Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture Copyright © 1994 Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture
All rights reserved.
ISSN 1070-8286

Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2(3) (1994) 32-55

"Teaching the Culture of Mental Illness"

Chris Amirault
Modern Studies
Department of English and Comparative Literature
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

In the fall of 1993, I designed and taught a course rather sensationalistically entitled "American Psychos and the Culture of Mental Illness." This intermediate undergraduate course was cross-listed in English and film studies, had minimal course prerequisites, and operated as a seminar with about thirty students from diverse academic concentrations (literary studies, psychology, film production, sociology, and health sciences among them). I seek in this essay to provide a discussion of the course, its objectives and methods, and some of the issues and concerns that teaching this course raised. This course was by far the most rewarding of my teaching career, and I hope to express some of the excitement of that experience here.

The title of this course indicates two distinct intentions of mine. As my introductory paragraph hints, I am a bit ashamed of the first noun phrase, included not to allude to Bret Easton Ellis's (1991) infamous novel American Psycho (which we didn't read) but to mark the presence of two contexts in which the course would operate, contemporary U.S. history ("American") and popular discourse around mental illness ("Psychos"). Though I and my department chair did hope that such a brash title would help with enrollments (it seemed to do so, in fact), I also hoped it would communicate the peculiarly American relation to mental illness that we would take as our focus.

The second phrase, "the culture of mental illness," deserves attention as well. I chose "mental illness" over other terms such as "madness" and "insanity" to foreground the medical context in which we would explore these issues. Through a reading of scientific, theoretical, historical, literary, filmic, journalistic, and other texts, the course investigated the ways in which certain understandings of mental illness are constructed, represented, and proliferated throughout culture. The other central term in the phrase, "culture," risks being so broad as to extend itself to absurdity, and though I'm tempted by such a definition, a clearer explanation is necessary. [End page 32]

Of course, there are substantial disciplinary constructions of "mental illness" in fields such as psychiatry, sociology, criminal justice, anthropology, and psychology. However, most people first encounter mental illness not through those specific discursive constructions but rather through a more generalized, diffuse set of representations, understandings, and categories which are clearly inflected by disciplinary constructions of "mental illness" yet take up those constructions in varied, contradictory, and even confused ways. Many "interdisciplinary" courses strive to "clarify" this muddle by using a specific disciplinary perspective to bring certain emphases into focus. Thus, a course in sociology might read the history of mental illness through discourses of deviancy; a course in psychology, on the other hand, might read the history of mental illness through a telos of scientific discovery and achievement.

The disciplinary grounding for this course, however, grows out of cultural studies, a term that signifies a loose collection of projects and perspectives that borrow from literary and film studies, ethnographic analysis, critical theory, and feminist theory, among others. Depending on one's position, the looseness of this definition is either its central flaw or most crucial strength. As the editors of the collection Cultural Studies explain, "[C]ultural studies in fact has no distinct methodology, no unique statistical, ethnomethodological, or textual analysis to call its own. Its methodology, ambiguous from the beginning, could best be seen as a bricolage. Its choice of practice, that is, is pragmatic, strategic, and self-reflective." The aim of cultural studies seems equally enabling/fuzzy: "to enable people to understand what is going on" (Grossberg et al., 1992: 2).

We took culture as a broad, complex field, and our engagement with it reflected that construction. No one could claim any given disciplinary perspective as a definitive, unchallengable foundation; rather, students and teacher both were obligated to explore and explain their investments in their own ways of understanding. (Such a demand led many students to have frustrating experiences initially, for few had ever been expected to justify how they were thinking, especially within the disciplines they had chosen in college.) This inherent instability also meant that attention often shifted from what we were discussing to how we were discussing it, and lead us into several valuable conversations [End page 33] about the deceptive power of "simple", "clear" declarative statements regarding mental illness and the value of more complex explorations.

In this way, "culture" signified not merely films, television shows, or novels, but "what is going on" in the larger field of representational exchange in which the term "mental illness" signifies. As cultural anthropology has taught us, the ways that people take up various understandings of things as "personal" as their own mental health are mediated by the representational systems they find in cultural forms, ranging from their therapist's professional opinion to a novel, from an article in Psychology Today to a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show. In this course we read a wide range of texts that provided us with glimpses at those representational systems, and set out to understand how they work.

In the absence, then, of a disciplinary core of knowledge that teacher would impart on students, the course explored a set of themes and questions throughout the semester. Taking the concept of "mental illness" as our central focus, we explored the ways in which that concept is taken up and represented in various cultural forms and in specific texts, as well as the relationship between that concept and other crucial categories such as gender, sexuality, normalcy, and subjectivity. Clearly, such explorations demanded that we consider carefully the rhetorical claims of the various texts we encountered, a consideration that guided most of the work we did in the course. We compared various films, for example, to see what made some seem more "realistic" than others; we discussed what made medical writing from the 19th century seem "unscientific" whereas more contemporary material did not.

