Women and Madness

Women and Madness

by Phyllis Chesler


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Feminist icon Phyllis Chesler’s pioneering work, Women and Madness, remains startlingly relevant today, nearly fifty years since its first publication in 1972. With over 2.5 million copies sold, this landmark book is unanimously regarded as the definitive work on the subject of women’s psychology. Now back in print, this completely revised and updated edition adds perspectives on eating disorders, postpartum depression, biological psychology, important feminist political findings, female genital mutilation, and more.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641600361
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 258,333
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Lexile: 1240L (what's this?)

About the Author

Phyllis Chesler, author of eighteen books and thousands of articles and speeches, is also an emerita professor of psychology and women’s studies at City University of New York, a psychotherapist, and an expert courtroom witness. She is cofounder of the Association for Women in Psychology and the National Women’s Health Network, a charter member of the Women’s Forum and the Veteran Feminists of America, and a founder and board member of the International Committee for the Women of the Wall. She lives in Manhattan.

Read an Excerpt



For I did not have a mother who bore me.
No, all my heart praises the male.

Aeschylus, The Oresteia

Sigh no more, ladies Time is male and in his cups dr inks to the fair.
Bemused by gallantry, we hear our mediocrities over-praised,
indolence read as abnegation,
slattern thought styled intuition,
every lapse forgiven, our crime only to cast too bold a shadow or smash the mould straight off.
For that, solitary confinement,
tear gas, attrition shelling.
Few applicants for that honor.

Adrienne Rich

Now I know what it is like when the head is cut off the body. ...
In my room in Caen on the table under the open window lies open the Book of Judith.
Dressed in her legendary beauty she entered the tent of the enemy and with a single blow,
slew him.

Peter Weiss

"The first time a boy hurt me" said Lillian to Djuna "it was in school. I don't remember what he did. But I wept. And he laughed at me. Do you know what I did? I went home and dressed in my brother's suit. I tried to feel as the boy felt. Naturally as I put on the suit I felt I was putting on a costume of strength. ... I thought that to be a boy meant one did not suffer. That it was being a girl that was responsible for the suffering. ... Then there was another thing. ... I discovered one relief, and that was action. ... I felt if only I could join the war, participate, I wouldn't feel the anguish and the fear ... if only they would let me be Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc wore a suit of armor, she sat on a horse, she fought side by side with the men. She must have gained their strength."

Anais Nin

The surprising thing about the myths of Demeter ... is her restless search for her [raped and abducted] daughter [Persephone] ... a great Goddess could ... in a single figure which was at once Mother and Daughter ... represent the motifs that recur in all mothers and daughters.

C. Kerenyi

Perhaps the angry and weeping women in mental asylums are Amazons returned to earth these many centuries later, each conducting a private and half-remembered search for her Motherland — a search we call madness. Or perhaps they are failed Goddess-Mothers, Demeters, eternally and miserably unable to find their daughters or their powers....

(A romantic thought of my own)

There is nothing wrong with me — except I was born at least two thousand years too late. Ladies of Amazonian proportions and Berserker propensities have passed quite out of vogue and have no place in this too damned civilized world ... here I sit — mad as the hatter — with nothing to do but either become madder and madder or else recover enough of my sanity to be allowed to go back to the life which drove me mad.

Lara Jefferson


Mrs. Elizabeth Packard (1816–c. 1890)
Mrs. Ellen West (c.1890–c. 1926)
Mrs. Zelda Fitzgerald (1900–1948)
Mrs. Sylvia Plath Hughes (1932–1963)

How did American women get into asylums in the past? The answer is: against their will and without prior notice. Here is what happened. Suddenly, unexpectedly, a perfectly sane woman might find herself being arrested by a sheriff; removed from her bed at dawn, or "legally kidnapped" on the streets, in broad daylight. Or: her father or husband might ask her to accompany him to see a friend to help him with a legal matter. Unsuspecting, the woman might find herself before a judge or a physician, who certified her "insane" on her husband's say-so. Why did this happen?

