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Bringing Madness Home: The Multiple Meanings of Home in Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water, Bessie Head’s A Question of Power and Lauren Slater’s Prozac Diary by Saara Jäntti – A Review

By Saara Jäntti

Review

Saara  Jäntti’s outstanding work is a splendid achievement. Not only does she offer a careful, unique and sophisticated analysis of classic texts and a thoughtful interrogation of familiar concepts, but she also demonstrates how research itself can, if the researcher is sensitive and reflexive, be a journey of unanticipated but richly-rewarding inquiry.

Initially, Jäntti’s intention was to explore autobiographical narratives of mental illness as represented in three texts: Janet Frame’s ‘Faces in the Water’, Bessie Head’s ‘A Question of Power’ and Lauren Slater’s ‘Prozac Diary’. However, as she progressed, Jäntti became increasingly interested in notions of home and what it means for those interested in understanding mental distress. The end product is undoubtedly enhanced by this turn in direction. For what Jäntti has written is a powerful and affecting account of home and madness that reveals implicit meanings, challenges assumptions and explores the multiple and nuanced ways in which women’s experiences of mental illness are represented and understood. Jäntti demonstrates that just as mental illness and psychiatry are socially-constructed and embedded within the prevailing norms, politics and structures, so too is our understanding of home. What’s more, by choosing to work with three texts that describe different periods, locations, symptoms, diagnoses, treatment and mental healthcare systems, Jäntti reveals commonalities, shared assumptions and points of analytical similarity. In difference, a conceptual coherence emerges and it is a coherence that has much to offer those working in the fields of mental health and the humanities.

This is a work that asks us to revisit the conflation of madness with home as a site of physical confinement. Instead Jäntti asks that we consider the nuanced and varied ways in which home has been conceptualised and understood, particularly in the last twenty years or so. What’s more, it is not merely that the concept of home warrants closer interrogation, argues Jäntti, but the experience of madness and treatment is transformative, fundamentally altering the relationship that the women in the texts have with the places that they call ‘home’. The ways in which ‘home’ is understood – both physically and metaphorically – offers novel perspectives on, and insights into, the narratives of mental distress and efforts to treat that distress. Home is, suggests Jäntti, an extension of self and identity. It accounts for both geographical space and an interior life. What’s more, home is also shown to be It is this careful, inclusive and open analysis of home that makes Jäntti’s work unique and powerful. For whilst many of the feminist and critical perspectives on madness and psychiatry that Jäntti discusses are familiar, in exploring her texts of choice with attention to the notion of home, the reader is obliged to reconsider what he or she may have felt was well-trodden academic terrain.    

Jäntti is a splendid advocate for the rich rewards for those who draw on the humanities to enhance their understanding of, and responses to, mental distress and mental ill health. Not only does she provide a deft (although not uncritical) account of the principal ways in which the field of ‘health humanities’ has developed and its potential value, but more fundamentally, Jäntti models what it is to engage in close and considered reading of texts. She demonstrates how careful attention to not only the content and context of texts, but also to the form, structure and language of text, indubitably enriches and reveals causing the reader to reconsider and interrogate what he or she felt was known. And, in so doing, new ways of seeing, thinking and explaining emerge: in this case a growing awareness of how the concept of ‘home’ is inextricably linked to the fluid, sometimes elusive, always complex and discomforting experience of madness and mental distress.

Jäntti is as adept at deconstructing and interrogating the concept of ‘home’ as she is at analysing the more familiar feminist perspectives on madness. For Jäntti, as I suspect for many readers of this review, home, like madness, is historically, socially, politically and culturally constructed and therefore variable. It encompasses space, time and relation. It may be interior and exterior, material and immaterial, singular or multiple, a site of confinement and oppression or of refuge and safety. It may be all of those and none of those things; and it may be so simultaneously or separately.
So, in Frame’s ‘Faces in the Water’, home is a necessity. It may be in the form of a cherished or transitional object such as a handbag or a book. It may occur in the memory or imagination. Home, in Frame’s world, may be physical or metaphorical. Yet, however it occurs, it is part of the experience both of being unwell and of recovery.

For Bessie Head, home is inextricably linked to belonging: the experience of exile, rootlessness, marginalisation and the quest for acceptance is as the heart of ‘A Question of Power’. The racial prejudice and violence that imbue the life of its protagonist – Elizabeth – are both experienced and replicated in the psychiatric hospital and her physical homes. The power of the writing in ‘A Question of Power’ is that the reader too shares and empathises with Elizabeth’s isolation and the effects of homelessness on her mental health and her relationships, particularly with her friends and in relation to her ability to be a mother to her son. It is a discomforting, painful and haunting read, but in being so, it unsettles the reader’s own sense of belonging and continuity. The raw chaos of the text creates a yearning for refuge and safety whereby the mundane or routine passages are embraced as respite from the distress and disorder that seeps out of so much of the text.

In reflecting on and using her own experiences of depression and its treatment with Prozac to theorise about mental health and illness, Lauren Slater seeks a home in language and in achieving the space to reflect on, and to make sense of, the experiences she has had of living with mental illness and of pursuing treatment. She brings together the diverse range of writing and documentation that attests to her time as a psychiatric patient drawing on medical records, poetry, diary entries, memoir and academic texts to create a narrative in which she can account for her mental distress, share the different spaces that she has inhabited and explore the responses of those around her to her illness. And the responses of others are an integral part of her quest for home in the discourse that Slater seeks to create: she addresses her clinical team, late 20th century American society, her partner and her readers, all of whom are parties to, and have diverse perspectives on, her experiences of travelling between the discursive spaces of illness and health. 

Thus it is that Jäntti manages to speak to a diverse group of readers. For those who are familiar with the literature on madness and the particular texts on which Jäntti focuses, the addition of notions of home brings a fresh and enriching perspective. Indeed, as I read Jäntti’s work, I found myself wondering why it was that I had never made these links myself. I am grateful to her for showing me the way. For those who may know and love the work of Janet Frame, Bessie Head and Lauren Slater, there is careful and considered analysis of each of these three works. And, for those for whom an interest in madness and literature is in its earliest stages, there is a clear exposition of key theoretical and conceptual frameworks. In each of these tasks – explanation, analysis and interpretation – Jäntti is exceptionally skilled. There is evidence throughout that she is a uniquely gifted and creative researcher whose commitment and effort shines through each chapter, paragraph and indeed sentence. To produce work of such rigour is itself a considerable achievement, but to do so in such an engaging and coherent narrative is a rare academic accomplishment.

Key Themes:

  • Mental Illness and The Psychiatric Institution

Significant Quotes / Pages

REVIEW BY:

Deborah Bowman
Professor of Bioethics, Clinical Ethics and Medical Law
St. George’s, University of London
Board Member: International Network of Health Humanities

Reference: Saara, Jäntti. 2012. Bringing Madness Home: The Multiple Meanings of Home in Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water, Bessie Head’s A Question of Power and Lauren Slater’s Prozac Diary by Saara Jäntti – A Review. Jyväskylä:University of Jyväskylä, 2012

Reviewer

- Charley Baker
Date Review Submitted: Wednesday 23rd January 2013