). But Szasz goes further to argue that the experience of violation is universal in children, and is an artifact of childhood rather than of objective events. This view might find favor with those who wish to normalize sexual relationships, even secretive ones, between adults and children, but it will put Szasz well out of step with trauma theorists such as John Read who point to the relationship between abuse and dissociation, and to the subsequent diagnosis of trauma victims with schizophrenia, but Szasz allows little room to engage with such ideas.

If there is something that can be taken from this book it is Szasz's message about agency in relation to mental illness. Virginia Woolf is not a particularly good case study with which to demonstrate that the conceptual foundations of psychiatry are fundamentally flawed. She does indeed seem to have been a willful creature driven as much by her own self absorption than any innate "illness". But her case does ask important questions about the extent to which individuals' character traits and self motivated behavior should be the subject of psychiatric intervention. In a time when mental illness more easily led to committal Woolf was never subject to involuntary treatment (although she came close), and yet her case has assumed status as a paradigmatic example of someone whose behavior and suicide were driven by mental illness. By any analysis of Woolf's life, "mental illness" is too simplistic an explanation for her impulsiveness, moodiness, and her at times tumultuous relationship with Leonard. Her behavior is not dissimilar to many of those who present to mental health services, and for whom an appeal to personal responsibility should be an integral part of care. Similarly, the assumption of the need for paternalistic intervention needs careful consideration and should not be made on the basis of mental illness alone. As Szasz argues, some people lead troubled lives and are not helped by diagnostic labeling.

My Madness Saved Me is vintage Szasz. His challenges to psychiatric orthodoxy remain undiminished. If mainstream psychiatry feels it can afford to marginalize Szasz's views, that is because Szasz has provided one of its most sustained and clearly articulated challenges, and that challenge has demanded a coherent response. Szasz's radical individualism may go too far, but it does serve to remind mental health professionals that there are limits to justifications for paternalistic intervention. What is perhaps surprising is that standard psychiatric defenses against Szasz's arguments are so frequently nave and reductionist. But as psychiatry, at least in its more enlightened moments, demonstrates greater theoretical pluralism, Szasz's critique, especially its core component the "myth of mental illness" seems increasingly anachronistic.

 

2006 Tony O'Brien

 

Tony O'Brien RN, MPhil, Senior Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland, a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


Share

Welcome to MHN's unique book review site Metapsychology. We feature over 7800 in-depth reviews of a wide range of books and DVDs written by our reviewers from many backgrounds and perspectives. We update our front page weekly and add more than thirty new reviews each month. Our editor is Christian Perring, PhD. To contact him, use one of the forms available here.

Can't remember our URL? Access our reviews directly via 'metapsychology.net'


Metapsychology Online reviewers normally receive gratis review copies of the items they review.
Metapsychology Online receives a commission from Amazon.com for purchases through this site, which helps us send review copies to reviewers. Please support us by making your Amazon.com purchases through our Amazon links. We thank you for your support!


Join our e-mail list!: Metapsychology New Review Announcements: Sent out monthly, these announcements list our recent reviews. To subscribe, click here.

Interested in becoming a book reviewer for Metapsychology? Currently, we especially need thoughtful reviewers for books in fiction, self-help and popular psychology. To apply, write to our editor.

Metapsychology Online Reviews

Promote your Page too

Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716