Mad, Bad and Sad

Though Lisa Appignanesi’s book Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 is one ultimately of madness, it is the human face of sadness which she gives to the characters she paints that resounds most in the imagination. Throughout the two hundred years or so that her ambitious project covers, she succeeds time and again to ground her subject in a humanity rarely recordable in such accounts of mental illness. The examples are numerous; from the high-profile breakdowns of Sylvia Plath and Marilyn Monroe, whose ‘wish for oblivion won out’, to the lesser-known, yet equally moving stories of those such as Alice James, sister of the novelist Henry James- a woman born out of context who would have thrived in another age, but in her own misogynistic era, was fit only for the asylum.

{{ quote Issues of gender blend together to produce a book which focuses on human nature in its entirety }}

Appignanesi succeeds in shaping these characteristic accounts of madness skilfully in their historical context, without being overbearing. The Terror which followed revolution in France and the more insidious dangers of the Cold War are represented in their deeper, psychological impacts which still echo in our present society. One shortfall, however, in this historical account, is seen in her failure to fully explain the impacts of the First World War. She passes this period off in fleeting remark: ‘Hysteria…as a diagnosis migrated with the First World War into the ‘war neuroses’ from which so many soldiers suffered’. Whether this period is dismissed for the wealth of material already dedicated to the matter (Regeneration springs to mind in the popular imagination), or for the intended concentration on women, Mad, Bad and Sad is poorer for its exclusion.

Such disappointment is redeemed more widely elsewhere in the thoroughness of Appignanesi’s analysis. She reduces the Freudian noun to something palatable and bite-sized, a worthy achievement given the weight of incomprehensible academia which surrounds the father of psychoanalysis; whilst still retaining the nuances of Freud’s work: ‘The Freudian dream with its double-edged wish at once for pleasure and for death’.

The division of gender, however, though it is clearly a deliberate purpose of her concentration in such a history of women, is often difficult to reconcile with the prose at hand. The focus on women, particularly in the earlier sections, offers Appignanesi room to highlight cases which might otherwise have been brushed over. The absence of a commentary on Mill, and the focus instead on less known unravellings of insanity, demonstrates the necessity of Mad, Bad and Sad in highlighting the plight of the ‘unknowns’ of history. Elsewhere, the importance and success of the author’s focus on gender distinction is reflected in ‘the fragile ego of the schizophrenic, already fragmented, fearing the merging that sex is as a dissolution of the self, a death-dealing activity’.

Ultimately, however, such issues of gender blend together to produce a book which focuses on human nature in its entirety. Her prose constantly retains the grip of the reader by involving them in the pandemic tension of the mind which we all experience. Though her feminine perspective is clear, Appignanesi demonstrates through the ‘shallowness of sanity’, that we are all on the edge.


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