As a result of this emphasis, we found ourselves continually confronting the difficulty of representing the experience of mental illness, a difficulty that eventually structured most of our discussions. Scientifically grounded discourses purport to represent that experience through such forms as diagnostic categories and case histories, yet these discourses necessarily claim the experience of mental illness to be abnormal, flawed, sick, and thus typically inaccurate, incoherent, unreliable. Fictional texts about mental illness were also often judged on their "accuracy" in depicting mental illness, yet this "accuracy" bore little resemblance to the criteria established in more scientific material. For example, many students consider The Snake Pit [End page 34] (1948) to be accurate representations of post-war sexual relations, but found Sigmund Freud's discussion of gender in "Femininity" (1933) to be flat out wrong -- even though Freud's position essentially structures the plot of the film itself.

In this way, the rhetorical claims of all of the texts to represent the experience of mental illness came under great scrutiny. These concerns about the representation of experience formed a central tension in the course, and I found that reading autobiographical texts that confronted such questions allowed us best to explore that tension. For example, in the early unit on neurasthenia [1] we read Charlotte Perkins Gilman's (1892) "Yellow Wallpaper," Margaret Cleaves's (1910) Autobiography of a Neurasthene and Sally Pierce's (1930) A Patient Looks at Her Doctors and discussed how the three women negotiated their relationship to medical discourse through illness narratives. Those texts -- some seen to be more successful than others -- did not allow us simply to accept that the experience of mental illness is "beyond representation," a position many students held at the start of the course, but demanded that we consider possible representational strategies as well as the implications of the belief that such experience is unrepresentable.

I hope that the above material indicates the difficulty with which I distinguish between "content" and "method": the complexities of the category of experience in mental illness provoked me to reexamine not only the ways we were reading the various "characters" in these texts but also the various positions we were taking up ourselves in the class. For example, although I was hesitant for students to move into the position that mental illness was "beyond representation," I was adamant that students recognize and give up their illusory "mastery" over the material. Particularly for students coming in with strong disciplinary backgrounds in the sciences and social sciences, the lure of diagnosis was often too tempting to resist. Instead of investigating the sources of rhetorical power behind their pronouncements that certain characters were "insane," "sick," and so on, a group of male students spent the entire semester playing doctor, refusing to confront their own engagement with the material and instead simply taking up an unjustifiable position they misrecognized to be mastery.

It is impossible to extricate, that is to say, the category of mastery and authority in medical discourse from the positions of mastery and authority that readers, writers, and speakers assumed in the classroom. The too comfortable "familiarity" with the discourse of [End page 35] mental illness that these male students claimed, as well as their gender presumptions about themselves and the women they evaluated, provided the illusory ground from which they stated their diagnoses. Given the proliferation of that position within medicine itself, it was tough at times to unhinge its rhetorical presumptions and get those students to think critically -- yet that was an important goal for me, as both "content" and "method."

Such imbrication of "content" and "method" was particularly tricky in the appeal to experience as such. A course with the words "mental illness" in the title undoubtedly will draw a substantial number of students who have had some personal experience with talk and pharmacological therapy, residential treatment facilities, and even involuntary commitment, and the most challenging aspect of teaching this course was negotiating those students' relationships to the class. For example, several students regularly judged the texts by making explicit comparisons between what they had read and their own experiences with mental illness. This was particularly true for the one female student who came out publicly in class and openly discussed her institutionalization for schizophrenia, a brave gesture that got other students thinking about their own positions in the class. (Though not enough, unfortunately; the most unpleasant part of the class involved refereeing arguments between this student and her often relentless "diagnosticians.")

This student and others established their relation to the course by comparing their experiences to those of various characters and to the explanations provided by various theories, and for much of the beginning of the course, they attempted to validate any and all readings simply at that level. While I certainly accepted the legitimacy of many claims to experience, I was wary that a few of these students resisted engaging with the material explicitly through such claims, considering the worth of any text to be determined merely by a checklist of experiential or ontological similarities. In such situations, "experience" became a simple, knowable quantity not worthy of further investigation -- a gesture that I found to be just as disturbing as diagnosis.

Thus, representing the experience of mental illness functioned not only as a theme that threaded through the texts we read but also structured the methods of the class itself, and everyone (myself included) found themselves challenged as to their own representational and rhetorical strategies. Though for some the shaky ground was merely nerve-wracking, for most of us this ceaseless [End page 36] questioning provided a classroom in which we could do real intellectual work around these problems without relying on simplistic claims or easy answers. This atmosphere was most apparent during our discussions of psychoanalysis, which served both as an historical object of inquiry in the class and as one of the central theoretical paradigms.

In my own scholarship and teaching, I take psychoanalysis to be uniquely helpful in theorizing the subject, desire, and -- crucial to this course -- the therapeutic encounter between doctor and patient. Yet as feminist historians and theorists remind us, psychoanalysis cannot be detached from its problematic history, particularly in the U.S., where it has been used as a justification for gender, sex, and personality normalization in the decades following WWII. [2] To complicate matters further, the nonfictional and fictional texts we read took up different versions of psychoanalysis, creating an immense tangle of explanations and understandings that we worked hard to unravel.

