The Mad and the Sane

Most psychiatrists will tell you that we are still in the dark ages of dealing with mental illness, particularly using psychopharmacology, or medicines, like Prozac or Wellbutrin. That said, we are mercifully far away from the treatments that feature in the books I am about to review. All these books feature strong women willing to buck the norms to see justice served.

Woman 99 by Greer MacAlister follows pampered, Gilded-Age Phoebe as she tries to free her beloved sister from a notorious asylum. Beneath all those frills and furbellows lies a spine of steel, however, and Phoebe arranges to get herself committed to the same asylum, which is more a place of torture for society's inconvenient women than a respite. Flashbacks detail how much Phoebe is risking as well as the richness of the sisters' relationship in this character-driven page-turner.

English madhouses were equally horrific in the Victorian era, as made clear in Wendy Wallace's The Painted Bridge. A minister's young wife with odd visions is committed after an act of disobedience and is treated by a kind, if naive, young doctor using the new science of photography. The novel also tells the story of the unhappy family of the asylum's owner and some of the inmates, most of whom are quite sane. Owing a good deal to Dickens, this is is a bleak, atmospheric illustration of the constrained lives of women.

Jumping ahead a century to the suburban United States, Nightingale by Amy Lukavics creates sci-fi horror of a feminist bent. High school student June is nothing like the feminine ideal of mid-century America, writing her own science fiction stories and caring nothing for appearances. She ends up in a mental health facility after what she is told is a psychotic break. However, there is definitely something off besides the tortures of lobotomies and electroshock therapy. Is June truly insane, or is she on to something with her tales of alien invaders? While considered a young adult title, this might also be of interest to older readers, especially with its shock ending.

Jeannette de Beauvoir's Asylum also hearkens back to the 1950's, but takes place in modern times. The head PR flack for the mayor of Montreal and an unconventional police detective team up to find a serial killer determined to tarnish the reputation of the city. The victims can all be traced to the Duplessis orphanage scandal, in which orphans were transferred to mental institutions and experimented on. This is a heartwrenching mystery, based on true events.

Have other tales of the wrongly committed? Tell us in the comments.

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