I’m not a big non-fiction reader, but the title of this book caught my eye; Sad, Mad, and Bad: Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800. The book is a look at “madness”, how its definition changed constantly, and how it should be cared for. The book takes a look specifically at women who were considered insane, and how their care evolved. It is not just for women, however, or about them, for that matter.
The author, Lisa Appignanesi, looks at mental health up to the present day (or at least five years ago, when the book was published). This is not a light read; this is a book that takes its topic seriously. It is, however, fascinating. The book is very well researched, and well written, so it is a smooth read. It probably helps that the author is primarily a fiction writer.
Aside from the obviously interesting, like unusual treatment methods, or bizarre diagnoses, what I wasn’t expecting is how much hasn’t changed. People wondered why so many more people seemed to be mad, and doctors insisted it was just better and more sophisticated medicine and diagnoses. Some doctors argued that people being different from what was currently considered being socially acceptable did not qualify as a disease. There were debates over when someone committed a horrible crime, how you could tell whether they were insane. There was research into whether the cause of mental illness was psychological or biological, and some pioneering doctors attempted very early to debunk myths that women’s reproductive organs had anything to do with it.
There are also some interesting profiles of famous individuals with mental illnesses. The focus in these is not just on the symptoms, and treatment. You get an interesting look at how they were viewed at the time, and how our perception of them now differs.
She is obviously trying not to take sides or make judgements here, which does at times make for somewhat of a dry read. It also means that some areas go on and on, I’m guessing because she felt duty-bound to fully present both sides of the case.
Anyone who is interested in the topic of mental health, in almost any fashion, would find something of interest in this book. It is the kind of book where you hope to find someone else who has read it, so you can talk to them about it. So, for god’s sake if anyone else has read it tell me! And if you haven’t, get going.