Norah Vincent - Voluntary Madness (3 stars)

Norah Vincent

(Chatto & Windus)


‘Immersion journalist’ Norah Vincent’s experience living undercover as a bloke for 18 months yielded a best-seller, Self-Made Man, but also triggered her depressive collapse and a frightening spell in a mental ward. She vowed to return and, for her next book, investigate from the inside the ‘indifferent system’ of American psychiatric care, a system that takes people in on uncertain grounds, confiscates their free will and treats them with so little compassion that even if they weren’t crazy in the first place, they are when they come out.

Voluntary Madness sees her sectioned (albeit briefly) at three different facilities – a public hospital, a private clinic and an alternative care centre – in a journey that gradually shifts the author’s focus. Her own process of psychological self-understanding and recovery begins to at first run parallel, then at last intertwine with her research. Vincent’s a skilled, witty and honest observer, particularly of her fellow patients, but she’s so mixed up by being both watcher and watched that, ultimately, she manages to draw a definitive picture of neither herself nor the system surrounding her. She exposes the roots of her own trauma – which stem from childhood sexual abuse – bluntly and candidly, but fails to reveal enough of what drives her to submerge herself in disguises. And her conclusion that recovery is a matter of personal responsibility above all is a rational but unremarkable endnote to what is a dark tale in need of a brighter spark of revelation.

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