Biography 26.4 (2003) 727-731
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Susan J. Hubert's study of what she terms "women's madness narratives" takes up issues of psychiatric diagnosis, evaluation, and institutionalization, and the relation of these to "social control"—specifically the enforcement of particular gender roles. As Hubert's introduction indicates, this ground has been covered already—most prominently by Phyllis Chesler's pioneering work Women and Madness (1972), Elaine Showalter's fascinating The Female Malady (1985), and Jane Ussher's Women's Madness: Misogyny or Mental Illness (1991). Hubert hopes to add to this body of work by paying special attention to lesser-known narratives by women diagnosed with mental illness, including in her purview both autobiographical accounts and fictionalized ones spanning the course of over a century.
The most interesting aspect of Hubert's work is the case she makes for distinct patterns among these narratives. Hubert argues that the predominant thrust of women's madness narratives in the latter nineteenth century [End Page 727] (including those by Elizabeth Packard, Ada Metcalf, Lydia Smith, Clarissa Lathrop, Anna Agnew, and Margaret Starr) involved the exposé and protest of appalling conditions of institutionalization, as well as of laws governing involuntary commitment. The particular horror of these women's accounts often stemmed from their sense of wrongful institutionalization—they were not "crazy." Thus, Hubert argues, the accounts indirectly reinforced distinctions between sane and insane—and supported the right of proper psychiatric procedures to make those distinctions—even while disputing particular applications of them.
In the early- and mid-twentieth century, women's narratives of madness and psychiatric treatment were dominated by what Hubert terms a turn toward "psychopathology" over protest (71). Women focused on their experiences of mental illness and hoped to be relieved by psychiatric treatment; demands for reform of psychiatric practices and of forced institutionalization, while sometimes present, fell into the background in narratives by Marian King, Jane Hillyer, Joanne Greenberg, Lucy Freeman, and Barbara Field Benziger. (Hubert also discusses Charlotte Perkins Gilman as a notable exception to this shift.) Several madness narratives in the later twentieth century, however, not only returned to the "protest" of the nineteenth-century narratives, but also extended it by beginning to question the very nature of psychiatric diagnosis and the purported distinctions between sanity and insanity. According to Hubert, works by Mary Jane Ward (an early example), Susanna Kaysen, Jill Johnston, and Kate Millett explore the possibility, strongly raised by antipsychiatrists such as Thomas Szasz in the 1960s and 1970s, that mental illness is an invention or construction (to use terms currently in vogue), rather than a psychological or biological (or, indeed, moral) "fact." A turn to the only non-American narratives in the study—Janet Frame's Faces in the Water and Bessie Head's A Question of Power—adds a further layer to Hubert's project by suggesting the connections between the experience of "madness" and broader cultural dominations of various sorts, such as the "cultural hegemony" of Great Britain, and its stifling influence on Frame's writing ambitions as a New Zealand writer (125)—or more powerfully and persuasively, the situation of apartheid in South Africa for Head. The latter connection is far more fully explored than the former, however, which—although perhaps the most interesting point in her discussion of Frame's writings—is utterly overshadowed by the more typical commentary on questionable psychiatric treatments that make an appearance in Faces, such as lobotomy and electroshock.
Though the grouping of madness narratives in this way is helpful, allowing us to see distinct trends and to differentiate among predominant concerns [End Page 728] within the texts, the clarity of this pattern is obscured by Hubert's introduction, which suffers from a distinct confusion regarding the thesis or purpose of her project. Hubert attempts to stake her own ground by claiming that "the emphasis of the present study . . . is neither historical nor theoretical; the main...