You might recognise my voice from listening to some or all of my previous set of 44 podcasts about the history of psychiatry in Britain since 1500. That series was mostly a medical history, explaining who cared for the mad, where, and how. I talked about asylums, care in the community, medical and lay understandings of the causes of mental problems, changing therapies, and the kinds of mental conditions that existed in the past. Put simply, the series was about what lay and professional people did to help the mad over the last five centuries.
But along the way I also tried to bring out what madness was like for sufferers and those around them, explaining the social, economic, scientific, cultural, and political context of welfare provision.
What I’m trying to do with the current series of 26 podcasts is offer a counterpoint, by giving a sense of the lived experience of madness. I want to explore the thoughts and feelings of those who knew they had mental problems, or who others thought disordered, using mainly their own words or, sometimes, descriptions that followed closely what they said and did.
How am I going to do this? Well, sufferers sometimes set down their conscious thoughts in autobiographical form. Alternatively, someone else recorded for them their replies to questions, or tried to explain their speech and actions as best they could. For their part, families recorded the words and deeds of apparently troubled members and discussed in correspondence what they made of them. Mental disorder touched their lives too.
We live in modern societies deluged with information about individuals and groups. Until surprisingly recently the lives of ordinary or ‘average’ people were not at all well-documented. Even keeping a diary or writing an autobiography was rare before the seventeenth century and not common until the nineteenth century. I’ve done a lot of digging to find examples of people who were not rich, famous, or powerful: people like you or I.
Some of those you’ll read on the website are well-known to scholars who work on the history of madness, but others are unknown. None are exactly household names. I hope all of them will be better understood and more widely recognised after this series has finished.
My aim in this series is twofold.
First, to give a sense of what it was like for sufferers to cope with being mad or being thought mad. It is very difficult for those of us in good mental health to understand the experience of mental disorder, other than by listening to what sufferers say or, in the distant past, by reading their accounts. Sometimes their narratives are painful, disturbing, even terrifying, but I hope I have read and rendered them sympathetically.
My second aim is to show how those who came into contact with mentally ill or mentally handicapped people coped in their turn with words, moods, and acts, which they struggled to understand. I try to locate the mentally disordered in their social world because one of the distinguishing features of mental problems is the disorientation and dislocation from other people, which they bring. Mental disorders are quite unlike most physical ailments in that they affect the senses, emotions, capacity to think, and ability to interact normally with other people. These disorders have an important personal and social dimension, as well as a medical one.
Most histories of psychiatry are about psychiatrists. Patients, sadly, often get forgotten. I want to rescue the mentally troubled and mentally handicapped of the past, from obscurity or even condescension, and give them voice in the present day. I’m trying to promote a knowledge of history through a sympathetic engagement with sufferers from mental disorders, who lived in the past.
I’m also hoping to help foster awareness of mental health issues in the present, by setting out the experience of the mentally ill who are now long dead. Medical models dominate much writing about mental disorder: in other words, they are about the analysis and classification of signs and symptoms. Listening to the voice of the mad allows us instead to explore experiential aspects: in other words, what it meant to sufferers to have mental problems. In their writings, we listen to people exposing their inner selves.
I hope you’ll join me on my journey of exploration. Because the vivid, strange, and puzzling phenomenology of delusion, dissociation, and compulsion tells us a great deal about agency, personhood, memory, identity, and reason – all of these in the present as well as the past.
FURTHER READING: A. Ingram, The madhouse of language: writing and reading madness in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1991).
Gail A. Hornstein, Bibliography of First-Person Narratives of Madness in English (5th edition). Available as a free download from her website, with other useful resources.