Treated with Ping-Pong

Susan Eilenberg

  • Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present by Lisa Appignanesi
    Virago, 592 pp, £12.99, January 2009, ISBN 978 1 84408 234 6

I managed to grow up and leave home before I found out that my mother had once spent time in a mental ward. She was, at the time of her hospitalisation, a very new mother – of me – and consequently exhausted. What sent her to the mental ward was delirium. That, at least, was what the emergency room doctors thought when she arrived at the hospital extremely ill with encephalitis (which they never even suspected, despite her complaints about an unbearable headache and neck pain and nausea). She was admitted as a mental patient, and treated, over the course of the week, with ping-pong. My mother, no lover of the game even when not in shattering pain, played. It was clear to her that a show of friendly interest in her fellow lunatics and placid obliviousness to her frightening circumstances was the way to signal that she might safely be released. To have shown distress, much less anger, would have been crazy. The infection in her brain was diagnosed on the morning of her discharge, the masquerade having been a success, when one of the doctors nevertheless thought to order a spinal tap.

Why did it take her so long to tell me? The necessity of unresenting compliance with the extremes of unreasonableness hadn’t seemed – and still didn’t seem – extraordinary to her. Then again, who knew whether her daughters might not learn from the episode a different lesson from the one she had learned? When my sister in her turn fell ill with encephalitis (the occasion of my mother’s telling), she screamed at the doctors who informed her that when a young lady gets a bad headache the reason is that she’s been thinking too hard, and they ejected her (despite her screaming) from the emergency room into a thunderstorm.

I like to think that if I am in line for a brain fever I shall be better prepared than my mother or my sister. But if there is anything to be learned from Lisa Appignanesi’s survey of the past two centuries of Western mental illness and treatment, it is that knowing the stories just makes things worse. Not that we have any choice. Jean-Martin Charcot, Pierre Janet, Josef Breuer, Sigmund Freud, Mary Lamb, Alice James, Anna O., Zelda Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe and Sylvia Plath are household names. Not everyone may be able instantly to identify Henriette Cornier (who in 1825 chopped off her 19-month-old charge’s head), or Augustine (Charcot’s ‘model patient’, whose much publicised poses taught a generation of mental patients and filmmakers what hysteria should look like), or the Papin sisters (two maids who in 1933 ‘murdered and sexually maimed their mistress and her daughter, pulling out the eyes of the first’, because of apparent unhappiness about ironing), but the outlines of their stories are as familiar to us as Mother Goose. Then there are the gothic tales – true ones – of normal women, victims of family plots to seize their property, helpless to establish their sanity against the unfalsifiability of their diagnoses and broken by their treatment. When Hersilie Rouy protests late in the 19th century at having been kidnapped on the orders of her half-brother and incarcerated for 14 years in a succession of mental hospitals, ‘she is told: “Your delusion is total, and all the more dangerous and incurable in that you speak just like a person who is fully in possession of her reason.”’ The situation is no less Kafkaesque a century later. ‘On Being Sane in Insane Places’, published in a 1973 issue of the journal Science, describes an experiment the American psychology professor David Rosenhan conducted with seven friends (three of them psychologists and one a psychiatrist), who

presented themselves at the psychiatric emergency rooms of a range of state and poshly private hospitals and asylums. They had prepared themselves minimally. They were hairy, unshaven and unwashed, their teeth unbrushed. They probably emitted a pong. Apart from their appearance, their only spoken symptom was that they had heard a voice say ‘thud’.

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