Using letters, diaries and articles of sources ranging from Betty Friedan to Marilyn Monroe, award-winning novelist Appignanesi reveals how women’s ability to live creative lives has been controlled by culture, and how their unsuccessful attempts have lead to mental illness, another evolving cultural concept.
Prolific author and scholar Lisa Appignanesi’s latest nonfiction work expertly weaves together mind-bendingly extensive research with deft storytelling ability. From early approaches to understanding “madness from the point of view of the sufferer” to today’s interrelated “psy” fields, the book ambitiously and thoroughly traces the history of mental illness-and the evolution of its treatments-through the lens of colorful, prominent women.The book starts with writer Mary Lamb’s 1796 matricide, an early case that exemplified the beginning of the now familiar notion of a link between “childhood experience and the deformations of the adult.” From here, Appignanesi charts the lives of women in different eras, demonstrating how various forms of “madness” surfaced and tracing the evolution of treatments from early sanatoriums to newer diagnoses (postpartum depression is explored in the epilogue) and increasing pharmaceutical options. A particularly fascinating piece captures Sabina Spielrein, Carl Jung’s patient and lover, who became a psychoanalyst herself. Appignanesi’s findings reveal, not surprisingly, that new treatments bring new problems; she touches on early Prozac recipients Lauren Slater and Elizabeth Wurtzel to show how a generation’s “drug-charged highs too often descended into the terrifying and recurring lows of depression, which themselves became the target of more drugs.” Appropriately, Appignanesi doesn’t attempt overarching solutions, ultimately allowing her case studies to contribute to the ongoing conversation about what constitutes mental illness and the ways it is treated.