books about crazy ladies
September 2, 2008 5:35 AM   Subscribe

I want to read more novels about women descending into madness and then getting well again. Any suggestions?

I realised my favourite fiction is where the female protagonist descends into some kind of mental illness, usually due, to some degree, to traumatic life events, and then gets well again.

I love in particular when the book contains detailed descriptions of her life in a mental institution and how she gets well again thanks to a committed therapist.

Examples of books I've loved:
-I never promised you a rose garden (Hannah Green)
-She's come undone (Wally lamb)
-The bell jar (Sylvia Plath)

Doesn't have to be female protagonist, it just seems more common. (I have read One flew over the cuckoo's nest)

Any suggestions of books in this theme greatly appreciated!
posted by beccyjoe to Media & Arts (44 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Probably not quite what you have in mind, but The Turn Of The Screw is interesting because throughout the book, depending on how you look at it, the heroine is either nuts or sane.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:40 AM on September 2, 2008

Susanna Kaysen, Girl Interrupted (book is better than the movie).
I have never read the book, but the movie Ordinary People is very moving and fits this bill (with a male protagonist).
posted by onlyconnect at 5:46 AM on September 2, 2008

Response by poster: IndigoJones- Noted. Not the theme I described but definitely sounds intriguing, and I am open and up for ANY subject matter that deals with "madness" in an insightful way.
posted by beccyjoe at 5:50 AM on September 2, 2008

Not a novel, but the best on this subject I've ever read is An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison.
posted by meerkatty at 5:51 AM on September 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I wondered about Girl Interrupted, I disliked the film because it seemed way too simplistic and Hollywood. Will have to check out the book.
posted by beccyjoe at 5:52 AM on September 2, 2008

The Best Awful by Carrie Fisher is exactly about this. It seems to split people into haters and fans. I was sat firmly in the fan seats. Her description of the characters descent into madness is breathtaking, heartbreaking, funny and terrifying.
posted by merocet at 5:57 AM on September 2, 2008

Doris Lessing, The golden notebook.
posted by sevenstars at 6:05 AM on September 2, 2008

Wonder When You'll Miss Me by Amanda Davis.
posted by amro at 6:09 AM on September 2, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks all for the suggestions, I want to read every one of these books. Asking MeFi is amazing and exhilarating.
posted by beccyjoe at 6:18 AM on September 2, 2008

The Yellow Wallpaper by Perkins Gilman although Victorian is very modern on its view of female decent into madness. Its also a teeny read, very evocative and kinda scary.
posted by Neonshock at 6:21 AM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Center Cannot Hold is non-fiction, but it has vivid details about life inside of mental institutions, dealing with medication, relationships with therapists, and getting well.
posted by Alison at 6:30 AM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Knowing this will partially spoil it for you but Douglas Kennedy's "a special relationship" deals with post-partum depression.
posted by Baud at 6:33 AM on September 2, 2008

Fingersmith - "a slice of engrossing lesbian Victoriana" has plenty of lady-in-asylum action.
posted by roofus at 6:41 AM on September 2, 2008

Wait that sounds bad, I've mad it sound like lesbian porn, not classy literary fiction. The (very mild SFW) lesbian action doesn't happen until after the flight from the asylum and subsequent redemption.
posted by roofus at 6:44 AM on September 2, 2008

Response by poster: are you kidding, "engrossing lesbian Victoriana" is a huge selling point! I find old-time homo themes as intriguing as madness in general. The two together, bonus.
posted by beccyjoe at 7:01 AM on September 2, 2008

It's not fiction, but Undercurrents is the funniest and most insightful book about descent into madness, hospitalization and recovery that I've ever read.

And if you've ever struggled with depression, it's also damned inspiring. It's a gripping read.
posted by jeanmari at 7:02 AM on September 2, 2008

Veronika Wants to Die by Paulo Coelho
posted by perpetualstroll at 7:09 AM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Perhaps a bit more utopian/SF/whatever and tangential to your question, but perhaps Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time?
posted by stefnet at 7:18 AM on September 2, 2008

There's also Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel. Please don't bother with the film version.
posted by meerkatty at 7:21 AM on September 2, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone... This great reading list is going to sustain me for the next two years.
posted by beccyjoe at 7:43 AM on September 2, 2008

Seconding Girl, Interrupted - the book really is wonderful and the movie doesn't do it justice.

I also enthusiastically recommend Madness by Marya Hornbacher, which is also nonfiction and one of the most transporting books I've read in a while. Wasted, by the same author, is also worth a read.

Neither fiction nor about a woman, but if you haven't read it already you might really like Dry.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:12 AM on September 2, 2008

I'm in a super hurry, but you can check out Madwoman In The Attic for more references plus literary analysis.
posted by kimota at 8:29 AM on September 2, 2008

Inglorious, by Joanna Kavenna, is a kind of funny, charming nervous breakdown book. It is great.
posted by SoftRain at 8:33 AM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is probably not quite what you are looking for, but Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag (and the series of books that follow) has a very interesting female character named Beret. She is a pioneer woman from Norway who finds her family more or less alone on the American prairie and, faced with this isolation and a very hard life, she slowly descends into madness until she is shoved off the edge at the end of the book. The sequels find her forced to make steps back toward sanity in order to survive on the prairie. I can't remember whether or not she ever really becomes "well," but it is an interesting journey nonetheless.

