The Loony Bin Trip: A Conversation With Norah Vincent 

A journalistic Houdini, Norah Vincent follows up her best-selling book Self Made Man with Voluntary Madness, an account of her days inside a mental institution.

BY Charlotte Abbott

January 03 2009 1:00 AM ET

VOLUNTARY MADNESS NORAH VINCENT BOOK COVER X390 | ADVOCATE.COM 

But admitting yourself to a big-city mental
hospital sounds like a fast track to feeling desperate,
paranoid, and subservient.
Any person -- even the most normal, healthy
person -- will become that way if put in that
environment. It’s like being in a totalitarian
society. Sometimes people become childish because
it’s the only power you have. You have no
emotional or physical liberty. All the power is in the
hands of the person with the [medical] file. It like
[novelist] Ken Kesey says: you can’t lose your
temper because then you’ll get medicated.

Which of the patients you met in your travels has
haunted you most?
Mother T. She had disturbed the peace and had
been brought in a number of times -- she was homeless,
and she had her delusions -- but it seemed that no one
was helping her, no one was accepting her. It’s
somewhat like homosexuality, in that society
couldn’t accept that she lived another way, so
she was warehoused and overmedicated.

I‘m not
naïve about people who are psychotic, but I’m
saying that we’re abandoning them. My family,
my community doesn’t want to take
responsibility for these people. But these institutions are
the last place they will feel any fulfillment.
Wouldn’t it be a better solution if we could
find some kind of work that that the [mentally ill] person
could find fulfillment in? It’s yanking them
out of the community -- that alienation -- that makes
being psychotic or depressed exponentially worse.

Did you see gay people who were in those
institutions because their sexuality had been pathologized?
During the intake they asked me “Are you
gay?” and it was noted in my file. It seemed
clear they thought it was one of my symptoms. In the
first bin I went to there was a suicidal transsexual
patient. In [Voluntary Madness] the character Casey
at [the big-city hospital] was gay. At each place I
went there was always someone who didn’t
belong, in the sense that they weren’t suffering from
a disorder but had social problems, which could
involve being gay. Is this our only solution for
people who don’t fit or who object to uncomfortable
social roles? 

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