However, to mistake this unraveling as mere mucking around would be to miss the emphasis of the course. Given that "psychoanalysis" has pervaded our vocabulary, medical institutions, therapeutic models, scholarly traditions, and literary history, mucking around is one way to describe doing the challenging intellectual work of situating psychoanalysis and thus mental illness in contemporary culture. We took up other issues throughout the class, including the connections between sexuality and mental illness, sociological models of deviance and normalcy, the function and history of psychotherapy, the erotics of doctor/patient relationships, and the gendering of certain afflictions such as hysteria and neurasthenia. None of these "problems" were "solved," as should by now be clear. However, through our discussions of these themes we came to understand new and better ways to think about such problems.

As the reader must by now suspect, the texts covered in this class ranged across several disciplinary and generic boundaries. The first unit of the course introduced the general method by reading three groups of texts: a set of general theoretical readings, a collection of medical, historical, fictional, and auto-biographical texts on neurasthenia, and a discussion of gender and mental illness through a reading of the film Now, Voyager. A closer look at the first group of texts will help to situate the overall focus of the course. [End page 37]

In the first full week of the course, we read the following: three essays by Sigmund Freud, including his dense and theoretically challenging essay on "Repression" (1915); excerpts from Paul McHugh and Phillip Slavney's excellent book The Perspectives of Psychiatry (1986); Claude Levi-Strauss's essay "The Sorcerer and His Magic" (1963); and three critical texts by Thomas Szasz, Claude Steiner, and Michel Foucault. Virtually everyone who read my syllabus (see appendix) before the course started implored me to lessen the reading load -- after all, how could college sophomores, juniors, and seniors at UWM possibly grapple with such challenging texts and such difficult concepts?

If the reader draws one polemical insistence from reading this essay, I hope it is this one: most students desire intellectual challenges if only instructors would provide them. Of course, some students dropped the class after the first week or so (I'd be lying if I didn't admit to that common motive for including difficult material early in the semester), but most hung on. Part of that general tenacity was due, I believe, to a classroom climate that encouraged each student to confront their own experience of reading these texts; I didn't expect them to come in having "figured everything out" but having had a thoughtful engagement with the reading that produced interesting questions and responses. This seemingly relaxed atmosphere, coupled with rigorous demands for careful reading and thinking, proved to be the environment within which most students were able to grapple with all these challenging texts and difficult concepts. In fact, as I proudly told my class upon returning from a banal conference, the discussions we had twice a week produced more compelling readings and more worthwhile knowledge than had my previous weekend.

For these reasons, I did not hold back on the difficult material, and I avoided any generalized review of the subject matter as well as most secondary sources. Given that I wanted my students to come to understand, say, the many different ways that Freud has been taken up in the U.S., it seemed foolish to "protect" them from the difficult texts themselves. Indeed, our grappling with Freud's essay on "Femininity" (1933) to which I alluded above allowed us to see how this text has been taken up by both misogynistic therapists and feminist film theorists alike, and prevented any easy relation to Freud as either hero or villain. A teacher can lecture about such complexities, but only through the specific engagement with the complex texts themselves can students come to understand them. [End page 38]

Thus, the early part of the course involved an introduction not only to the issues of the course but to the wide range of texts, the careful reading expected, and the challenging methodology. Over the fifteen weeks of the course, the class moved through a variety of genres: autobiography, documentary film, semi-fictionalized novel, Hollywood drama, biography, television movie, and journalism. Following the introductory section, the course was loosely divided along gender lines. The four weeks following the introduction focused on men and mental illness, with readings of Martin Duberman's Cures (1991), Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies (1967), both the novel and the film of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962, 1975), and Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor (1963). After a transitional week spent reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night (1933), the next five weeks focused on women and mental illness, with readings of Anatole Litvak's The Snake Pit, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1971), Nunnally Johnson's Three Faces of Eve (1957), and the written and television versions of Sybil (Schreiber 1973, 1976). In the final class, we discussed recent journalistic representations of mental illness and the future of psychotherapy.

Since we were confronting the network of meanings and representations of mental illness, the various mass cultural texts in the course were not merely fodder for diagnosis of their accuracy. Rather, careful readings of films such as The Snake Pit and Three Faces of Eve allowed us to see certain mechanisms of mental illness at work. For example, both films depict the stories of two women whose therapy includes resocialization into a heterosexual dyad, and their responses to their role as wife are taken as indicators of their relative "health"; in this way, the two films provide explicit evidence of the role normalization played in U.S. psychotherapy in the years following WWII, which several radical therapists and feminists critiqued in the 1960s and 1970s. [3]

In addition, this comparison allowed us to see how such meanings of mental illness are disseminated through mass cultural texts. Both The Snake Pit and Three Faces of Eve were hailed as accurate depictions of mental illness when they were released, and the acting of the two female leads, Olivia de Haviland and Joanne Woodward, received high praise (Woodward won an Oscar for her performance). Today these films seem clearly dated to students, and that distance allows them not only to see how such films could be considered realistic representations at the time but also to explore the [End page 39] implications that such claims to realism have for present-day films -- ones that students presently feel are indeed "realistic." These mass cultural texts helped us to consider how culture works on us, how effects such as "realism," "accuracy," and so on are produced, disseminated, and read.

