Temporary Insanity: Playing Crazy's Not Funny

Norah Vincent first made headlines by living as a man for her book Self-Made Man. Now, in Voluntary Madness, she goes undercover as a mentally ill person, and ends up a real one.

Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin was conceived when, after her stint living as the male alter-ego "Ned," Vincent suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized as a suicide risk. The experience led Vincent to investigate the patient experience more fully when she'd recovered, and for the book she did stints in a large, urban hospital, a small private facility and a more experimental program. She found the public hospital's conditions to be shocking. Recaps the Times' review:

The staff comprises Teflon-slick professionals and brutish aides; the food is unappetizing, the bathrooms are dirty, the attempts at therapy are cursory, and a heavy reliance on major tranquilizers leaves the patients, many of them street-living incurables, barely conscious. The occasional middle-class citizen trapped in this mix quickly learns to feign recovery to escape.

Those who seek to dismiss the book as stunt journalism — as well as those who'd seek to learn from it — are both stymied by the fact that, in the course of her investigation, Vincent relapsed into serious depression, and ended the project anything but an objective observer. Which is too bad, as the Times points out, because it's an issue that bears investigation. We're at an interesting point in our cultural dialogues about mental illness, something that's been made plain by the reaction to the new TV show The United States of Tara. As you probably know, the Toni Collette vehicle centers on a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder - more commonly known as multiple personalities. This being TV, the guises are wildly different and played for laughs, but nowadays mental-health advocates push for accurate representation of illnesses that were once regarded as an easy comedic device. There are watchdog groups who monitor such depictions carefully, and as a result current projects tend to avoid, at least Snake Pit-style dramatizations, allow characters like Tara to be relatable and successful, and throw around enough jargon to let people know they're taking it seriously.

Of course, it's a fine line. Because while no one should laugh at mental illness — it's, quite simply, not funny — I'd say that accurate depiction sometimes demands laughing with it. For those of us who've suffered from mental health problems, or whose family does, gallows humor is often a necessary means of coping. It's one of the things that separates well you from sick you. In my family, any institution is referred to as "the bin" — it makes it less scary when someone's there. I wonder if that might have been part of Vincent's motivation: reclaiming something scary by approaching it when "healthy." It doesn't shock me that this proved impossible, and in a sense, even if it derailed the project, her relapse, somewhat ironically, shows as well as anything the power and true scariness of the disease and the need to take it seriously.

Reality Intrudes on an Undercover Mental Patient [NYT]
TV’s Split Personality [Newsweek]
'Voluntary Madness' Details Life In 'Loony Bin' [NPR]