Ordinary Insanity


by Emma Pierce

This article is not a book review but a summary and a personal (and hence inevitably biased) reaction to Pierce's book, as well as to the interview she gave to Caroline Jones. Emma Pierce had been an excellent student at school and is now a writer.

The best thing about "Ordinary Insanity" is that it gives a first-hand insight into what it is like to go crazy and then make a complete recovery. She wrote: "My great good fortune in life has been to go mad and then recover ... I don't look at it as a breakdown as much as a breakthrough to better living." For writing up such a painful story with so much honesty, Pierce deserves our heartfelt gratitude.

"Going mad is like being taken apart, right down to the foundation. And then you re-create ... And then you begin to realise that who you are is not a discovery but a decision." She means that whether we are sane or otherwise depends on how we exercise our will.

She describes her basic realisation that craziness is not an all-or-nothing thing. "You go mad the same way you do everything else - a step at a time. You learn how to be crazy and you can unlearn it." Formerly she had thought that once an imaginary boundary was crossed, "being crazy simply meant a peaceful existence in an unreal world". She found instead that all crazy people suffered anguish, for as long as they remained mentally ill. Part of that distress is the person's realisation that they are crazy. This seems to be the most terrible thing of all.

"It's this feeling that your worst enemy is at home, in your own head, that no matter what you do you can't get away from what you're thinking, that is so terrifying."

"How I prayed; that someone somewhere could remove the parts of my brain that kept me existing in agony." Apparently many mentally ill people feel like this. "For weeks and weeks I woke up every morning and probed very gently, (not wanting to disturb it) to see if the unknown, unnamed horror was still there in the back of my mind. It was."

She writes: "The other illusion I had which was dispelled that night was that there were particular forms of mental disorder. This person was a psychopath, that one was schizophrenic, this one manic depressive and so on. We are all unique. Very special, very different, though we have common human needs. Our minds when they become sick think with the same unique individuality as they think when they are healthy."

"Some invert and become mousy vegetables. Some rise in reactionary anger and become violent. Some invent characters and worlds outside themselves ... In trying to cure the sickness, there is limited value in attacking the symptom; like giving aspirin for the headache which is caused by tumour. You have to strike at the cause, and the cause is always in the here and now, not the past. Not buried in childhood or ancestry. The cause is always the same. A loss of personal value ... love for oneself; a loss of being 'at home' in the present; and a sense of purpose."

"Being mad, knowing you are mad throws doubt in your mind on every aspect of life you ever stop to think about. Only the completely spontaneous is real ... one of the faults you have when you go mad is you analyse everything."

"As for the other inmates? If only they could know that they are the salvation of one another! Without exception, every inmate of a mental institution I have ever met, saw the other inmates as the 'really mad people' ... I did it, and I did it as effectively as every other inmate does it. I believed that for all my crazy thoughts, hallucinations, I was not really the same as all those other 'nuts'." She thought she was sick but that they were crazy.

She concluded that the insane asylum could not have been better designed, if it were specifically intended to foster insanity in its inmates:

"There was not a single solitary soul in the whole place who could or would carry on an ordinary conversation; treat me as if I was an ordinary human being. I was mad and had to be patronised, humoured and sometimes disciplined, like an irresponsible child. No one took me seriously. No one even suspected that beneath the troubled surface beat a human heart and a human mind that desperately wanted to understand, be understood; to be recognised; to be respected."

"We know that if we keep telling a child 'you're stupid' then he'll begin to believe it and subsequently behave as if he's stupid."

"The staff in the mental institutions still persist in treating patients as if they are insane. And so those that are remain so, and those who are not become so."

"There is no world more unreal than the world of the mental institution."

"All these experts, doctors, nurses, didn't know a damned thing about what it was like to go mad. How it felt, what it did to one's mind. What it did to the spirit. And they didn't want to know. They wanted to test and prove their theories."

"To the people who have lost hope and meaning, we say, 'There isn't any!'

"I think it's got to be a case of 'physician heal thyself'. If you've got no hope and no faith or no bright future to hand to a patient, leave him alone - you've got nothing he needs."

"In time, the part of your mind still in touch with the truth, comes to recognise the fact that the most helpless people in mental institutions are the experts."

"It frightens me when I think that I left a mental asylum as one of those presumably cured by the treatment ... the way out was to be a nobody and a nothing... I was beaten, that was the cure!" She had decided: "I might as well go home and be crazy as stay here and be crazy."

