restricted access The Madwoman Can't Speak, or, Why Insanity is Not Subversive (review)
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Reviewed by
Marta Caminero-Santangelo. The Madwoman Can’t Speak or Why Insanity is Not Subversive. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1998. xii + 195 pp.

Caminero-Santangelo’s thoughtful study is an extended argument with the proposition—prevalent in much 1980s feminist criticism particularly—that madness is an appropriate and accurate metaphor for socially constructed femininity or for female resistance to dominant ideological constructions. Whereas much of this prior criticism remained in the realm of the theoretical, The Madwoman Can’t Speak is firmly grounded in material and historical realities: contemporary discourses and practices surrounding the identification and treatment of female madness in the post-World War II period, and representations of madness by actual women writers. Caminero-Santangelo convincingly shows that the women writers she examines “share the premise that insanity is the final surrender to [dominant discourses] precisely because it is characterized by the (dis)ability to produce meaning.” Following Teresa de Lauretis’s notion of the ideological “space off,” Caminero-Santangelo demonstrates how these writers strategically inhabit and reconfigure existing literary, medical, and popular models of madness—“counter[ing] representation with representation,” and making sharp distinctions between moments of madness and moments of meaning-making.

Because madness is most accurately understood as a crucial loss of agency rather than an effective rebellion, according to Caminero-Santangelo, [End Page 1079] any feminist criticism or theory that fails to acknowledge the material realities and the material consequences of madness “risks losing sight of its subjects and the real sharply felt constraints on [the mad woman’s] empowerment.” Madness is thus not just personally disempowering to individual women but is “absolutely antithetical” to feminism as collective action for social change. In insisting that feminist theory account for and listen to the experience of the madwoman, Caminero-Santangelo provides a necessary corrective to one strand of feminist literary theory (one whose dominance she perhaps overestimates) as well as careful rereadings of several feminist classics (The Bell Jar, The Bluest Eye, Sula) and new readings of some neglected texts. The book’s five chapters treat respectively asylum narratives by Sylvia Plath and Kate Millet, among others; the figure of the manless madwoman in works by Eudora Welty, Jean Stafford, and Hortense Calisher; multiple personality and the postmodern subject in Shirley Jackson’s The Bird’s Nest and The Three Faces of Eve; madness in novels by Toni Morrison; and murdering mothers in works by Morrison, Helena Maria Viramontes, and Cristina Garcia. Of these, chapter 4 presents one of the most effective demonstrations that the subversive powers of madness—particularly for a group already silenced within dominant discourses—can only be theoretical. Caminero-Santangelo draws parallels between feminist critiques of the nuclear family as a conservative institution oppressive to women in particular and feminist celebrations of madness as an escape from social constructions (including the family) to show that both critiques are firmly embedded within a white middle-class frame of reference. Both claims are made especially problematic when set in the context of representations of the African American family. Daniel Patrick Moynihan speaks of “a tangle of pathology,” part of a tradition of representation by dominant discourses that legitimized slavery in the past and that persists into the late twentieth century. In concise, powerful, and persuasive readings of The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Beloved, Caminero-Santangelo shows how Morrison imaginatively reclaims black family and community—“the ground that had become so treacherous in the wake of the Moynihan report.” In The Bluest Eye and Sula, Morrison strategically inhabits representations of dysfunctional black families in order to reveal what de Lauretis calls “the spaces not represented yet implied (unseen)” in dominant representations, here the self-hatred born of the internalization of racist representations and the [End Page 1080] trauma of racism itself, which prevent construction of enabling counter-narratives. Caminero-Santangelo turns primarily to Beloved to explore the construction of such counter-narratives; the text ultimately shows that the remembering of stories, along with the extension of family structures into the larger community—and not madness, are the means through which oppressive discourses may best be resisted.

Caminero-Santangelo’s purpose in writing The Madwoman Can’t Speak is twofold: to contest...