by Phyllis Chesler
published by Four Walls Eight Windows
Review by Anitra Freeman
Originally published in Real
Women and Madness has been reprinted three times, had sold two-and-a-half
million copies by 1997, and carries as much impact today as when it was
first published in 1972.
As a woman whose life has been strongly affected by bipolar disorder,
I was grabbed by the title. As a feminist, and as a "mental health
consumer" whose entire family has both benefited and suffered from
the medical and psychiatric professions, I was interested in what a long-time
feminist who is also a psychologist had to say about the subject.
I ended with mixed feelings, because Chesler seems to be sending mixed
messages in her book, arguing at least three theories of "women and
madness" that to some extent contradict each other.
First is the argument that "madness" among women is extremely
over-diagnosed. Chesler observes that women who exhibit traditionally
"male" traits like independence, self-assertiveness, and dominance
are often diagnosed as mentally ill paranoid, schizophrenic, manic,
etc. Women whose behavior is more typically "feminine"
passive, underachieving, and retiring are diagnosed as depressed
or compulsive. And medical illness is often misdiagnosed as mental illness,
especially in women, poor people, gays, and people of color.
I am well aware of this over-diagnosis and mis-diagnosis. If you have
doubts about it, please read this book Chesler documents cases
thoroughly. Some of the most powerful portions of her book are the testimonies
of women themselves.
A second argument is that women (and poor people, gays, and people of
color) who are in real suffering from either medical or mental illness
are less likely to get adequate and appropriate treatment. They are less
likely, even, to get understanding and support from family, friends, or
employers and co-workers. Again, this is well documented and gets no argument
The point at which I begin arguing with Chesler is when she categorizes
all mental illness, including depression and schizophrenia, as normal
human response to abuse and stress an understandable reaction to
an oppressive patriarchy that can only be cured by social change.
Hey, Im all for social change, and I believe a healthier society
would make everything easier, including getting over pneumonia. But youre
still going to need antibiotics for pneumonia, and people who suffer many
mental illnesses will still benefit from medication.
I agree with Chesler that if you are in an intolerable situation that
is driving you nuts the cure is not Prozac; the cure is to get out of
the situation. But if your own body chemistry is sabotaging you, the right
medication can be the only thing that makes it possible to change
your situation. And even after the change, you can benefit from therapeutic
Cheslers psychological prescription for the future is for women
to become passionate about their own survival and self-development, not
focusing all that passion on others. Let me make that image more concrete.
For 45 years, my life was disrupted in cycles by bipolar disorder. I would
either be going a mile a minute or be dead in the water. I drove everyone
around me nuts. They all accused me of being deliberately aggravating.
I felt increasingly guilty for all the misery I caused, but will power
alone changed nothing.
I was finally told that it was not my fault I had an illness
that could be treated medically. I dropped the guilt, no longer felt I
had to defend myself, and began living as if I had a right to "my
own survival and self-development." I became passionately persistent
about getting the right treatment, not accepting mis-treatment
from anyone, including doctors and psychiatrists. It will still take many
years of counseling to learn to live on level ground instead of on a roller
Cheslers prescription works. But please, if medication is what works
for you, dont let anyone, including Phyllis Chesler, tell you to
take a political demonstration instead.
Storm the barricades after you take your meds. Its more effective
Phyllis Chesler has also written Letters
to a Young Feminist and Womans
Inhumanity to Woman.