My personal reaction to her story is that Mrs Pierce was more insane before her breakdown than when she was ostensibly at her most loony. To call her pre-breakdown views 'male chauvinist' would be the understatement of the century. She seemed to have absorbed the most extreme parts of Catholic orthodoxy, totally and without question. Emma's religion was one based on fear and guilt. Further, I think she would not have 'gone mad' if she hadn't been such a doctrinaire Catholic. She had been brought up in a Catholic boarding school, and it seems to me that the nuns did a thorough job of indoctrinating her.

Thus she thought that God required her to be obedient to her husband, to the extent of being whatever he wanted her to be. She believed that divorce entailed eternal damnation, that birth control was immoral (she had five children, which put her under a lot of stress). She got into dreadful rows with her ultra-authoritarian husband about bringing up their kids as Catholics. This was the one point on which she would not yield to him.

Hers was the classical hellfire and brimstone style of religion. "This absolute conviction that my soul would be tormented forever in hell if I denied even one doctrine of the Catholic Church." This included having sex with her husband whenever he wanted, despite her extreme revulsion.

I had trouble with parts of the book because of her religious beliefs. There is a certain arrogance to which I am perhaps over-sensitive. It is the pride of a person who believes, with their entire being that the particular religion and sect that they happen to have been born into embodies all the answers to the eternal and universal questions that face mankind.

This arrogance comes out when she states that a person who does not believe in God has "a problem with any real purpose in living".

"If you believe there is a God at all, then He must be good and loving, for if not, what force created 'good and loving'? It is patently obvious what force created 'bad and selfish'."

When I read this I thought she was grappling with the problem of evil in Christian thought. On re-reading it some days later, it dawned on me she meant to say that Satan is the cause of 'bad and selfish'. I had forgotten that some people still take such a dualistic view of God. Of course, the interpolation of Satan between evil and God does not explain anything - for who created Satan?

She also states her belief that there isn't anyone who is convinced there is no God. I find that presumptuous.

I had never really understood why Catholics embraced fascism so readily, as they did in Spain under Franco (and since), as well as in other countries. Pierce's book provides some clues:

"I firmly believed that authority, lawful authority must be upheld at all times, even when in the wrong. There was a greater consideration; the consideration that law and order must prevail and a bad law is better than no law at all. A father, as designated by the Bible, had lawful authority over his children."

She wrote this to justify the fact that she did not protest when her husband began to habitually beat their children on the slightest provocation.

"He was their father, and if I gave them support against him, then anarchy would rule."

As for her 'madness' itself, it seems to have consisted of the idea that she was a vampire and of macabre hallucinations. More important than this overtly crazy material, was the intense and formless fear that tormented her. It seems to me that it was this fear that compelled her mind to flee from reality, not the other way around.

She does not try to analyse why she broke down. I would summarise it as her living in an utterly intolerable situation with a man she hated, as well as her complete absence of any sense of self. "Mostly I was aware of my husband telling me, constantly telling me, what I must think, what I must do. Who and what I was seemed to be lost in the conflict." I see her struggle back to sanity, and on to maturity, as the process of finding her identity as a person.

Her husband was as much lacking in a sense of self as she was. He was also capable of becoming so enraged that he was no longer aware of his actions, and did not afterwards remember that he had beaten her up. It reminds me of what I heard about TS Eliot: that he went mad and immediately had his wife committed. Unfortunately Vivian Eliot's story ended tragically, unlike Emma's.

Emma covered her lack of personal identity by being the submissive wife, he by being the dominating husband. It seems to me that they hooked into each other. They were equally unconscious of the fact that they were playing roles. I am in no way excusing his behaviour, yet in some sense she seems to have chosen to marry him precisely because he was so rigid, authoritarian and unbending. "His domination of my life, my will, was effected more by my own lack of conviction than by his strength of it."

I find it telling that no matter how cruelly he treated her, she would not leave him. She finally did it for the children.

I was amazed by the compassion she showed for her husband, even when he was at his worst. Though she wasn't able to understand why he behaved as he did, she could see his pain and took this as justification for the way he treated her. Even now she sees a lot of what happened as being her fault. I was surprised to see how little anger there is against him in the book. In her place I would have cast him as the unequivocal villain of the story.

The better she became, the worse their relationship. She: "If it hadn't been for GROW, by now I'd probably be vegetating in some rotten mental institution." He: "But at least we'd have a happy marriage."

One of the key insights I derived from the book is the incredible vulnerability of the insane. I had thought of them as largely unreachable and impervious. It seems the insane are riddled with fear and self-doubt. In fact these appeared to be the two main feelings she experienced. Emma was very much at the mercy of the people around her. This makes me admire her courage and fortitude all the more. Her isolation and the way she was constantly put down made recovery infinitely more difficult for her. If only she had known about Telefriend or a similar service at the time of her breakdown. She had no-one to check her perception of reality with, until she encountered GROW. She was crying out for someone to show her understanding, to treat her as though she were still a human being.

