Early in Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s excellent book Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, due out in September from The Ohio State University Press, the author describes symptoms of her anxiety as “thoughts of decay, destruction, thoughts that people think you are strange, that you are trapped in a room with no way out, that you will make a fool of yourself, faint or throw up in public, that you will fold up like sad origami.”
This is one of many examples of the clear vivid prose Montgomery employs to bring her anxiety to life for the reader, and it is one of many things Montgomery does well. Quite Mad is at once a well-organized history of mental illness, especially with regard to women, an examination of the role of the illness narrative, and a fascinating memoir of a woman’s struggle.
The story begins with Montgomery’s diagnosis of anxiety in her early twenties, and this diagnosis and search for treatment provide a through narrative. She describes In non-linear fashion her childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, taking us on her journey to find relief from her own madness, which includes PTSD, OCD and an eating disorder, in addition to anxiety, an alphabet soup of diagnoses that neither help nor define her. Interspersed with her own story are well-researched chapters, supported by statistics and expert sources, on topics ranging from the development of psychiatric medications to the state of our current mental healthcare system with its reliance on DMS diagnoses. She reveals the pervasive nature of mental illness in our culture and how we frame it in binary terms: It is both “imaginary and epidemic,” both “chronic and curable.”
Montgomery has a PhD in English with a focus in creative writing and women’s and gender studies, and Quite Mad reflects her long-standing interest in women and mental health. She shows the myriad ways in which “women and mental illness go together”; here, as in many other cultural realms, women’s bodies are the focus. Her memoir relates the maltreatment of women perceived to have psychiatric disorders, using examples such as the Salem witch trials and the lobotomy of Rosemary Kennedy. The author also poses larger questions, such as how much of mental illness is defined by what is acceptable to society, asking, “How much are we illness, and how much are we personality?”
Happily, Montgomery never lets her research get in the way of her story. Each chapter brings us back to her own struggles and challenges, the most fascinating part of Quite Mad. Surprisingly her doctors don’t consider her traumatizing family and personal history worth exploring. Nor do they consider the stress of school and her teaching load factors in the way she feels. At first, Montgomery buys into this narrative: “Before I began therapy I never considered there was a link between my chaotic upbringing and my chaotic brain.” Her doctors prescribe one medication after another. Celexa makes her hair fall out; Zoloft sends her into a rage and makes her feel as is her brain is filled with “fat juicy worms wriggling in the crevices . . . their soft bodies wedging into the darkest corners of memory and imagination.”
Therapy eventually helps her. She begins to doubt the dominant narrative that there is something wrong with her that needs to be fixed, and that medication is the way to fix it, and instead to examine her own story. By the end of the book she moves beyond the cultural binaries to embrace ambiguity: “I am neither hero nor villain, nor my parents who have tried their best, neither are drugs.” That she is able to tell her story in such a coherent convincing way is a testament to this ability to embrace her illness as part of herself.
In the end, the message that come through is positive. Montgomery writes that “narrative medicine asks we consider how illness fits into our life story, the ways we can use our stories to understand pain and healing.” Quite Mad shows us how telling our stories is essential to our understanding of ourselves, and has great potential to offer hope and courage to people with mental illnesses.—Priscilla Mainardi
PRISCILLA MAINARDI, a registered nurse, attended the University of Pennsylvania and earned her MFA degree in creative writing from Rutgers University. Her work appears in numerous journals, most recently The Examined Life Journal and Prick of the Spindle. Her short story, "Pretending Not to Know," appeared in the Spring 2014 Intima. Mainardi, who teaches English Composition at Rutgers in Newark, New Jersey, joined the editorial board of Intima in 2015.