Questions of Power: The Politics of Women's Madness Narratives

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis

Second Advisor

Dr. Tracey Mabrey

Third Advisor

Dr. Jil Larson

Fourth Advisor

Dr. John Saillant


This dissertation focuses on autobiographical writing by women who were treated for mental illness. By broadening the scope from explicitly autobiographical accounts to “madness narratives,” the study considers forms of writing that do not conform to a narrow definition of autobiography. Chapters II through IV survey the history of American women's madness narratives since the Civil War, and Chapter V compares the work of Janet Frame (New Zealand) and Bessie Head (southern Africa).

The introduction presents the theoretical foundation for the study by briefly summarizing the relevant work of social historians, feminist theoreticians, and critics of psychiatric practice, such as R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz. After presenting a short history of the development of insane asylums, Chapter II discusses madness narratives by Elizabeth Packard, Ada Metcalf, Lydia Smith, Clarissa Lathrop, Anna Agnew, and Margaret Starr. During the nineteenth century, women used life writing as a way of rebelling against the medical establishment and the conditions of mental institutions.

Chapter III illustrates how the authors of madness narratives in the twentieth century shifted the emphasis away from institutional reform and became more preoccupied with psychopathology and their need for treatment. Chapters IV and V describe the movement away from a focus on either institutional reform or individual psychopathology. These chapters explore the revolutionary aspects of contemporary madness narratives, which question psychiatric discourse and practice. Chapter IV discusses narratives by Mary Jane Ward, Susanna Kaysen, Jill Johnston, and Kate Millett. Chapter V traces the union of aesthetics and politics in the madness narratives of Frame and Head.

The study concludes by asserting that madness narratives constitute an important subgenre of women's autobiography and that the works in this category deserve more critical attention. The conclusion also articulates the relevance of women's madness narratives to contemporary debates about the care of the “mentally ill” in the United States.

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