Battering, drunken husbands had their wives psychiatrically imprisoned as a way of continuing to batter them; husbands also had their wives imprisoned in order to live or marry with other women.

Ada Metcalf (1876), of Illinois, wrote: "It is a very fashionable and easy thing now to make a person out to be insane. If a man tires of his wife, and if befooled after some other woman, it is not a very difficult matter to get her in an institution of this kind. Belladonna and chloroform will give her the appearance of being crazy enough, and after the asylum doors have closed upon her, adieu to the beautiful world and all home associations."

At thirty-two, the unmarried Adriana Brinckle (1857), of Pennsylvania, conducted an economic transaction of her own: she sold some furniture. Charges were brought against her for selling furniture for which she had not fully paid. For the crime of embarrassing her physician father's sense of "family honor," Brinckle's father and his judge-friend sentenced Brinkle to twenty-eight years in a psychiatric hospital.

In 1861, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote: "Could the dark secrets of those insane asylums be brought to light ... we would be shocked to know the countless number of rebellious wives, sisters and daughters that are thus annually sacrificed to false customs and conventionalisms, and barbarous laws made by men for women."

Most women in asylums were not insane. According to Adeline T.P. Lunt (1871), "A close, careful study and intimacy with these patients (finds no) irregularity, eccentricity, or idiosyncracy, either in language, deportment, or manner, than might be met with in any society of women thrown together, endeavoring to make the most of life under the most adverse and opposing circumstances."

However, psychiatrically hospitalized women feared, correctly, that they might be driven mad by the brutality of the asylum itself, and by their lack of legal rights as women, and as prisoners. As Adriana Brinckle, wrote: "An insane asylum. A place where insanity is made." Sophie Olsen (1862) wrote: "O, I was so weary, weary; I longed for some Asylum from 'Lunatic Asylums!'"

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries these four women — Elizabeth Packard, Ellen West, Zelda Fitzgerald and Sylvia Plath — were hospitalized for various psychiatric "symptoms." All were uncommonly stubborn, talented, and aggressive. Some became socially withdrawn: they no longer cared how they "looked," they refused to eat, they became sexually disinterested in their husbands. One woman "heard" things. Two others repeatedly attempted to kill themselves. Ellen West and Sylvia Plath finally committed suicide when they were in their early thirties. Zelda Fitzgerald burned to death in a mental asylum fire. Elizabeth Packard managed to escape after three years in an Illinois asylum. She published an account of her hospital experience and fought for the legal rights of mental patients and married women.

These women share a rather fatal allegiance to their own uniqueness. For years they denied themselves — or were denied — the privileges and rewards of talent. Like many women, they buried their own destinies in romantically extravagant marriages, in motherhood, and in approved female pleasure. However, their repressed energies eventually struggled free, demanding long overdue and therefore heavier prices: marital and maternal "disloyalty," social ostracism, imprisonment, madness, and death.

There is at least one important difference between Elizabeth Packard and the other women. Packard was a devout believer in both Christianity and motherhood. Romantic passion, doubt, creative egoism, and anguish were either flawlessly subdued or never part of her grandly practical sensibility. Her sins of individuality concerned religious freedom. Packard's husband literally forbade her to express her own opinions on theological matters. Her conscience did not allow her to obey him. Unlike Packard, Fitzgerald, West, and Plath were not churchgoers. They were impractical and romantic. And unlike Packard, these three women were as dangerously wedded to Eros — to love — as was his first and mythological wife Psyche.

According to myth, Psyche remains unmarried despite (or because) of her great physical beauty. Finally, in desperation, her parents consult an oracle. They are advised to abandon their daughter on a mountain crag. Symbolically speaking, they abandon her to the inevitable Virgin's death (in marriage), and to an unknown, possibly bestial husband. But Psyche's husband is none other than Eros (Amor), Aphrodite's son. Psyche is ecstatically happy: she is also very lonely. Her husband visits her only at night, under cover of darkness, and she is warned against "seeing" him. When Psyche finally violates this wifely taboo, Eros flees. Psyche must then perform a series of "Hero's" tasks in order to be reunited with Eros, bear their child, and constitute a Holy Family in heaven.

