Hornstein Publishes New Book on Mental Illness

Posted: March 16, 2009

Mount Holyoke College psychology professor Gail A. Hornstein has authored a new book, Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness, being published this month by Rodale Books. The book offers readers a provocative new perspective on mental illness and recovery based directly on patients' own accounts of their experiences. Hornstein will present a reading and book signing of Agnes's Jacket on Thursday, March 26 at 7 pm at the Odyssey Bookshop. The event is free and open to the public.

The book title stems from the story of a German seamstress, Agnes Richter, who was confined to an asylum in the late 1800s. There she constructed a jacket from pieces of the institutional uniform, then painstakingly stitched a mysterious autobiographical text into every inch of the inside and outside of the jacket. Richter's garment was preserved by Heidelberg art historian Hans Prinzhorn, who collected and studied the works of "mad artists" in the 1920s. For Hornstein, "the jacket precisely captures the fundamental conundrum of madness, an experience rich with symbolic meanings that are indecipherable by ordinary means."

"First-person accounts are essential to understanding seemingly 'irrational' phenomena like delusions or phobias," the author says. "Madness is more code than chemistry. If we want to understand it, we need translators--native speakers, not just brain scans."

Hornstein has long investigated personal testimonies of madness to determine what they can teach us about mental illness and its treatment. She has compiled a bibliography that includes more than 700 first-person madness narratives, ranging from the fifteenth century to last year. During the six years she spent researching and writing Agnes's Jacket, she witnessed hundreds of patients telling their stories in a vibrant underground network of psychiatric "survivor groups" across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe. In these peer support groups, patients help one another understand anomalous experiences like hearing voices and develop their own coping strategies to deal with emotional difficulties.

"There are real alternatives to the narrow, pessimistic views of mental illness we've so often heard," she says. "Unbeknownst to their physicians, thousands of patients have been quietly voting with their feet--weaning themselves off medications whose side effects are worse than the original symptoms, participating in peer support groups instead of attending day treatment centers, and joining together to analyze their shared experiences."

Agnes's Jacket helps bridge the gulf between the way medicine explains psychiatric illness and the experiences of those who suffer, guiding readers through the inner lives of those diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar illness, depression and paranoia. Publishers Weekly hailed "the fascinating avenues Hornstein pursues and the humanity and thoroughness of this exploration," saying the book made "a serious contribution to critiques of contemporary psychiatry."

The book has also earned praise from Joanne Greenberg, the author of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, a fictional version of Greenberg's own experience with mental illness.

"Riveting, revolutionary and important--not to mention exquisitely written--Agnes's Jacket tells us what we should have been doing all along," said Greenberg.

Hornstein is also author of To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World (Free Press, 2000), the widely praised biography of pioneering psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann. For the past two decades, her research on the history of twentieth-century psychology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis has been supported by grants from the National Library of Medicine, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Her articles and op-ed pieces have appeared in many scholarly and popular publications, including Newsday, OpenMind, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Encyclopedia of Psychology, the American Psychologist, and the Journal of Personality.

To help foster the approaches described in Hornstein's new book, she works with the Northampton-based Freedom Center, a support and advocacy group for people diagnosed with mental illness, and the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Center in Holyoke. For the past six months, she has co-facilitated a Hearing Voices support group at the Recovery Learning Center and spoken at a number of mental health conferences about the importance of such groups. Although hearing voices groups are popular across England and Europe, the Holyoke group is among the first in the United States. It meets each Tuesday at 4:30 pm in the Recovery Learning Center at 187 High St., Holyoke.

Related Links:

Gail Hornstein – Faculty Profile

Gail Hornstein's Web site

Freedom Center

Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community