A Review of Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s Quite Mad
July 15, 2019 § 4 Comments
By Melissa Oliveira
When a potter says a glaze is crazed, she means that a pot’s smooth, glass-like surface has turned out cracked. Whether it appears thick as a parched salt flat or fine as a spider’s web, crazing arrives with a dreaded high, recurrent pinging from within the cooling kiln. It’s often blamed on a mismatch between clay and glaze: the inner clay body and the outer surface shrink while they cool, but if they longer “fit,” stress causes the surface to pull apart—literally, to craze. I learned this definition a decade ago, when a few hours each week sitting at a potter’s wheel helped, with therapy and medication, to ease the depression and panic attacks taking turns at the wheel of my psyche. At a glaze workshop one night, I wrote the word crazing in a slip-stained notebook, alongside percentages of flux and silica, good solid recipes that wouldn’t lead to glaze instability. Crazing is all I remember now, suggestive as it was of a rift between outer and inner, of the care given to surface concerns undone by my inability to hold it all together.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s recent Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir reminded me of this time; in many ways it is the book I wish I’d had back then. A hybrid of both personal narrative and reported facts, Quite Mad speaks directly to the “binary that exists in our understanding of mental illness… that pits the self against the disorder, the individual against their own body and mind.” The book explores this rift by blending the author’s own story of PTSD, OCD, and anxiety with research into America’s past and present treatment of mental illness. To cover so much material could have resulted in an unwieldy book, but Montgomery’s keen curiosity guides us through history, social criticism, and the author’s lived experience.
The book’s opening scenes present Montgomery in terms of contrasts: she is a young, successful PhD student who is nevertheless tortured by anxiety. Her symptoms have literally brought her to her knees, and she finds herself daily in a university bathroom stall, vomiting as her mind spins with anxious, obsessive thoughts. They have, to some degree, haunted her since childhood; her parents, overburdened by financial stress and the demands of an ever-expanding family of biological and adopted children, each with their own traumas, were “too kind”: called to help others, but with little left over for indulging anxiety. Now, as a grown woman, the symptoms converge on Montgomery.
After this “patient history,” Montgomery doles out parts of her own story, using them to segue into various topics, like how women with mental illness have fared in popular consciousness (even back as far as Margery Kempe), to America’s present-day reliance on pharmaceuticals. Montgomery writes, “We cannot accurately describe our pain, because pain exists beyond narrative”: a disclosure I appreciated, when so many stories about mental health try to force a conclusion at recovery as though the story ends there. Montgomery, rather, writes, “I did not get better,” and we see her at different stages. How Quite Mad delves into the concepts of “recovered” or “better”—and how each term is laden with cultural expectations of behavior—acknowledges both a complicated history and an ongoing personal process.
Her work about the historical treatment of women is especially strong, with sharp commentary on how “the notion that the female body was inherently ill” resulted in violence masquerading as treatment. “Why does the world we’ve created for women lead to their madness?” She writes, “Consider this: Paris, 1825. Doctors testified that if a woman insists she is not mad, her denial was absolute proof of her insanity.” From gendered drug marketing campaigns to forced sterilizations and lobotomies, Montgomery covers important ground directing our awareness to how bias, racism, abuse, misogyny, and profit-seeking have always factored into treatment.
“The stories we tell about mental illness,” Montgomery writes, “label it both chronic and curable because to talk of disease without cure is problematic for a country concerned with triumph.” Instead of triumph, she offers a reprieve whose narrative designs feel, to me at least, somehow closer to life. The “mental illness memoir” serves a special purpose for some of us; in reading them, we read for explanations, or to name our experiences, or for reassurance that we aren’t alone. Quite Mad joins several recent works, from The Glass Eye to Heart Berries to The Collected Schizophrenias which, thankfully, seem to be working toward new ways of writing about mental health.
Melissa Oliveira’s writing is published or forthcoming in Ploughshares Solos, AGNI, The Normal School, RHINO Poetry and others. Her book reviews appear in Hippocampus, The Kenyon Review Online, The Rumpus, PANK Online and more. She currently lives in Berlin, where she is working on a novel-in-stories about the divided city.