Like Psyche's, the Packard, Fitzgerald, West, and Plath marriages were consecrated in darkness. Unlike Psyche, however, they failed — or refused — to complete the maiden's pilgrimage toward divine marriage and motherhood. Esther Greenwood, Plath's heroine in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, says:

... one of the reasons I never wanted to get married [was that] the last thing I wanted was intimate security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself ... the trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters ... maybe [marriage and children] was like being brainwashed and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private totalitarian state ...

Ellen West was a wealthy, sensitive, and suicidal young married woman whose fear of eating was so great that she eventually refused to eat at all. (This symptom was psychiatrically interpreted as a fear of becoming pregnant. Ludwig Binswanger, her "anthropological case historian," recorded her life and psychiatric history.) West is presented to us as having preferred "trousers" and "lively, boyish games" until she was sixteen. Her childhood motto was "Either Caesar or nothing." In a poem written when she was seventeen, she expressed the desire "to be a soldier, fear no foe, and die joyously, sword in hand." She became an ardent horsewoman, diarist, and poet. After feverishly and competently performing a variety of approved female activities (doing volunteer work with children, taking non-matriculated university courses, engaging in serious love affairs), she grew suicidal and stopped eating. She said:

... something in me rebels against becoming fat. Rebels against becoming healthy, getting plump red cheeks, becoming a simple, robust woman, as corresponds to my true nature. ... For what purpose did nature give me health and ambition? ... It is really sad that I must translate all this force and urge to action into unheard words [in her diary], instead of powerful deeds. ... I am twenty-one years old and am supposed to be silent and grin like a puppet. I am no puppet. I am a human being with red blood and a woman with quivering heart. ... Oh, what shall I do, how shall I manage it? ... I am not thinking of the liberation of the soul; I mean the real, tangible liberation of people from the chains of their oppressors. ... I want a revolution, a great uprising to spread over the entire world and overthrow the whole social order. I should like to forsake home and parents like a Russian nihilist, to live among the poorest of the poor and make propaganda for the great cause. Not for the love of adventure! No, no! Call it the unsatisfied urge to action....

Zelda Fitzgerald's husband was a famous writer who was (therefore) incapable of understanding or nurturing his wife's talents. Scott Fitzgerald experienced Zelda's dancing lessons as pathetic and foolish. Nancy Milford, in her excellent biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, quotes Scott's letter to Dr. Forel, one of Zelda's psychiatrists, in which Scott complains that for the last six months, Zelda had taken no interest in their child.* Dr. Forel pointed out that before Zelda had become "devoted" to the ballet, she had devoted herself to her tasks as a wife and mother. He described her increasing absorption with dancing, dancers, and with herself as distressingly egoistic and boring. Scott explains his own alcoholism in terms of Zelda's growing individuality and "madness." He told the doctor that he had to fortify himself with wine in order to put up with a woman whose tastes were different or "diverging" from his own. Although he describes her behavior — or its effects on him — as embarrassing and "maddening" he still recognized a certain boldness and honesty in Zelda's actions. In describing her, Scott's tone ranges from self-pity and impatience with Zelda's stubborn childishness to a sense of real loss and concern for her.

