After going undercover as a guy for her debut book, Self-Made Man, Norah Vincent sank into a depression so severe she was briefly hospitalized. While staying in the ward, she said to herself, ”Jesus, what a freak show. All I have to do is sit here and take notes, and I’m Balzac.” And voilà! The idea for her second book, Voluntary Madness, was born. In order to look at the current state of mental health care — as well as cope with her own depression — Vincent checked into three very different institutions: a ward in a public city hospital, a private Midwestern institution, and a pricey New Age clinic. Though she didn’t exactly find cruelty of Nurse Ratched proportions, she did observe massive indifference toward patients.
What could easily have turned into a preachy, holier-than-thou memoir, however, is saved by Vincent’s unabashed honesty: She willingly admits that she was often disgusted by her fellow patients, and even used a paper towel to hold the community phone in one institution. Yet she still lumps herself into the bunch that ”wanted to be saved and provided for, but made the minimum effort on their own behalf. I’d say that made them pretty normal.” It’s this understanding, combined with Vincent’s charming humor, that makes Madness such a compelling read. B+