Voluntary Madness by Norah Vincent

Book Review by Sue Lawrenson | 07 May 2010
  • Voluntary Madness by Norah Vincent
Book title: Voluntary Madness
Author: Norah Vincent


Norah Vincent's account of her year admitted by choice to mental institutions in America is carefully articulated, yet personal. She talks realistically about what she sees of healthcare provision – but unlike the general population, she doesn't actually want her insurance to pay for her treatment, because for this project it can be billed as research. As a journalist who spent a year living as a man for a previous book, her determination to show you life from another angle is obvious. Treating other inmates as individuals (instead of with meds), Vincent is able to pick out patterns and stay clear of stereotyping. Comfortable at not talking to others just as fellow inhabitants are, her direct style makes this odd travelogue easy to read. The book's subtitle on its spine looks like a library sticker, which seems appropriate, given the intertwined themes of identity and responsibility that pervade the narrative. The first is eloquently demonstrated by her returning to the use of hospital wrist bands as dehumanising. But whose responsibility is mental illness, both as cause and treatment – the individual or society? There are no easy answers, but the issue is well probed by the differences in group therapy for the CD (chemically dependent) and MI (mentally ill) in her second institution, St Luke's. Worth a look. [Sue Lawrenson]


Out now. Published by Vintage. Cover price £8.99