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Crazy: Top 10 Books About Mental Illness

one-flew-over-cuckoos-nest-ken-keseyWe all go a little mad sometimes. May as well write about it. Some authors take a humorous approach in their autobiographies or memoirs, even ones that deal with serious subjects.

Whether bittersweet memoirs, lighthearted anecdotes, serious case-studies or fictional stories, here are 10 books about mental breakdowns, psychiatrists, mental hospitals, asylums and the different yet equally fascinating experiences with them.

1) Ordinary People by Judith Guest

Conrad was involved in a swimming accident in which his older brother died. He and his parents struggle to keep their lives together. After a suicide attempt, Conrad begins seeing Berger, a kind, wise psychiatrist whose outlook essentially can be summed up by “Don’t sweat the small stuff. Most of it is small stuff. Be good to yourself.” With the help and support of Berger, his friends and his parents, Conrad forgives himself for surviving and begins to find joy in living again.

2) Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

When reality got too dense for 18-year-old Susanna Kaysen, she was hospitalized. It was 1967, and reality was too dense for many people. But few who are labeled mad and locked up for refusing to stick to an agreed-upon reality possess Kaysen’s lucidity in sorting out a maelstrom of contrary perceptions. Her observations about hospital life are deftly rendered; often darkly funny. Her clarity about the complex province of brain and mind, of neuro-chemical activity and something more, make this book of brief essays an exquisite challenge to conventional thinking about what is normal and what is deviant.

3) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under — maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.

4) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

An inmate of a mental institution tries to find the freedom and independence denied him in the outside world. Randle McMurphy enters the world of the ihospital with his irreverence, humour and zest for life and tries to inject some fun and freedom into the institution, to the dismay and anger of Nurse Ratched (who made #4 on our list of scariest characters in literature a few years back.

5) Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel

Prozac Nation is a collective cry for help, a generational status report on today’s young people, who have come of age fully entrenched in the culture of divorce, economic instability, and AIDS. “This private world of loony bins and weird people which I always felt I occupied and hid in,” writes Elizabeth, “had suddenly turned inside out so that it seemed like this was one big Prozac Nation, one big mess of malaise. Perhaps the next time half a million people gather for a protest march on the White House green it will not be for abortion rights or gay liberation, but because we’re all so bummed out.”

6) The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

Our protagonist is heading down a dark path of drugs, booze and pornography when he fortunately sets his crotch on fire in a hallucinatory drunk-driving incident and crashes down a ravine in a fery ball of infernal flames and screeching metal. When he wakes in the burn ward, he’s missing his penis, most of his skin, and the good looks he’d always coasted on. While recovering (slowly) on the burn ward, he meets a woman named Marianne, a schizophrenic sculptor who’s clearly a nutter and has escaped from the hospital’s psych ward. So when she claims to know him, that she has in fact known him intimately for 700 years, he should scoff and dismiss it. So why does he feel so intrigued?

7) Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

Running with Scissors is the true story of a boy whose mother (a poet with delusions of Anne Sexton) gave him away to be raised by her unorthodox psychiatrist who bore a striking resemblance to Santa Claus. So at the age of 12, Burroughs found himself amidst Victorian squalor living with the doctor’s bizarre family and befriending a pedophile who resided in the backyard shed. The story of an outlaw childhood where rules were unheard of, and the Christmas tree stayed up all year round, where Valium was consumed like candy, and if things got dull an electroshock- therapy machine could provide entertainment.

8) Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber.

Here is the unbelievable yet true story of Sybil Dorsett, a survivor of terrible childhood abuse who as an adult was a victim of sudden and mysterious blackouts. Sybil was a college student when she decided to seek psychiatric assistance for her blackouts, which were revealed to be a symptom of a much larger problem – Multiple Personality Disorder (now called Dissociative Identity Disorder). The book details her sessions with her psychiatrist.

9) She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb

This is the story of Dolores Price, whose childhood has its ups and downs but is overall normal until a traumatic event steers her onto a different path. Numb and eating her feelings, Dolores continues on to adulthood, developing a major weight problem and some unhealthy relationships and never feeling comfortable in her own skin, until she has a breakdown at the end of a long journey and finds herself in a mental hospital, where she works with a caring therapist to let go of what went wrong and start over.

10) The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

In The Secret Scripture, Barry revisits County Sligo, Ireland, the setting for his previous three books, to tell the unforgettable story of Roseanne McNulty. Once one of the most beguiling women in Sligo, she is now a resident of Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital and nearing her hundredth year. Set against an Ireland besieged by conflict, The Secret Scripture is an engrossing tale of one woman’s life, and a vivid reminder of the stranglehold that the Catholic church had on individuals throughout much of the twentieth century.

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