↑ An image I created to accompany my presentation in UNC’s 3 Minute Thesis competition (Fall 2018).
Extra/Ordinary Minds: Mad Genius Rhetoric and Women’s Memoirs of Mental Illness
Abstract: This dissertation examines how autobiographical narratives by/for persons with mental illness draw from set of cultural clichés (topoi) I call “Mad Genius” rhetoric. As popular as it is controversial, Mad Genius rhetoric imagines an age-old link between “madness,” or apparently problematic mental states, and extraordinary gifts of creativity, intelligence, and other talents. I ask: How is Mad Genius rhetoric taken up by real mentally ill people, especially women, in self- referential texts? What conditions encourage authors to construct Mad Genius personae in life writing, and what rhetorical purpose do such personae serve?
Examining these questions through a lens of mental health rhetoric, I build case studies grounded in four highly influential mental illness memoirs: Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, Nana-Ama Danquah’s Willow Weep for Me, and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation. I argue each author’s narration enacts a Mad Genius persona at the nexus of her severe psychic pain and her personal gifts, explicating both how she draws on Mad Genius topoi in her writing and the contextual factors that apparently encourage her to do so.
Specifically, my studies explore four discrete Mad Genius topoi: 1) the Tortured Artist, which posits that genius leads to madness; 2) the Brainiac, which posits that madness confers genius; 3) the Survivor, in which madness and genius are thought to share a common source in external trauma; 4) the Ex-Gifted Kid, in which madness/genius are thought to be innate and inextricably intertwined. As a preface to my case studies, each chapter also analyzes Mad Genius rhetoric in some contemporary pop culture archive, emphasizing both the enduring popularity of these four topoi and the centrality of auto/biographical narratives in their widespread circulation.
Notions of personal specialness do seem to carry mentally ill authors through acute crises, but my readings reveal the rhetorical functions of Mad Genius, demystifying its enduring popularity amid broader cultural stigmas against mental illness. Reading these popular books as individualized responses to systemic rhetorical exclusion, I conclude that Mad Genius topoi are evidently effective, yet ultimately unsustainable frameworks through which to cope with severe psychic pain.
“Facilitating Rhetoric: Paratherapeutic Activity in Community Support Groups.” In Mental Health Rhetoric Research: Toward Strategic Interventions, ed. Lisa Melonçon and Cathryn Molloy (Southern Illinois University Press, forthcoming).
- Abstract: This study examines the rhetoric of community support groups from the perspective of a group facilitator. I draw from my subjective experiences as a scholar of mental health rhetoric and gender studies who has facilitated nearly 170 hours of support groups for survivors of domestic violence at an agency in the southeastern United States. Combining textual analysis of support group literature—specifically, a facilitator training manual—with autoethnographic inquiry, I argue that the paratherapeutic rhetoric of support groups can serve an essential function in clarifying members’ mental health needs. By paratherapeutic rhetoric, I mean communication that looks like therapy, sounds like therapy, has therapeutic aims and/or effects, yet is categorically not therapy. Through rhetorical practices I call Creating space, Offering words, and Paying forward, group facilitators affirm the rhetoricity of individuals whose communications were previously discredited by abusers while also relieving acute, if not necessarily clinically significant, psychic pain.
Broken Promise: Depression as Ex-Gifted Girl Identity in Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation. In The Faces of Depression in Literature, ed. Josefa Ros Velasco (Peter Lang, 2020).*
- Abstract: In this chapter, I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s 1994 memoir Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America for a feminist critique of Mad Genius mythology, examining how this text draws on the cliché that formerly “gifted” children grow into depressed, burned-out adults. In particular, I argue Prozac Nation enacts a series of archetypal “Gifted Girl” dilemmas—as indexed by feminist psychologists in the 1970s and beyond—in which a high-achieving young girl is increasingly traumatized by her caretakers’ ambivalence towards her talents. Consciously departing from existing scholarly analyses of this book, I situate my study as an intervention in popular press reviews of the 1990s that, in their harsh criticisms of Prozac Nation, unintentionally highlight the Gifted Girl dilemmas at its center. Informed by these reviews as well as feminist psychology research from the same era, I read backward from Wurtzel’s adulthood to her childhood and explore how the text connects her depression and giftedness across these life stages. Lastly, I sketch an interpretation of Wurtzel’s recovery as a dissolution of the Gifted Girl’s depression into unrestrained passions: fury towards the people who failed her, grief for the child she once was, and compassion for the adult she is becoming.
*The arguments presented in this book chapter are connected to those in my dissertation chapter on Prozac Nation, but they were significantly condensed and adapted for the purposes of this collection.