Review: Voluntary Madness by Norah Vincent

Voluntary Madness
Norah Vincent

Viking (2008)
283 pages
Nonfiction / Memoir

Purchase it from Amazon here

I’m not really sure where to start with this.  I don’t usually read non-fiction because it lacks any need for imagination or some new place that I can lose myself in.  It’s reality.  Like going outside or reading a newspaper or watching CNN.  This book in particular was a harsh reality: a treatise on the abuse of medication in patients, the sad state of urban mental health centers, and above all, a bleak, raw confessional about Norah Vincent’s own history of mental health issues.  When you think there’s a hint of light coming from around the corner, something else disturbing or depressing comes up to block it.

According to Vincent, this book started as an investigative journalism piece, where she would admit herself into three very different types of institutions: an under-funded urban hospital ward that treated mostly the homeless; a private clinic in the Midwest that served a middle class white clientele, generally suffering from depression and boredom; and a private less conventional treatment center that catered to the upper class, mostly people who had been sent there under court mandate to get clean from drug and alcohol abuse. 

Somewhere around the beginning of her first stay, her own precarious mental state crumbled and what could have potentially been an interesting examination of how mental health is treated in different areas of the country turned into an examination of one person’s mental health and how it was treated in different locations.  Things took a much more personal turn very early on and increased in disturbing detail until Vincent is more or less using the book itself as personal therapy.  By the end, the personal nature of the confessions Vincent was making were uncomfortable and disturbing.

While the writing is generally informative, it’s obvious that even the more reporting portions of the book have been warped by the author’s own personal demons.  Her adamant disdain for medical professionals and the pharmaceutical companies that create the drugs used in the psych wards is so often brought to the forefront that even once she gets to a facility that embodies everything she’d want in her own personal hospital, she still distrusts the doctors, the exercises, the therapy until her assigned therapist makes a breakthrough and things go from being about the ward at all and being all about Vincent’s own problems and past.

It probably doesn't help that I read it in short bursts, often distracted by a toddler throwing things at me from the backseat of a car.  There was just nothing to dive into, anyone to root for.  It was all doom and gloom and hatred throughout the entire thing.  Then again I'd much rather throw things back at the toddler in the backseat than steep myself into that darkness for very long.

I read this as part of a book club and I was hoping it would be more about the institutions and less about the author.  As someone who has suffered from mental health problems in the past, I could relate to a little of what Vincent described as going on her head.  But before long I felt very uncomfortable with the raw emotion and confessions she made in print.  I think I need to get back to a fantasy world with zombies or something…


Rating: D

A tough read, very confessional and raw, self-absorbed in the way only a seriously depressed person could be