Wild Minds: Writing from the Heart of Madness

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Kate Richards, MD MBBS (Hons) DipArts
Melbourne, Australia


Los Caprichos, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters)
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, 1798

The mysterious nature of madness and its association with extremes of thought and behaviour lend it narrative power: symbolic and rhetorical in fiction, the lived experience of the writer in memoir and autobiography. Madness has a complex relationship with memory and a unique way of influencing the creative process. I will begin here with the story of my experience of madness and how the narrative of my memoir, Madness, was constructed, and then offer some thoughts on the following broader questions: What is madness? How is madness represented in memoir and autobiography, compared with biography, fiction and poetry? How do truth, experience, reality and memory influence narrative construction and narrative power? What is memory, and what effect does madness have on memory? Conversely, what effect does memory have on madness? How can madness act as a means of expressing traumatic memories, emotions and experiences in literature and other art forms? And finally, can madness be a catalyst for a writer’s search for meaning?

Definitions of madness are influenced by our place and time in history, our language, religious or spiritual beliefs, our community and our culture. Madness is found in all known societies. It transgresses boundaries, knows no barriers, and does not discriminate. We may say that madness is a biological illness of the brain, affecting perception, thinking, emotion and behaviour, or an inability to distinguish what is real (reality) from what is false (fantasy), or a form of immorality or demonic possession or divine inspiration, or according to Scottish psychiatrist, R.D. Laing, ‘A perfectly sane adjustment to an insane world,’ or a voice that sounds in conflict with the vested interests of the state, or an understandable part of suffering and the human condition; a reaction to extremes of experience such as war, famine, persecution, isolation, natural disaster, grief and loss. After intensive screening for madness in its recruits, even the American military had to concede at the end of World War II that every man hasabreaking point.

The poet laureate Wallace Stevens said:

‘The mind is a violence from within that protects us
from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back
against the pressure of reality.’

The universal features of the experience of madness are found in early classical understanding of the mind and body, in religious beliefs, in the humoral theory of disease, and more recently in the physiological, psychiatric, and pharmacological approaches of today. French philosopher Michel Foucault writes that in the European Renaissance, people defined as ‘mad’ were portrayed in art as possessing a kind of wisdom – a particular knowledge of the limits of our world – and in literature as revealing the distinction between what people really are and what they pretend to be.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the body and mind (psyche) are not thought of as separate entities. Madness is a loss of a person’s internal balance and of his or her harmony with the cosmos and the natural world – resulting in an excess of one of the seven emotions, including anger, fear, sadness or joy.

For myself, madness is a real world for the many thousands of people who are right now living within it and dying within it. It never apologises. Sometimes it is a shadow, ever present, without regard for the sun. Sometimes it is a well of dark water with no bottom, or a levitation device to the stars. It takes away the rational minds of ordinary people. It takes our hearts, knowing death so well.

When I first became unwell, I thought the black horror of depression was Life and for a long time I groped through a dense fog of sorrow and malaise, fighting against the days and nights until the black horror became The Whole World – of consciousness and of sleep. Over the years of illness, I sometimes needed weeks in a hospital – a place of containment and relative safety – until the medication took effect. After that, I removed myself from myself. I couldn’t trust my mind. The sickness took me over whenever it chose. There was no such thing as Future. And I’d stuck a knife so deeply between thinking and feeling, I became afraid of love. Depression perforates your emotional skin and every day it sucks out a little more of your resilience and a little more of your ability to feel pleasure and a little more of your hope for a future. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Styron calls it ‘despair beyond despair’.

There are changes in brain chemistry, in neurotransmitters and stress hormones. There is also a loss of a sense of self, of wholeness and centeredness, a fracturing of the mind and soul and sometimes a fear that the body, too, is fracturing.

This is what I thought about most nights: when is the right time to go? My gun was always loaded (metaphorically). In my sick mind there was just no alternative. And I assumed everyone felt the same and so I was amazed by how many people made it to the age of forty, fifty, sixty, seventy or eighty. I thought it an extraordinary thing that they endured. I didn’t know how to look for happiness in the simplest things. I didn’t understand the subtle beauty and quiet of spirituality. I didn’t have control over my mind because I believed that a number of other people had taken up residence in my head. They were keen to boss me around. They were loud. They were like Medusa: snake-headed, potent-gazed. It was dark outside for most of the hours I sat or lay in that cubicle-like room in the hospital with the lockable door.

Sometimes I was a human being with a soul and a mind and a reddened heart and sometimes I was an animal bleeding out under the white sheet. Sometimes the inexorable current of illness took me out to sea. It was faceless and nameless and three metres tall, with the breadth and depth of the ocean.