The second book is titled Peder Victorious and the last is Their Father's God.
posted by bristolcat at 8:38 AM on September 2, 2008

I honestly cannot remember is the lead female 'recovers' from her insanity persay, but she definitely turns out better than the lead male in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 8:40 AM on September 2, 2008

Robin McKinley's Deerskin, which is a retelling of the fairytale Donkeyskin.
posted by ubersturm at 9:06 AM on September 2, 2008

The Professor and the Madman
posted by triggerfinger at 9:28 AM on September 2, 2008

A Question of Power by Bessie Head.
posted by slograffiti at 9:35 AM on September 2, 2008

Roofus beat me to Fingersmith - it is fantastic. Sarah Waters' Affinity is also excellent (and darker) but it doesn't quite fit your criteria (depression rather than madness; her treatment is writing the book, so after concluding her story she is able to move on). You should read it anyway.

Flora Rheta Schreiber's Sybil is mad right from the beginning, but it's introduced slowly - non-fiction, but reads like a novel (written from the therapist's perspective).
posted by goo at 9:41 AM on September 2, 2008

Manic: A Memoir by Terri Cheney is one of the best books I have ever read about bipolar disorder. Actually, it is one of the best books I have ever read period. Swallow the Ocean by Laura Flynn is about growing up with a schizophrenic mother and was also quite good. My Lobotomy by Howard Tully is a heartbreaking memoir about a troubled young man who underwent the now considered barbaric "ice pick" lobotomy. It wasn't as quick of a read as Manic or Swallow the Ocean, but it was very interesting and spends a lot of time talking about life in institutions. Lastly, I don't know if alcoholism would fall under the umbrella of what you're interested in but Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp is an excellent read and I saw a lot of parallels between her struggle and other accounts I have read about mental illness.
posted by katemcd at 10:00 AM on September 2, 2008

Persimmon Blackbridge has two you might like -- Sunnybrook and Prozac Highway. True confessions: I'm friends with Persimmon, but I was a fan and reader of her books before we became friends.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:12 AM on September 2, 2008

Also -- be sure to check out Charlotte Perkins Gilman's essay about writing The Yellow Wallpaper. I use this excerpt a lot in my job (which sometimes focuses upon the workplace rights of persons with psychiatric conditions):

"For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia--and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to "live as domestic a life as far as possible," to "have but two hours' intellectual life a day," and "never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again" as long as I lived. This was in 1887.

"I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

"Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist's advice to the winds and went to work again--work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite--ultimately recovering some measure of power.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:14 AM on September 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Faces in the Water by Janet Frame.
posted by mykescipark at 10:15 AM on September 2, 2008

Astonishing Splashes of Colour
posted by ODiV at 10:26 AM on September 2, 2008

Diary by Chuck Palahniuk. No institution involved, no psychiatrist or psychologist either, but the female protoganist definitely goes mad.
posted by poppo at 12:22 PM on September 2, 2008

If you like Victorian lit, give Charlotte Bronte's Villette (caution: spoilers) a try. Lucy Snowe's sad life, eventual breakdown, and lonely recovery comprise one of the greatest overlooked literary works, IMO.
posted by Heretic at 1:16 PM on September 2, 2008

Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda sort of fits this description. But it was the best book I've read all year, so I'm highly recommending it.
posted by np312 at 1:16 PM on September 2, 2008

In the Young Adult category is Lisa Bright and Dark. I remember really enjoying it when I was a teen--don't know if it has aged well. Story of a young woman who is going through a nervous breakdown but can't get the adults in her life to pay attention. Some good friends (and a dramatic act on her part) get her the help she needs.
posted by agatha_magatha at 1:31 PM on September 2, 2008

Janet Frame's An angel at my table both in book and film form. Not fiction but the autobiography of writer Janet Frame who, while institutionalised, was saved from a lobotomy by winning an award for her writing.
posted by Kerasia at 2:56 PM on September 2, 2008

The Yellow Wallpaper (mentioned above) is really good -- I remember it from school.

I'll also second Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (mentioned above). The book has many details from within a mental hospital. The main character has visions of a society of the future, but you could read these visions as part of the madness, and this other society is basically a foil for modern society to highlight the way it treats work, madness, women, child-rearing, people of color, death, etc.
posted by salvia at 5:17 PM on September 2, 2008

Not asylum-based madness, but Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and its prequel, Little Altars Everywhere, have lots of characters with various mental problems, from alcoholism to religious zealotry to depression. There are a couple of breakdowns scattered here and there, too.

If you're looking for a movie, check out The Snake Pit.
posted by Addlepated at 6:27 PM on September 2, 2008

Response by poster: thanks guys, so many suggestions here. I want to honour you all by reading every book mentioned and then writing a response!

And if you are into this genre, I HIGHLY recommend "I never promised you a rose garden" by Hannah Green, it is a most incredible (autobiographical) story about a young girl dealing with schizophrenia- told in the first person. Amazingly enlightening. My mind was blown when I read it a year ago.
posted by beccyjoe at 8:12 PM on September 2, 2008

Francesca Lia Block's The Hanged Man(in the YA section).


I LOATHED the Ya-Ya books. The sequences that were intended to help Vivi understand the wold she lived in (I'm thinking of the Gone With the Wind premiere)did not stop her from becoming a self-centered bitch.
posted by brujita at 9:46 PM on September 2, 2008

The Trick Is To Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway is a particular favourite of mine. Also, Wasted by Marya Hornbacher, about descent into, and recovery from, anorexia.
posted by mippy at 5:54 AM on September 3, 2008

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