In order to help students negotiate this admittedly difficult tangle of texts and to introduce them to the careful reading required to understand these issues, much of our classroom meetings followed a basic format. The first few minutes consisted of announcements, syllabus forecasting, and questions about assignments. Sometimes I would present a brief overview of the issues or topics introduced in the day's texts. Then, once we were all settled, we usually spent the rest of class reading written and visual texts together and discussing our reading.

Most of my students are not strong readers, and many of them are very weak readers. Because a class devoted to such a wide variety of texts demands careful, attentive readers, I explicitly emphasize reading, even in a class supposedly designed as a content-based and not a remedial course; I simply have found that it is essential to a successful class. Thus we typically spent discussion time reading together either in small groups of 8-10 students or as a class. In these discussions, we would all turn to a particular page in a book or I would screen a short clip from a film, and then we would walk through the text, pointing out various elements of the text and how those elements made meaning, staked claims to truth, contradicted themselves, revealed gaps.

Sometimes our reading would simply try to tease out an entire scene from a film or section from a book, not worrying about any particular thematic focus. Other times we would trace a theme, rhetorical strategy, figure, or concern through a text, trying to build a sense of how that text addressed a particular issue. In both situations, our symptomatic reading sought not to solidify and consolidate an interpretation, a sense of confidence and closure at having figured everything out, but rather to understand how these texts did what they did.

For example, we spent an entire class period tracing Dick Diver's "breakdown" through the second half of Tender is the Night, moving from one moment to the next trying to identify the different ways in which that breakdown was figured. In another class, students discussed Frederick Wiseman's documentary Titicut Follies [End page 40] in three groups given different frames for discussing the film: as a narrative film structured by such classic conventions as protagonists and antagonists, cause-and- effect plot devices, and musical numbers; as a polemic about public institutions and the evils of institutionalization; and as an objective anthropological documentary about what "really" goes on in a mental institution.

In such discussions, everyone was required to explain their understanding of the issues raised by explicit reference to the text at hand, and, as a result, students were obliged to help everyone else understand their responses. Furthermore, this emphasis on reading together meant that we would all hit rough spots (the teacher included) and have to work hard to get through them. This atmosphere of doing difficult intellectual work together allowed students to ask questions and to pursue lines of thought that they might otherwise feel were too simple or stupid and allowed us to recognize the challenges of this material for what they were. Instead of relying on reductive schemata and master theories that would simplify "mental illness" to a fixed, knowable entity, the course operated through an ethic of reading, which demanded that we always return to the text and thus to the complexities of textuality.

Because of the day-to-day demands of reading carefully, which required that students stay on top of the material but also gave them some leeway, as well as my general loathing of examinations, there were no tests in this class. Instead, all grades were based on writing and on class participation (see syllabus for grade breakdown). While I know that evaluating students based solely on written work is untenable for a huge lecture course, in such a small course I believe it is essential -- particularly given my reticence to determine what is "essential" knowledge that demands mastery in a course such as this. Thus, I demanded that students do a lot of writing. Given that students were required to think on their own and did not have recourse to the familiar regurgitation model found in many course assignments and exams, I felt obligated to teach them how to write as well as to read. As a result, students were required to write at least ten short (1-2 pp) weekly responses and three papers whose total length had to be at least 20 pages.

The weekly responses, due on the second class of the week, were readings of texts read or screened for that week; throughout the semester, students were required to respond to a few films, a few of the nonfictional/critical texts, and a few fictional texts. [End page 41] I demanded that their short essays not merely respond to some of the issues at hand in the texts for the week but actually present an analysis of a brief section of a text -- a paragraph or page of a written text, or a shot or scene from a film. I encouraged students to use these responses to develop their analytical skills, to help them think about how they were reading the texts we were discussing, and not simply to reflect upon their general impressions of the texts.

Without question, these weekly responses were the most frustrating and difficult aspect of the class for most students. Whatever the ease with which students could discuss difficult texts, they were continually frustrated by the difficulty of writing about them. The weekly responses demanded that they make clear and coherent their understandings and confusions about one small piece of text. Since I provided no sample topics, they had no recourse but to figure out what exactly they saw on that page or in that shot and write about it.

I have never been a big fan of assigning paper topics for at least two distinct reasons. I have found that an entire class of students will invariably manage to select only one or at most two topics, no matter how long the list, for their papers, and I have no desire to read a few dozen papers on the same topic. More importantly, however, I think that the process of identifying a paper idea, reading over the text, and coming up with their own proposal helps students take their own ideas seriously as ideas. Inevitably, many students couldn't quite get a grasp on a particular topic, set of figures, or thread of concerns, and felt unable to do so -- yet I consider that typically frustrating struggle to explore and refine one's ideas to be essential to any course I've taught. This struggle is particularly important in an interdisciplinary course such as this one, in which students must not only choose their topics but the frameworks within which they would explore them.

