Addict (drugaddict) wrote,


Writing a first book is supposed to drive one mad — just not literally. Then again, few authors embark on a project as psychologically creepy as Norah Vincent’s “Self-Made Man,” a ferocious and gripping non­fiction book, published in 2006, about the 18 months she spent disguised as “Ned.” Reporting from incongruent areas of male inhabitation — including a strip club, a bowling league and a monastery — Ned gave Norah, a feminist and lesbian who took no sexual gratification in cross-­dressing, the gift of perception about masculine insecurity, communication and anger, an emotion women are socialized to sublimate. In return, she lost it. “Voluntary Madness” is the fallout.

The mental institution Vincent checked into at the end of her research for “Self-Made Man” — after she begged one of the participants at a John Bly-inspired men’s retreat to cut her with a knife — proved to be catnip for a gonzo “immersion journalist” on the hunt for a second book idea. (How am I going to write a book when I’m going nuts? . . . Wait a minute.) She was considered “passively suicidal,” according to her therapist, but wasn’t distraught enough to miss the entertainment value of the mise-en-scène. “Jesus, what a freak show,” she admits to thinking. “All I have to do is sit here and take notes, and I’m Balzac.” Though “Voluntary Madness” is vastly less researched than her first book — a fairer subtitle might be “My Five Weeks in the Loony Bin” — the project is conceptually similar: Vincent checks herself into three additional institutions, masquerading as a mental patient who tells the intake counselor that she doesn’t feel “safe” (the magic word) in the real world. (She tries to pay for these visits herself, but fails: in one of the book’s few funny moments, her insurance company rebuffs offers of cash, because only crazy people bankroll such visits themselves.)

So the title works two ways: Vincent has voluntarily checked herself into psych wards, from which the law says she can be sprung only by agreement of the hospitals’ doctors or, in the absence of this, a sympathetic judge; and she is consumed by the question of whether she, and society, have chosen madness, or what has been called cosmetic psychopharmacology, as an easier path than free will and its attendant terrors. (A third meaning, about whether madness and will can exist at the same time, hovers in the distance.) At the unfortunate cost of narrative suspense, Vincent discloses her biases early: like a growing number of Americans, she’s fairly certain that America’s love affair with modern-day psychiatry is nothing less than a subprime crisis, with the F.D.A., the DSM, Big Pharma and your harried family doctor in on the scam. She’ll even go so far as to describe depression as “bratty rebellion,” many diagnoses as “a guess” and most psychiatric drugs as “of dubious or at best limited efficacy and usually unfathomed toxicity.”

On the first stop in her experiment, a large public hospital in an undisclosed location, she goes even farther. Like most advocates of deinstitutionalization, she claims that places like “Meriwether” are charnel houses, meant to break the will of society’s lower class. From the moment she suits up in blue pajamas and socks with stick­um soles, she rails against a system that aims to strip her of humanity. And it does. She’s forced to spend 20-odd hours upright in a fluorescent-lit hallway as she waits to be processed. Her roommates urinate on the bathroom floor. Her ballpoint pen is replaced with a blunt brown crayon.

There aren’t many surprises in what she witnesses in other patients at Meriwether during her 10-day stay (price tag: $14,276); everyone has experienced the same on city street corners. The shock comes in what the psych ward does to Vincent. She instantly turns paranoid and conspiratorial, clinging to her belief that not all of these folks are really sick, and if they are, they’re being made worse. She makes diagnoses: the hyper 20-year-old prone to tantrums was probably given A.D.H.D.-bipolar drugs too early; the woman seeing visions of Jesus needs familial love; the five-foot-tall schizophrenic, we’re led to infer, is happier in her delusions anyway.

They must break the cycle of mental illness, she decides; they must stop taking their medication. Does this patient know about the side effects of Effexor? Does this other one, a grade school teacher in the urban education system, really need Seroquel? Vincent tells her to palm it. “You don’t need medication,” she says. “You need to change your job.” Perhaps she’s right. But striding around a public psych ward with such pronouncements goes too far, particularly when Vincent herself is about to get knocked on her rear by her decision to taper off Prozac — partly over her frustration at being in lifetime thrall to the drug companies, and partly for the good of the book, because she thinks it’s the right thing to do as an immersion journalist. “I thought I was on my game,” she writes. “And then there I was thinking about where I could buy a gun. A gun seems best. I am a maimed animal. Perhaps I can hire a hit man. I will tip him very well to take a clean shot.”

The narrative takes a hit with Vincent’s depression, which any college sophomore in finals week could tell you is not the best state of mind for writing. Her trip to a private asylum in the Midwest retraces much of the same ground she has already covered, while introducing a relentless cataloging of afternoon snacks. It is Vincent’s prerogative to disdain journalistic tools like statistics, academic studies and psychological texts, as well as the memoirist’s tricks of “my mother” and “my father” — two phrases that never make an appearance in the book in reference to her own family — but any of this could have pushed her out of first gear. As could have an outrageous stunt in the tradition of Randle McMurphy, but by this time it seems that Vincent is too sick, numb and bored by this book to partake in sport.

It is astounding how little it takes for Vincent to begin to recover at her last stop, a cognitive-behavioralist facility advertised for patients in mental distress but in practice a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center — a little bit of sympathy, a movement class, a therapist who finally zeroes in on the anger and breaks down the emotions around it. It’s the last chapter, after all, so genre constraints require her to make progress, and the benefits of this form of psychology are hardly a secret, well chronicled of late in publications ranging from Newsweek to O magazine. But it’s moving to watch her relearn the basic lessons of life: Sit with your anger, and its handmaiden, shame. It isn’t real, but you need to know where it comes from. Figure it out, then don’t worry about it too much. “Just hand the apple back,” she writes. “Just unknow. Because you can.”

Of course, this is not enough to wean Vincent off her daily Prozac. And by taking it, she answers the question about whether madness and will can coexist. Everyone must take responsibility for his own mental health, even those among us who are touched by darkness. As a compromise in an age of psychopharmacological doubt, this seems about right.

Vanessa Grigoriadis is a contributing editor at New York magazine, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.
Vanessa Grigoriadis is a contributing editor at New York magazine, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.
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