Our writing tends to reflect the world we live in, and nowhere is this more clear than in the way we depict people with mental illnesses. You can trace evolutions in culture by following the literature of the times. The Victorians, for example, loved their asylums, where inmates were often treated as curiosities to be studied and experimented on. Have a madwoman in the family? The Victorian answer was to lock her in the attic, or imprison her in her own home. Fast forward through time into the mid twentieth century, and you find books that feature mad or vindictive nurses, mind bending experimental drugs, lobotomies, straight jackets, and so on.
But the later half of the twentieth century began to see improvement in both how mental illness was treated within the larger society, and they ways in which the illness is dealt with in fiction. For starters, memoirs gained in popularity, and this allowed writers to deal with their own illnesses in a confessional, first person style. Advances in diagnosis and treatment were happening, too, and a new sense of hope began to permeate the narrative surrounding what some call “invisible disabilities.” I’m fascinated by these different perspectives, and the ways in which they trace our history through the lens of literature. Here’s a list of the best in writings about madness, from the Victorians on down to today.
First published in 1897, Dracula is one of the first novels that recognizes mental illness as an actual illness, rather than something like demon possession or witchcraft. One of the side characters is Renfield, who is locked in an asylum after becoming one of Dracula’s first victims. Renfield is treated as a curiosity by the asylum keeper- as something less than human. But he’s a wonderfully creepy and colorful character. If you don’t quite feel like diving into the whole book, you can catch Tom Waits’ performance as him in the Coppola version of Dracula.
Technically a long short story, there is nevertheless plenty of time to develop the theme of madness within its pages. This Victorian tale was so controversial, and supposedly so true to life, that it was repressed, and remained unpublished until the 1960s. The narrator is an unnamed woman who has been put on a “rest cure” by her doctors. This was an actual practice that forced women who were depressed or having other similar issues to be isolated from the rest of the world. They weren’t allowed mental stimulation of any kind, because thinking was considered dangerous to their health. The narrator in The Yellow Wallpaper eventually goes mad from this enforced isolation, and imagines herself trapped behind the hideous yellow wallpaper that covers her room. Eventually she goes completely mad, and can no longer even refer to herself as a person. Even though we don’t know her eventual fate, this is still a great example of Victorian attitudes to women.
This 1960s classic tells the story of McMurphy, a fun loving and brash free spirit who is put in a mental ward ruled by a mean, vindictive nurse. The novel quickly becomes an all out struggle between the two forces represented by Nurse Ratched and McMurphy- that of authority versus free will. This takes place in what were the beginnings of a modern mental hospital, where patients had (supposedly, anyway) some rights, and there was an attempt at modern medical diagnosis and practices. It’s a great glimpse into the attitudes towards the middle of the last century.
Published in the 1990s, this novel was one of the first to offer a no holds barred take on the very first anti-depressant, Prozac. This novel details the narrator’s troubled history, from suicide attempts to multiple hospitalizations,until drug therapy finally begins working for her. This book is an excellent portrait of what it meant to be alive, young, and depressed at the end of the last century, as we learn details of Wurtzel’s life and times. It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as Wurtzel possesses a wickedly sharp, and often mischievous sense of humor.