To make writing even more difficult, few students believed me when I wrote in the syllabus, "Your reading should be a slow one that focuses on the confusions, tensions, contradictions, difficulties, even silences of the text." Instead, they continued to assume that confusions, tensions, contradictions, and difficulties could only signify their ignorance and thus would guarantee a low grade. Those students who were able to explore their problems often found that there were compelling reasons why they had been confused by a particular text, and used those reasons to write fascinating responses about, say, the strange comments Freud makes to his audience [End page 42] and readers in "Femininity," or the insistent overtones of rape at the end of the film of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

In their longer papers, students had to perform an extended reading of one or more of the texts in the course (with approval they could include an extra source or two from outside) that revealed something substantial and interesting about the text as a whole. They received no paper topics from me but instead had to write proposals, which they passed around to each other and to me for feedback. This process of formulating paper topics, suggesting ideas in proposal form, getting feedback from me and others in the class, and finally writing a finished product seemed to work well for the intellectually committed students in the class. In fact, aside from a few more predictable essays, most students tried to tackle fascinating issues, ones that I had never considered and would never have included in a sheet of sample topics.

For example, two students spent most of their semester considering the use of space in several films and written texts and explored the relationship between spatial constraint, bodily confinement, gender, and mental illness. Another student, who felt I had misread Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor, responded to his concerns by providing a compelling reading of Robert Rossen's Lilith (1964), a radically different film we didn't screen but that provided a more expressionistic perspective on mental illness. In the most remarkable response I received, one student traced the implications of a tiny gesture in the film Now, Voyager: as Bette Davis helps a depressed young girl put together a jigsaw puzzle, she finds the missing piece, which turns out to be Cinderella's slipper. This student read the film back through that knot of tropes -- finding missing pieces, Prince Charmings, and shoes among them -- in a dazzlingly clear and focused response.

That is to say, despite their seeming lack of training in and understanding of academic theories such as poststructuralist concepts of the subject or sociological analyses of deviance, these students did compelling intellectual work -- work that has helped me in my own research and writing. I like to think that much of that excellent work was produced because of my emphasis on the validity of students' own engagements with the material, on making them think through the difficulties inherent in that material on their own terms. To be sure, teaching the culture of mental illness presents substantial challenges for teacher and students both, [End page 43] but those challenges are, to me, the stuff of provocative and rewarding teaching.


[1] "Neurasthenia," a term coined by George Beard in 1869, signified nervous exhaustion resulting from a depletion of neural energy, and was a popular diagnosis for upper-class women and men through the late 19th century in Europe and, especially, the United States.

[2] The literature on the historical relation between psychoanalysis and gender is broad. Two early works in- clude Phyllis Chesler's Women and Madness (1972) and Juliet Mitchell's Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974). The anthology In Dora's Case (1985) provides a compelling collection of essays dating from 1957 that discuss the case that has become Freud's most infamous for feminists.

[3] See, for example, Chesler (1972).


Chesler, P. (1972). Women and Madness. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Grossberg, L., Nelson, C., and Treichler, P. (1992). Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge.

Mitchell, J. (1974). Psychoanalysis and Feminism. New York: Pantheon. [End page 44]


"...only a patient can emerge cured..."
Claude Levi-Strauss, "The Sorcerer and His Magic"

"If allowed to speak, the illnesses dissected the social setting in which they occurred."
Karl Figlio, "How Does Illness Mediate Social Relations?"

EL 293 Literature and Media -- section 01
American Psychos and The Culture of Mental Illness
Chris Amirault
MW 9:30-11:20

I. Course description

Since the late 19th century, the rise of professional medicine in the U.S. has coincided with a steadily growing concern regarding the "mental illness" of Americans, a catch-all phrase that has encompassed a wide variety of ailments from nervousness to depression to psychosis. This course will be devoted to reading the work of writers and filmmakers who have confronted the peculiarly American relation between "mental illness" and modernity.

We will explore texts that attempt to represent the experience of mental illness in late 19th and 20th century America. In doing so, we will locate them not primarily within a medical "explanation" of mental illness. Instead, we will take very seriously the implications of Claude Levi-Strauss's observation that "only a patient can emerge cured" and explore the means by which the category of "mental illness" is constructed and inhabited in the U.S. In addition, to borrow from Karl Figlio, we will try to understand as the illnesses speak to us through these texts, discussing how such texts offer ways to critique both medical explanations of "mental illness" and the culture in which we live, one that validates those explanations.

These texts raise troubling questions about the relations between the construction of mental illness in society and issues of femininity and masculinity, the U.S. medical system, normality and deviance, sexuality, and the culture of violence. In the end, many of these texts suggest that, contrary to being "deviant," the experience of mental illness may be quintessentially American; our task will be to determine who this "American psycho" might be. [End page 45]

II. Course Requirements and Expectations:

Books: Students must purchase the following required texts, available at the bookstore:

Martin Duberman, Cures (1991).
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night (1934).
Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962).
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1971).
Flora Schreiber, Sybil (1973).