She had no friends because her husband didn't want her to. This reminds me of many of my female callers.

During one of the worst times she wrote, "No one sees me the person. I am human you know. Well, aren't I? Oh please, somebody tell me I'm human. Tell me I matter. Stop talking about me and talk to me. Tell me you care. About me! Care about me please. Don't turn me into a case history, a statistic ... Don't ignore the anguish I'm in. Please, oh please, won't somebody listen to me."

Her story is a terrible indictment of doctors and psychiatrists. She wrote of her family doctor:

"Gee, I feel sorry for you I think. You sit there robbing people like me of dignity, and you demand payment for it."

He told her flatly she would never get off the pills. She proved him wrong.

She mentions "the slow painful realisation that no one else had the answers, certainly not the experts."

"The big secret was, though, that getting well again was also very ordinary. It didn't take any mystical psychiatric voodoo. It simply took a good long dose of common sense, a lot of love, and a lot of caring and sharing bound together by the will ... the will to get well."

"It doesn't take any special kind of knowledge to help a person through mental breakdown. It takes nothing more than a good person with a conscious identification of what is good and wholesome in life and the courage to voice an honest and caring opinion on the subject."

"The huge consolation was that communication and shared experience eliminated a great many possible errors."

She describes a breakthrough in her process of recovery, when she briefly lost her baby son. The overriding concern she showed for her son's well-being demonstrated to her how much she loved him:

To someone who had been so completely self-absorbed, so utterly the centre of their own universe, it is a mighty alteration in perception, and brings with it a large dose of self acceptance."

"To get hold of an emotion - a feeling - a knowledge - an intrinsic something that you can rely on, that no one can take from you, is the starting point on the way back to sanity."

Another milestone was when she was fully honest with another person, "for the first time in my life". "I was at peace with myself for at long last finding the courage to be myself, if only with one other human being."

The principles used by GROW to help people recover from mental illness seem similar to Glasser's Reality Therapy, for which I have a lot of respect.

Some GROW precepts:

I will go by what I know and not how I feel.

I can compel my limbs and muscles to act rightly in spite of my feelings.

Decentralise from yourself, nothing is vitally important just because it is happening to you.

I can do whatever ordinary people do and avoid whatever ordinary people avoid.

Feelings are not fact.

My feelings will get better as my habits of thinking and acting get better. (This is the central tenet of Reality Therapy.)

When Emma was well on the road to recovery and wanted to get off pills, she took the problem to the GROW group:

"The group pointed out that I had a neurosis about pill popping. Neurosis is simply an exaggerated and misplaced importance on something. My 'something' was pills. Sure, they agreed it was the right attitude to want to be able to cope with life without the aid of pills; but that shouldn't be the top priority in my life. That should be the result of ordinary living. My focus was all wrong. My focus should be on being a good, ordinary human being. Living without the aid of pills would naturally come as a result of that."

Above all, the GROW people proved to Emma that total recovery was possible. "They had proven also that the victim of breakdown, once totally recovered, had a deeper appreciation of life, a greater perception of reality than before the breakdown."

GROW characterises a healthy person as follows: They are able to see things as they are, not as they wish they were, or afraid they might be. One who has a loving heart, able to both give and receive love. A person who realises they are lovable. A person who has a strong character, as distinct from a self-willed character. This includes being able to do things one does not like doing, and to forgo or postpone things one would like to do.

Emma sums up: "I went through the process of analysis and group therapy with the assumption that self-awareness brings about change. But it's decisions that bring about change. Self-awareness is of value to the extent that it makes you aware of what choices you've got. But to say, 'Look, if you discover this about yourself, that will change' - is a load of bunkum."

Overall, it seems to me that she generalises too much from her own experience. Thus she categorically denies the possibility of physical and genetic factors in mental illness.

Neither is her denial of the importance of childhood experience convincing. Especially when she writes about how her father betrayed her trust and sent her to a remand home after she disobeyed him. It's hard not to read in a parallel with her husband's behaviour.

I also disagree with her ideas on counselling (she is against the Rogerian approach) and on love (she thinks love should be conditional).

So, although I was irritated with her at times, I am glad to have read her story to see what she has learned from her experience. I think it is recommended reading for anyone interested in the workings of the mind.

Tad Boniecki

Home       IFAQ Home       IFAQ       Qs       Thinkers       Etc       Forum       Aphorisms       Puzzles       Humour       Poetry      Fiction       About