The madwoman in the attic

Is a recent Times story on "Mad Pride" activists a reminder of how our culture conflates "female" and "mental illness" -- or am I just crazy?

Published May 14, 2008 7:30PM (EDT)

The image is as startling as it is absurd -- a pair of wide, crazed eyes peering through a wall of weathered wooden slats, calling to mind every haunted madwoman shut up in the attic or doomed to wander the lonely moors clad in a tattered nightshirt, arousing the disgust and fear of all who encounter her. But that's the point -- it's a still from the video of Liz Spikol, a 39-year-old writer with bipolar disorder who is part of the burgeoning "Mad Pride" movement, a nascent group of activists seeking to rebrand and destigmatize the notion of "madness," much as gay-rights activists reclaimed the word "queer" a generation ago.

This is a fascinating phenomenon, and as someone with a significant history of mental illness in her family (and having seen the attendant shame and havoc its stigmatization can cause for the sufferers and their families), I applaud any effort to bring these issues "out of the closet" and steer the national discourse on mental health away from tabloid dispatches of "Britney's Private Hell" and toward some semblance of reality. Obviously, the New York Times does, too, which is precisely why it put a feature on a subject of this kind of universal import … at the top of the Sunday Styles section?

You don't need to hear to yet another smug boyfriend remind you for the 18th time that "the word hysteria comes from the Greek word for uterus" to know that our culture all too often equates "crazy" with "female." But the truth is there is nothing inherently feminine about mental illness; like all diseases, some forms (like bipolar disorder II) are more likely to affect women, and others, like schizophrenia, are more likely to affect men. The Times story would seem to back this up -- several of the advocates quoted here are male -- but it was disheartening to see the story's placement in the paper of record alongside wedding announcements and reports about shopping for beachwear in the Hamptons.

Or maybe I'm just crazy.

By Rachel Shukert

Rachel Shukert is the author of Everything is Going To Be Great and Have You No Shame. Her YA series Starstruck is forthcoming from Random House in the spring of 2013. She lives in New York City.

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