Students must also purchase a course xerox packet at Clark Graphics, on Oakland at Locust (CP).

Students are strongly encouraged to purchase a style manual such as the MLA Handbook. You are expected to write your papers using the MLA style of citation (or another standard style if you are already proficient in it) and should make yourself familiar with it outside of class. Papers that do not employ a consistent and adequate manner of citation will be marked down.

Visual Texts: We will screen the following films:

Irving Rapper, Now Voyager (1942).
Frederick Wiseman, Titicut Follies (1967).
Sam Fuller, Shock Corridor (1963).
Daniel Petrie, Sybil (1976).
Milos Forman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975).
Nunnally Johnson, Three Faces of Eve (1957).
Anatole Litvak, The Snake Pit (1948).

In addition to in-class screenings, there will be 2 evening screenings in library room E175: on Monday, 10/18, at 6 pm (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and Monday, 12/6, at 6 pm (Sybil). All students must attend these screenings. Finally, students should watch Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) on their own by 9/29; if you have ever seen this film, you do not need to watch it again.

III. Assignments

Although this course is primarily meant to explore a certain "content" -- here an exploration of various texts concerning mental illness -- as a 200-level English course it is also meant to help you learn to read and write more effectively. As such, written assignments for the course will play a major pedagogical [End page 46] role. These assignments fall into four categories.

A. Weekly Letters: Every Monday you are required to pass in an informal weekly letter addressed to me that discusses some element of the class or the readings. Since these are meant merely to provide me with an opportunity to get a sense of how the class is going for you, they can be handwritten, and I will not grade them but will respond to them briefly.

B. Responses: Most Wednesdays, you will have to write a formal, 1-2 page response paper that presents a close reading of a section from that week's texts. The primary function of these weekly responses is to give you an opportunity to practice the kind of reading and writing I expect from students, in a format that is shorter and less time-consuming than full-fledged papers. Furthermore, because each response is worth a mere 2% of your grade, and because I will score only the top ten grades, there is less at stake in each one; even if it takes you three or four weeks to start writing strong responses, you can still do well overall. Because I have come to understand that my particular expectations of close reading and careful writing establish new and often challenging criteria for many students used to different grading standards, I have tried here to explain as carefully as possible those criteria.

These weekly papers consist of two parts, each of which will be graded separately. The longer section should be a close reading of a piece of the text for that week -- a sentence, paragraph, page, shot, or scene -- in which you analyze the intricacies located there; you can write on any text we've read or screened for that week, but please do not replicate discussions we've had in class. This section will be graded on the standard letter grade system described below.

When we read a text, we often assume that everyone else sees the same thing, but that is rarely true. Your task is first and foremost to show the reader how you made meaning from the text, and that requires careful attention. Furthermore, when we read, we have a tendency to read quickly, and as a result we often miss subtle things about the text that closer attention reveals. Your reading should be a slow one that focuses on the confusions, tensions, contradictions, difficulties, even silences of the text. (Interestingly enough, this is often called a "symptomatic reading," after Sigmund Freud's method of reading his patients' symptoms and dreams.) [End page 47] Thus, the responses should demonstrate how the passage you've chosen makes meaning, raises certain questions, and challenges other readings. They should not retell a scene or summarize the plot, nor review general "themes" or "issues," nor evaluate the text; such responses will receive low grades. So that I can follow you, you need to do a few things. Be sure to incorporate the text you're exploring by inserting each piece of it (a quote, a brief description of a scene or shot) in the appropriate place in your response. Most responses should refer to only a few pieces. As you write your response, continue to refer back to the specific elements -- words, phrases, sentences, shots -- that support your reading. Take me with you. In your response, you may see connections to larger issues or "themes" raised by the text, and you should feel free to explore their meanings and implications -- but only insofar as they are explicitly addressed in the passage you're reading. In doing so, you'll have to distinguish between things that you can draw from the text and those that you bring to the text.

The second part, the discussion question, should follow from your reading, and thus it should be explicitly related to the text you've been discussing as well. Ask yourself: what are the implications of the things you've found? in what ways is this passage raising questions that could be asked elsewhere in the text? Resist the urge to move beyond the text except insofar as the text itself makes that move; questions such as "Is this really true?" don't help us to concentrate on the text unless the text itself makes such claims. This question will be graded on a plus/check/minus system and scored separately from the responses in the final grades.

I will accept as many weekly responses as you wish to write, up to a possible total of 14. You must write at least four responses on literary texts and four on critical/theoretical texts. At the end of the semester, I'll drop your lowest grades until you're left with ten responses; as a result, if you choose to write one each week, at the end of the semester I'll drop your 4 lowest response grades before I calculate your final grade. Since I will grade your papers with a similar attention to these issues, I urge you to work on these responses and to hand in all 14; after all, they often make great first drafts for ideas you can develop at length later. If you still have questions, visit during office hours or set up an appointment with me.

