R12 S04 H22

Office hours: By Zoom appointment

Phone: 183-2162


Going Crazy in America:  The American Tradition of the Madness Memoir

Monday 8-10

R11 T04 C84

Why do Americans write so many memoirs about going nuts, about escaping from crazy mothers or about dysfunctional families?  This course seeks explanations mainly in the Puritan tradition of self-examination and the popularization of psychoanalysis, both of which contribute to a tradition of introspection. In 1630, the Puritan preacher John Winthrop gave a sermon on board a ship transporting future Massachusetts Bay colonists in which he warned that their new community would be a "city upon a hill", watched by the world. That idea inspired a need for self-examination along with the belief that America would be God’s country (so the more you watch your behavior, the better; you fulfill God’s will or you avoid doing the reverse). The American Jeremiad, the Calvinist self-examination, dovetail with the rigorous self-study and self-condemnation that enter almost any form of psychotherapy in America.  The status of individualism and the elevation of the “common man” and woman through the democratic ideals of American government, the glorification of independence and the pursuit of happiness, if not the idea that happiness itself is a right, remain some of the important sources of American autobiography in general, but in particular autobiographies about mental crises.  To go crazy in America means to undergo an experience—and often to write about it—in the ways that religious persons undergoing conversions tended to write about that experience in the 17th century and beyond.  For additional perspectives, I’d recommend (but it is not required!) is Ethan Watters Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche (Free Press, 2010) and Clifford Beers’s A Mind That Found Itself  (1908) available on the internet:

Students should purchase the following from the university bookstore or an Internet source:

William Styron Darkness Visible (depression) (1988)

Daniel Smith, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety (2013)

Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind (manic depression) 1995 OR Lithium Jesus by Charles Monroe Kane (2016)

Elyn Saks, The Center Cannot Hold (schizophrenia) (2007)

Augusten Burroughs Running With Scissors OR Nancy Bachrach The Center of the Universe (2009) (crazy mothers)

Susannah Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted (1993) OR Emily Fox Gordon, Mockingbird Years: A Life In and Out of Therapy (2001) (Adolescent collapse and life in a psychiatric hospital)

Requirements: (1) Come to class and do all the readings. (2) All BA students will do a five-minute talk teaching something they find interesting to the class. Master’s students get fifteen minutes and may use additional commentary. 

4 April Introduction to the course: excerpts from the writers we will read.

11 April Darkness, Visible, a memoir whose themes of sadness, depression, and despair, including suicidal thoughts, also appear in Styron’s novels.

18 April HOLIDAY: Easter

25 April Darkness, Visible and begin Monkey Mind.

2 May Monkey Mind

9 May Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind. With this book, we see another tradition, a common one, that of the psychiatrist or therapist who knows the field through personal experience.Alternative reading: Charles Monroe-Kane’s Lithium Jesus, a vivid memoir of manic episodes.

16 May Kay Redfield Jamison or Charles Monroe-Kane continued.

23 May Elyn Saks, The Center Cannot Hold.

30 May Elyn Saks, continued


13 June Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors OR Nancy Bachrach, The Center of the Universe.

20 June Burroughs or Bachrach

27 June  Susannah Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted OR Emily Fox Gordon, Mockingbird Years


4 July Susannah Kaysen OR Emily Fox Gordon


11 July Susannah Kaysen OR Emily Fox Gordon


Going Crazy: Excerpts from the Reading


Source of William Styron’s title—a line from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, first published in 1667 and revised in 1674:


say first what cause

Mov'd our Grand Parents in that happy State,

Favour'd of Heav'n so highly, to fall off

From thir Creator, and transgress his Will

For one restraint, Lords of the World besides?

Who first seduc'd them to that foul revolt?

Th' infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile

Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv'd

The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride

Had cast him out from Heav'n, with all his Host

Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring

To set himself in Glory above his Peers,

He trusted to have equal'd the most High,

If he oppos'd; and with ambitious aim

Against the Throne and Monarchy of God

Rais'd impious War in Heav'n and Battel proud

With vain attempt.   Him the Almighty Power

Hurld headlong flaming from th' Ethereal Skie

With hideous ruine and combustion down

To bottomless perdition, there to dwell

In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,

Who durst defie th' Omnipotent to Arms.

Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night

To mortal men, he with his horrid crew

Lay vanquisht, rowling in the fiery Gulfe

Confounded though immortal: But his doom

Reserv'd him to more wrath; for now the thought

Both of lost happiness and lasting pain

Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes

That witness'd huge affliction and dismay

Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:

At once as far as Angels kenn he views

The dismal Situation waste and wilde,

A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round

As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames

No light, but rather darkness visible

Serv'd onely to discover sights of woe,

Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace

And rest can never dwell, hope never comes

That comes to all; but torture without end


Source for Elyn R. Saks’ title—a line from the first verse of William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” written in 1919 and published in 1920:


Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.




    What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are totally remote from normal experience, the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room . . . For those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet [Dante], trudging upward and upward out of hell’s black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as “the shining world.” William Styron, Darkness Visible


    I was a senior in high school when I had my first attack of manic-depressive illness; once the siege began, I lost my mind rather rapidly. At first, everything seemed so easy. I raced about like a crazed weasel, bubbling with plans and enthusiasms, immersed in sports, and staying up all night, night after night, out with friends, reading everything that wasn’t nailed down, filling manuscript books with poems and fragments of plays, and making expansive, completely unrealistic, plans for my future. The world was filled with pleasure and promise; I felt great. Not just great. I felt really great . . . I found myself buttonholing my friends to tell them how beautiful it all was. They were less transfixed by my insights . . . my exhausting ramblings: You’re talking too fast, Kay. Slow down, Kay. You’re wearing me out, Kay. Low down, Kay. Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness


    I greeted my two classmates in the Yale Law School Library. It was ten o’clock on a Friday night . . . They were both in my “small group”—the only small class a first-term law student has at Yale . . . But at my insistence, we’d made the date to work on the second memo assignment. Although each of us was responsible for his or her own memo, we were allowed to strategize together. We had to do it, to finish it, to produce it, to . . .

                “Memos are visitations,” I informed them. “They make certain points. The point is on your head. Pat used to say that. Have you ever killed anyone?”

                [My friends] looked at me as if they, or I, had just been splashed with ice water. “A joke, right?” quipped one. “What are you talking about, Elyn?”

                “Oh, the usual. You know. Heaven and hell. Who’s what, what’s who. Hey!” I said, leaping out of my chair. “Let’s all go out on the roof.” Elyn Saks. The Center Cannot Hold

                Dr. Finch leaned back in his rattan swivel chair and folded his arms behind his head. My mother sat across from him on the floral love seat and I sat in the armchair between them . . . I was twelve but felt at least fourteen, my parents had been divorced for over a year, and my mother was seeing Dr. Finch constantly. Not just every day, but for hours every day. And if not in person, certainly on the phone. Sometimes, like now, I would get sucked into one of their sessions. My mother felt it was important that the doctor and I get to know each other. She felt that maybe he could help me with my school troubles. The trouble being that I refused to go and she felt powerless to force me. I think it may have also distantly bothered her that I didn’t have any friends my age. Or any age, really. Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors



    When I was eighteen my parents were faced with a problem: what to do with a sullen, disorganized daughter who had failed to graduate high school and who had returned home to Washington, D.C., wrists bandaged, from an extended stay with her boyfriend’s mother in Indianapolis. They took me in tow to the psychiatrist I’d been seeing off and on through my high school years, who recommended that I spend some time in a “therapeutic environment.” He suggested Austen Riggs, a hospital in Stockbridge, Massacusetts . . . Not all of us were normal late adolescents. Some were seriously depressed, not just sluggish. Some were harmlessly odd, like L., a lapsed seminarian who carried on a constant internal debate about the supremacy of the papacy . . . a few patients were mad . . . one somehow got her hands on an antique cannon, fiddled with it to make it operational, and fired it out her bedroom window. She also pulled a gun on her therapist, making him plead for his life. The other, a young man who could have doubled for Charles Manson, stuffed hard-boiled eggs into his rectum and laid them publicly, dropping his pants and squatting in the hallway. Emily Fox Gordon: Mockingbird Years: A Life in and Out of Therapy