What's Normal? Narratives of Mental and Emotional Disorders
Donley, C. & Buckley, S., eds.
Genre: Anthology (Mixed Genres)
- Martinez, Richard
- Date of entry: Mar-27-2001
This is the second anthology from Donley and Buckley derived after many years of teaching "What's Normal?"--a literature and medicine course at Hiram College where they explore the cultural and contextual influences upon the concept of normality. With the first anthology, The Tyranny of the Normal, the editors focused on physical abnormalities (see this database for annotation). In this second anthology, the focus is exclusively on mental and behavioral deviations from societal norms. With this edition, Donley and Buckley present their case that, as with physical abnormalities, there is a similar tyranny of the normal that "dominates those who do not fit within the culture's norms for mental ability, mental health and acceptable behavior (xi)".
The anthology is divided into two parts. Part I is a collection of essays that introduce various clinical and bioethical perspectives on the subject of mental illness. These essays bring philosophic and analytic voices to the topic. Stephen Jay Gould's terrific essay on Carrie Buck and the "eugenic" movement in the United States in the early part of the 20th century illustrates one of the major themes that can be found throughout the anthology.
Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the majority opinion in the 8-1 Supreme Court decision that sealed Buck's fate. Gould begins his essay reminding his readers of the often referenced Holmes quote, "three generations of imbeciles are enough." He then takes us on a fascinating historical adventure that uncovers a deeper and more complicated drama that led to this unfortunate period in American history, and the tragic incarceration and sterilization of Carrie Buck.
This essay, as with other stories, poems, and drama in the anthology, contemplates the relationship between societal values and mental illness, and illustrates how society through medicine can turn to the myth of "objective" diagnostic labels as a way to compartmentalize and control behavior and imaginations that are "abnormal." D. L. Rosenhan's essay from "On Being Sane in Insane Places" further illustrates the failure of the mental illness label. Irvin Yalom's story from Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy provides an example of what is possible when diagnostic labels are avoided, when health care professionals with power turn with humility, curiosity, and kindness toward others, substantiating that these qualities are far more powerful than statistical notions of "normal."
Part II is a collection of fiction, poetry and drama. Intended as a complement to part I, part II engages the reader in the lived experience of the narrators. It is divided into six sections. Section one considers children and adolescent experience of mental illness. Included are Conrad Aiken's "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," an excerpt from Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted (see annotation in this database), and an excerpt from Peter Shaffer's Equus (see annotation).
Section two includes stories that capture the world of mental disability and retardation. An excerpt from Of Mice and Men and Eudora Welty's short story Lilly Daw and the Three Ladies are included. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper (annotated by Felice Aull; also annotated by Jack Coulehan) is in section three where women's experiences with mental disorders is the theme (these are annotated in this database).
Section four and five focus on men and mental illness. War experience is considered in the works of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf. Section six concludes the anthology. Alzheimer's disease and dementia are examined in Robert Davis's My Journey into Alzheimer's Disease, and in the story, "A Wonderful Party" by Jean Wood.
Kent State Univ. Press
Carol Donley and Sheryl Buckley
This is a valuable text for educators in psychology, psychiatry, and other mental health fields. Many of the stories and essays can be used to complement and critique current social science and medical perspectives on mental disorders. With the increased "medical" understanding of mental disorders, the human and moral dimensions of individual experience with mental disorder are too often ignored. Understanding that is highly compartmentalized and reductionistic characterizes much of contemporary psychiatry. This anthology can be a source of materials that can broaden understanding and critique some of the common assumptions embedded in current concepts of mental illness.
Although many of the selections are relevant and appropriate for the topic, several criticisms of this anthology are in order. First, some of the excerpts from longer works are too short and do not have introductions by the editors. Readers unfamiliar with some of the works will find these pieces less useful. Second, many fine recent and older works on this subject are not included.
William Styron's excellent story of his experience with depression (Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness--see this database), Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind (see annotation), and the now classic I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg are not included. Lastly, in the editors' goal to bring a human face to the experience of mental illness and to critique cultural constructions of the "abnormal," the selections fail to achieve balance with the legitimate view of mental illness as disease and the source of great suffering for many.