Negotiating Madness:Doctors, patients and the construction of gendered insanity in fin de siècle
Women's Studies Åbo Akademi University Åbo, Finland
Department of Cultural History University of Turku Turku, Finland
The paper explores who or what "owns" or legitimizes the story of mental illness. In so doing, it aims at critically examining how knowledge of illness is produced by particular subjects and discourses, thereby putting who/what the subject of the story is under scrutiny. The paper focuses on female patients in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, using various historical materials. Gender and its relations to patient subjectivity, the psychiatric discourse and illness are addressed. In this paper we point to different discourses and narratives produced both by patients and psychiatrists.
One of our interests lies in exploring how female mental patients were (re)presented in the Finnish psychiatric rhetoric of the early twentieth century; hereby examining how women´s mental disorders were narrated in powerful discourses. Psychiatric texts are here regarded as collections of different narratives, several voices, and various representations of the "insane". Secondly, we draw upon women´s self-written stories of their mental illnesses; more specifically we examine some female writers from the late nineteenth century. Women writers we discuss lived with mental illness, but expressed their suffering very differently: some of them described it in intimate diaries whereas some of them wrote in public. These women struggled to be acknowledged as knowing subjects of mental misery and as narrators of their illness. Based on this autobiographical material we suggest that illness can be seen as a disease of the Self; something which is integrated to subjectivity and identity through writing and narrating. It can also be the focus of a social drama were the borderlines of normality and abnormality, health and sickness are negotiated.
By contrasting and discussing both authoritative and personal accounts of mental illness, we wish to broaden the notion of knowledge production in regard to madness and mental suffering. Our paper points to power and gender relations in particular encounters - some narratives and voices become heard, whereas others are being marginalized and silenced.