C. Papers: In the past, both previous students and I have not been satisfied with the paper structure I've [End page 48] set up, one that you're likely familiar with (2 5-7 page papers, 1 10-12 page paper), in part because the page limit was difficult to negotiate. So, in an effort to be more flexible, I have established the following paper assignment structure.

You are required to write three papers throughout the semester (due 10/11, 11/22, and 12/22). Each paper must be at least 5 and no greater than 10 pages long; at the end of the semester, you must have written at least 24 pages total. For either the first or the second papers you may take a one week late slip and pass in your paper the following week; simply write me a brief note on the day the paper is due.

Paper topics are up to you. You probably will want to stick to the texts we're reading in class for the first two, but you may move beyond those in your final paper. "Experimental" formats and modes are hesitatingly encouraged; however, you will still be obliged to make sense to this reader.

D. Proposals: For each paper you must write a proposal, due a week before the paper. These proposals should be one full page (no more, no less) and single spaced. In your proposal, propose a paper; don't feel compelled to write a summary of a paper that you haven't written yet. Some things to explore in a proposal include:

a detailed explanation of what you think your purpose/thesis/argument will be;
a list of the texts you'll be reading;
a description of the analytical process you expect to pursue in your reading;
some of the problems you are encountering or you expect to encounter;
a set of central questions you hope to ask and consider;
an explanation of why you're writing this paper.

On the day a proposal is due, you should bring in four (4) copies of the proposal. I will read one copy, and three of your classmates will read a copy. The following week, everyone will return their responses to all respective writers. You will then have one additional week to write your paper. Proposals will be graded on a plus/check/minus system and will be incorporated as part of your "etcetera" grade below. [End page 49]

IV. Class Time

A. General: This class will be conducted as a seminar, and class time will focus primarily on discussion and, less so, on brief lectures. Class will usually follow the same basic structure. If I have any material I wish to present in a lecture format, I will do so at the beginning of class. After that, I will usually ask you to write for five minutes on one or two discussion questions that I'll provide from my reading and from your responses. The rest of class will be devoted to exploring the implications of the discussion questions for the day's text(s); periodically I may ask you to stop and write about the discussion itself.

B. Participation: I expect everyone to come prepared for class by having read the text(s) for the day, written any assignments, and considered topics for discussion. Your participation grade will be based on your preparation for and participation in the various classroom activities.

C. Attendance: Regular attendance is required. You are allowed a total of five (5) absences. That may seem like a strict attendance policy, but five absences works out to almost 20% of the course, a hefty chunk. After that, each additional absence will result in your final grade dropping by 1/3 (from a BP to a C+, for example). As a result, I urge you not to be absent unless you absolutely cannot make class. You are required to complete all assigned work regardless of your absences. If you have a family or health emergency, please let me know so that we can figure something out.

V. Grades

A. Paper and Response Grading: Papers will be graded on a standard letter grading scale with pluses and minuses. Here I attempt to explain my grading system:

An A means that I find that the paper is completely understandable and coherent, and that it develops ideas I find interesting and thoughtful. An A paper negotiates the texts and issues it discusses with clarity and precision. It has few (if any) errors and exhibits a strong, consistent sense of the reader in terms of structure, transitions, and tone.

A B means that while overall I understood the paper, in a few spots I got lost or confused, often because of contradictions in logic or lack of support for statements; this usually makes the paper seem less [End page 50] thoughtful. A B paper demonstrates less clarity and precision than an A paper. It addresses the assignment and has few errors. Finally, it exhibits some sense of the reader in terms of structure, transitions, and tone but may in a few spots be inconsistent.

A C means that I found the paper difficult to understand. It addresses the assignment, but often doesn't seem to have a specific focus, thesis, or purpose. It doesn't seem to develop a specific relation to the text or to the issues it discusses. There are usually many inconsistencies of tone, organization, or logic, all of which prevent the reader from being able to make sense of the paper. It can have a few, or many, errors.

A D means that I didn't understand the paper at all. This usually happens because the paper doesn't address the assignment or the texts in any clear or coherent way. Some D papers seem to be the result of a lack of effort; others are simply so inconsistent as to be unintelligible.

An F paper is, well, an F. I know an F paper when I see one, but I've never given one.

Although my grading system may not be familiar to you, it is not arbitrary, and I make every effort to be as clear and consistent as I can about grades. If you ever have a question about why you received the grade you did, please come and talk to me

. B. Final grades:

Responses: ten highest grades at 2% each 20%
Paper with Highest Grade: 30%
Other Two Papers: two at 20% each 40%
Participation, etcetera: 10%

Weekly Course Outline

I. Introduction to Theories of Mental Illness.

Week 1: Introduction.

9/8: First class.

Week 2: Theory Introduction.

9/13: Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry.
Sigmund Freud, "Repression" (1915), excerpt from "On Beginning the Treatment" (1913), "Remembering, [End page 51] Repeating, and Working-Through" (1914); Paul McHugh and Phillip Slavney, "The Concept of Disease" (from The Perspectives of Psychiatry, 1986) (CP).

