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Lisa Spieker, "Writing Madness, Writing Normalcy: Self and Stigma in Memoirs of Mental Illness" (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2021), 235 pp.:

Lisa Spieker, Writing Madness, Writing Normalcy: Self and Stigma in Memoirs of Mental Illness (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2021), 235 pp.

In a groundbreaking study from 2013, Julie Rak characterized the contemporaneous popularity of memoirs as a “boom.” The last decade has continued to show a proliferation of autobiographical subgenres as well as ongoing scholarly attention paid to these texts. Spieker’s 2021 monograph Writing Madness, Writing Normalcy is a recent addition to that ever-growing field of life writing studies. Specifically, Spieker investigates a corpus of “seventeen book-length accounts of first-person experience of madness” (2), focusing on different mental conditions such as bipolar or depressive disorders, schizophrenia, and depression. She identifies and traces a set of common narrative strategies that occur in these texts, which allows her to make larger claims about the genre of “madness memoirs” and how some strategies seem particularly suited to represent mental disorders.

In her preface and introduction, Spieker outlines her theoretical framework (Foucault’s investigation on confession, his work on discourse analysis, and Goffman’s sociological treatise on stigma). She also sketches out theoretical considerations of memoir and life writing (drawing on the work of Thomas Couser, Ben Yagoda, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, as well as Julie Rak). In the first section of her study, Spieker traces two seemingly opposed ways in which authors with mental disorders textually present themselves: either as “normal” (again) or as “mad.” At the same time, she insists on and often foregrounds the porousness and limitations of stable definitions. In the first analytic chapter, “Self-Fashioning as Normal (Again),” Spieker presents several nuances that authors inscribe into (self)-representations of “madness.” For instance, authors might ultimately reject or relativize the term with regard to their own lived experience or reject the pathologization ascribed to madness. Spieker observes how authors, among other strategies, adopt the conversion narrative (within a religious or secular format) to show how they overcame their conditions. Such texts often come with a didactic impetus or undertone and thus show parallels to the prominent movement of self-help literature. A further set of Spieker’s examples relates to narratives of self-making, in which authors independently overcome their condition. These texts illustrate how authors inscribe themselves into a distinctly U.S.-American literary and cultural tradition that values self-reliance and self-determination.

As a counterpart to the previous chapter, “Self-Fashioning as Mad” centers on strategies through which authors foreground their experiences with madness. As in the preceding chapter, Spieker lists a variety of nuances in which writers accept, treat, or ultimately reject their own experiences as mental stigma. Ultimately, such a diversity of representations contributes to a multi-faceted understanding of madness. Along these lines, Spieker shows how the memoirs of her corpus can also deploy humor to portray madness. In the last part of this chapter, she reveals how some memoirs even make use of themes and devices usually found in Gothic horror: the doppelgänger, monsters, and tensions between threat and seduction. The memoirs of her study were published between 1956 and 2013, but despite this wide time frame, the link to Gothic horror demonstrates how specific artistic treatments of mental conditions reverberate across decades.

The second part of Writing Madness, Writing Normalcy is structured around the seemingly binary opposition of subjective and objective truth. Since any autobiographical text is always invested in the challenge of mediating very subjective experiences but doing so in a supposedly accurate, authentic manner, this opposition speaks to a central issue of life writing. This second part considers a tension of working with objective approaches to madness—for instance, via medical research on a specific illness—and highly subjective manners of exploration, such as the self-referential foregrounding of literary style. In an interlude entitled “Producing Objective Truth,” Spieker examines how memoirs about mental conditions can be addressed to readers who suffer from similar impairments as well as medical experts. This interlude on readers of memoirs is important for Spieker’s individual study but also speaks to the larger necessity of systematically analyzing readers’ responses to life narratives. What is more, the use of seemingly objective strategies in such memoirs—again—contributes to a form of textual self-fashioning that highlights the ambivalences and possible ruptures in such an endeavor. These ambivalences become aesthetically programmatic in the chapter “Producing Subjective Truth,” in which Spieker draws parallels to postmodern literature’s strategies of defamiliarization. According to Spieker, authors of memoirs thereby borrow techniques from high-brow literature and explicitly claim a visible position in the literary and cultural field. Instead of merely imitating high-brow literary forms, these texts also incorporate confessional modes and emphasize narrative and chronological fragmentation in a way that resembles trauma writing. And on the micro-level of individual texts and their narrative perspective, Spieker shows how the use of pronouns other than “I” creates a multiplicity of autobiographical techniques.

Spieker’s analysis draws a convincing and multifaceted picture of memoirs about mental illness. Rather than proposing a one-fits-it-all model of a genre, she carefully zooms in on details and fine nuances of textual self-fashioning and thereby reveals the textual, formal, and conceptual diversity of this genre. Her study thus contributes both to life writing studies—in charting a very heterogeneous subgenre—and larger discourses on mental illness, including textual representations. In her conclusion, Spieker sketches how the scope of her study can easily be extended to self-representation in different media (e. g., social media or graphic novels) and physical rather than psychic conditions. In a further step, it would be interesting to add an intersectional approach to such a study, a lack which Spieker acknowledges herself. This lack, however, might even be representative of a larger issue. Even though the memoir boom has democratized the genre, the book market continues to be a market with distinct logics and mechanisms of exclusion. A tempting but challenging approach would be to systematize the unpublished or rejected manuscripts that were proposed along similar thematic lines. Clearly, the socio-economic mechanisms of publishing warrant further scrutiny and particularly in the context of marginalized experiences.

Ricarda Menn (Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen)

Works Cited


Rak, Julie. Boom: Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market. Waterloo: Wilfried Laurier UP, 2013. Print.

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