Scott was extremely jealous and threatened by Zelda's considerable literary talent. He reacted with fury when Zelda completed an autobiographical novel before Scott had finished his own novel — a "story" of Zelda's life and psychiatric confinement. In a letter to Dr. Meyer, another of Zelda's many male psychiatrists, Scott admitted that perhaps Zelda could have developed into a genius if they had never met. But the fact was that they did meet and marry, and her insistence on a career as an author was hurting Scott and their daughter. Zelda was being entranced, practically "possessed," by dreams of success and recognition dangerously like his own. Zelda's "genius," an adolescent and demonic inconvenience, really, was hurting him and their marriage. Certainly, Zelda experienced and was broken by this very conflict. Milford quotes from the stenographic transcription of a conversation between Zelda, Scott, and Dr. Rennie, Zelda's psychiatrist in 1933. Scott accuses Zelda, rather hysterically, of being a "writer of limited talent" and reminds her of his worldwide literary reputation. Milford notes that "Scott had some very fixed ideas of what a woman's place should be in a marriage." He thought of himself as being in charge — something like a pilot charting the course. He was firm in his resolve that Zelda halt her efforts to write fiction. (When monkeys and serving wenches begin to write, can the Eumenides be far behind?) Zelda says she does not want to be "dependent" on Scott, either financially or psychologically. She wants to be a "creative artist": she wants "work." Only if she does "good work" can she defend herself against Scott's slighting comments. She says she is tired of being forced into accepting Scott's opinions and decisions about everything. In fact, she would not do so, she would rather be hospitalized. She feels that their marriage has been nothing but a struggle from the beginning. Scott's reply to this was that as a couple they were envied by the world. She suggested that they had put on a very good show.

In her paper entitled, "The Paradox of the Happy Marriage," Jessie Bernard has shown that men, in general, have different (more positive) opinions about their marriages than their wives do. Many husbands expect less from marriage than their wives and gain more in terms of domestic and sexual convenience and in emotional support.

In 1860, Elizabeth Packard's husband psychiatrically imprisoned her because she dared to engage in "free religious inquiry." She insisted on teaching her Bible class that human beings are born "good" and "not evil."

Packard's husband, a clergyman, kidnapped her against her will (although he was within his legal rights to do so) and removed her to an asylum at Jacksonville, Illinois. He forbade her children, whose ages ranged from eighteen months to eighteen years, to communicate with or talk about her. He kept her own (inherited) income from her. He deprived her of her clothes, books, and personal papers and misrepresented her situation to her parents. Dr. MacFarland, the psychiatrist-director of the asylum, remaindered her outgoing mail and seized her few books and smuggled-in writing paper. Despite these events, Mrs. Packard never lost her "wits." She always referred to the asylum as a "prison" — and never as a "hospital." She began a secret diary of asylum events and ministered to the other inmates, most of whom she regarded as sister-victims of the patriarchy. However, she still believed in marriage and in male chivalry; she never wanted a divorce. She was thoroughly devoted to her children, and to a (male) Godhead. She "forgave" Dr. MacFarland his "sins" — until, in a moment of fury, he nearly strangled her normally docile roommate, Bridget. (Bridget had refused to do some domestic dirty work for him, and the doctor became enraged.) After this, Mrs. Packard was

... converted from the theological error of vicarious suffering. I have never since asked my Father to let me bear the punishment of any other brother or sister, due them for their own sins; neither have I asked any other intelligence to bear punishment due me for my own sins.

Her account of asylum abuses is lucid and at times brilliant. She describes many female asylum suicides as due to constant harassment, loneliness, and despair. She condemns the "torture" of women who she felt were really "witless." It is Elizabeth Packard who first made the analogy of Institutional Psychiatry and the Inquisition.


Excerpted from "Women and Madness"
by .
Copyright © 2005 Phyllis Chesler.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

2005 Introduction,
Demeter and Clytemnestra, Revisited,
Women in Asylums: Four Lives,
Mothers and Daughters: A Mythological Commentary on the Lives,
Heroines and Madness: Joan of Arc and the Virgin Mary,
The Mental Asylum,
The Female Social Role and Psychiatric Symptoms: Depression, Frigidity, and Suicide Attempts,
Schizophrenia in Three Studies,
A Theoretical Proposal,
How Many Clinicians Are There in America?,
Contemporary Clinical Ideology,
Traditional Clinical Ideology,
The Institutional Nature of Private Therapy,
The Interviews,
The Interviews,
The Interviews,
The Interviews,
Female Psychology in Our Culture: Women Alone,
Female Psychology in Our Culture: Women in Groups,
Amazon Societies: Visions and Possibilities,
The Problem of Survival: Power and Violence,
Some Psychological Prescriptions for the Future,
Thirteen Questions,

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