9/15: Sociological, Anthropological, and Critical Perspectives.
Claude Levi-Strauss, "The Sorcerer and His Magic" (1963); Peter Conrad and Joseph Schneider, from Deviance and Medicalization (1992); Thomas Szasz, "Introduction" (from The Myth of Mental Illness, 1974); Claude Steiner, "Radical Therapy: Principles" (1971); Michel Foucault, "Madness and Culture" (from Mental Illness and Psychology, 1954) (CP).
Response due.

Week 3: The Case of Neurasthenia.

9/20: Neurasthenia: Theory and History.
S. Weir Mitchell, from Lectures on Diseases of the Nervous System, Especially in Women (1888); George Beard, from Sexual Neurasthenia (1898); Sigmund Freud, "'Civilized' Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness" (1908); Barbara Sicherman, "The Uses of a Diagnosis: Doctors, Patients, and Neurasthenia" (1977) (CP).

9/22: Neurasthenia: Fiction and Autobiography.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892); Margaret Cleaves, from Autobiography of a Neurasthene (1910); Sally Pierce, A Patient Looks at Her Doctors (1930) (CP).
Response due.

Week 4: Now, Voyager.

9/27: Screening of Irving Rapper, Now Voyager (117 min., 1942).

9/29: Discussion of Now, Voyager and Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho (1960).
Sigmund Freud, "Femininity" (1933); Naomi Weisstein, "Psychology Constructs the Female: or, the Fantasy Life of the Male Psychologist" (1973) (CP).
Proposal for paper 1 due (bring four copies).
Response due.

II. Men and Mental Illness.

Week 5: Cures.

10/4: Martin Duberman, Cures (1991) 1-157. Proposal responses due. [End page 52]

10/6: Cures 158-301.
Response due.

Week 6: Titicut Follies.

10/11: Screening of Frederick Wiseman, Titicut Follies (110 min?, 1967)
. First paper due.

10/13: Discussion of Titicut Follies and Mary Ellen Mark, Ward 81 (1979).
American Psychiatric Association and the National Association for Mental Health, "Position Statement on the Medical Treatment of the Mentally Ill" (1961); Erving Goffman, "The Medical Model and Mental Hospitalization" (1961); Sander Gilman, "Seeing the Schizophrenic: On the 'Bizarre' in Psychiatry and Art" (1988) (CP).
Response due.

Week 7: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

10/18: Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), 9-137.

Evening screening: Monday, 10/18, 6 pm
Milos Forman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (133 min., 1975).

10/20: Kesey, 138-272.
Response due.

Week 8: Shock Corridor.

10/25: Screening of Sam Fuller, Shock Corridor (101m, 1963).

10/27: Discussion of Shock Corridor. William Cockerham, "The Mental Hospital Inpatient Experience" (from Sociology of Mental Disorder, 1989); "The Eatherly Testimony" (1961); Thomas Scheff, "Schizophrenia as Ideology" (1970) (CP).
Response due.

III. Women and Mental Illness.

Week 9: Tender is the Night.

11/1: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night, 3-157.

11/3: Fitzgerald, 158-315; Fitzgerald, "The Crack-Up" (CP).
Response due. [End page 53]

Week 10: The Snake Pit.

11/8: Screening of Anatole Litvak, The Snake Pit (108 min., 1948).

11/10: Discussion of The Snake Pit.
Sigmund Freud, "The Dynamics of Transference" (1913), "Observations on Transference-Love" (1915); Phyllis Chesler, "Marriage and Psychotherapy" (1971) (CP).
Proposal for paper 2 due (bring four copies). Response due.

Week 11: The Bell Jar.

11/15: Plath, The Bell Jar (1971), 1-103.
Proposal responses due.

11/17: Plath, 104-200.
Response due.

Week 12: The Three Faces of Eve. 11/22: Screening of Nunnally Johnson, The Three Faces of Eve (91 min., 1957).
Second paper due.

11/24: Discussion of Three Faces of Eve.
Response due.

Week 13: Sybil.

11/29: Flora Schreiber, Sybil (1973), 9-123.

12/1: Schreiber, 127-263.
Response due.

Week 14: Sybil.

12/6: Schreiber, 267-352.
evening screening: Monday, 12/6, 6 pm: Library E175:

Daniel Petrie, Sybil (198 min., 1976).

12:8: Schreiber, 355-450.
Proposal for paper 3 due (bring four copies).
Response due.

Week 15: Last Class.

12/13: Evaluating the State of Psychotherapy.
Sigmund Freud, "Recommendations to Physicians Practicing Psycho-Analysis" (1912); Newsweek, "Sex and [End page 54] Psychotherapy" (1992); Cynthia Cotts, "Paul's Case" (1992); Erica Goode, "Does Psychotherapy Work?" (1993) (CP).
Proposal responses due.
Response due.

Third Paper Due
Wednesday, December 22 by 4:00 pm

You can turn your paper in to my box any time prior to 12/22. I will not accept late papers. If you want your paper returned with comments, include a self-addressed stamped envelope with your paper, and I will be happy to mail it to you with copious marginalia. [End page 55]