Memories like these are haunting, spectre-like, raith-ish. So real – but not real. Before me and behind me wherever I go and yet out of reach. In the days after I’d been discharged from hospital, I walked once a week to my psychologist’s consulting suite, blinking in the sunlight of the outer world like a newborn, astounded at the pace of life around me and the thousands of competing stimuli. Her room was a haven: softly furnished, quiet. In it, I did not feel like a recently-mad woman. Instead, I understood I’d arrived back at a place of safety and healing. We talked about the grief of long-term illness. The things I’d lost along the way. The search for meaning. She regularly, and with conviction, articulated hope that I could get better. It is indeed a profound thing to come to understand that the illness is a part but not the whole of who you are.

Mental illness affects many of the functions of the brain and mind that we often take for granted: thinking and reasoning and emotion, sleep, appetite, pleasure and pain and belief and behaviour. Those of us with lived experience of madness support each other in unique ways and often develop bonds of lasting fellowship. We understand a hug can be like a warm bath, a goldenness, the terror of only being alive, of blood, of fear, of belonging, of longing, of love, a burst of light, a black hole, a wholeness, a holiness, a yearning, a communion or a drowning or the thing that saves a life.

Over all of the years of my illness, I carried around notebooks in which I wrote poems, observations, conversations, odd phrases, existential questions, and in which I tried to make sense of the chaos in my head. Many of us with long-term illness read books about the lived experience of similar illness to know that we are not so alone — and to learn from others’ journeys towards wellness. This idea of connectedness became the catalyst for my book, Madness: a memoir. Could I express the ragged rawness of my experience, the intensity, the in-the-moment exhilaration and confusion and black despair, the disabling sorrow? Could shedding some direct light on these kinds of experiences allow people from all walks of life to see and hopefully understand them from the inside? In its original incarnation, Madness was a book of madness from the first page to the last. It began with an attempt to cut off my own arm and ended some 70,000 stream-of-consciousness-words later on the summit of a mountain. As a work of literature it was essentially unreadable because there was only one narrator and she was an unreliable one: telling a story of madness with a mind afflicted with madness.

Construction of a sound narrative requires an examination of the differences between experience and reality, memory and time. So I learned that to write about madness, I must first find a place of reason and stability with enough of a gap in both space and time to be able to look back on the experience of madness with a measure of objectively. Here’s the difficulty however: our memories inevitably morph and fade. So, as writers, we must ask ourselves: How do we retain integrity and truthfulness in our work? How can we write about our lives with authenticity when we are dependent on unreliable recollections? How can we reassure our readers that our stories are based on the ‘truth?’ And indeed, whose truth are we narrating?

Memories are encoded and stored by making new neural connections between different parts of the brain: the visual cortex, the motor cortex, the auditory cortex, the amygdala and the hippocampus (governing emotion) and the language areas. As well as short-term and long-term memory, we all have purely sensory memories, unconscious memories, memories triggered by a trace of perfume or the lightest touch or a piece of music, and memories of memories. Indeed, we only know ourselves, who we are, and what our lives have been, because we can remember.

Autobiographical memories of the events and experiences of our lives, are encoded and stored as a mixture of fact, emotion, language and belief. Both the formation and recall of each memory is influenced by our mood, our surroundings and the meaning we choose to attach to the memory. Recall is therefore an interpretation and a reconstruction of events that took place at any given time point.

When strong emotions are associated with a particular experience – fear or shock or pain – we often remember that experience with vividness and detail and certainty. Interestingly, these kinds of memories are not more likely than any other memory to be factually accurate. Their intensity can (in turn) affect the function of the emotional centres of the brain. To summarize: emotion modulates memory, and memory modulates emotion.

Madness, as a condition of the mind affects the encoding of memory, the consolidation of memory and our ability to remember. Psychosis and depression can impair a memory’s context and nuance. The string of events in the memory may be relatively accurate, but the emotional significance we attach to it and the way we interpret it are distorted. This can lead to a gap between our remembered experience and reality, and may have a profound effect on how we understand our personal histories. Perhaps even our family and community histories.

My recall of events and experiences that occurred when I was unwell is not always the same as that of others who were there. Many of those memories seemed part-fact, part-sorrow, part-fear, and part-dream, but there are three things that bring them into clearer focus: reading the poetry and prose I’d written during those times of madness, listening to the music that I’d loved and re-visiting the places in Melbourne that had held particular significance.

The retrieval of some of these memories is something close to re-traumatisation: they are emotionally intense, visually intense and harrowing, although these memories of madness recreate an internal trauma as distinct from the external trauma experienced by survivors of war and violence and imprisonment.

Regardless of the nature of the original event, recent psychological and neurobiological research has shown us that a reminder of an emotional or stressful experience elicits brain activity similar to that which took place during the original event. The neural processes involved in the recognition and experience of emotion are also involved in the retrieval of memories for emotional experiences. This includes triggering a hormonal stress response in people with healthy states of mind and in particular in people suffering from mood disorders like depression and mania.

The word ‘memoir’ in English is derived from the French, mémoire (memory or reminiscence) and the Latin, memoria. None of our memories are frozen in time. New information and suggestions become incorporated into old memories over the course of our lives. With respect to writing memoir, this means we must acknowledge the inevitable blur between imagination and reality - the difference between poetic or artistic truth - and fact. And, that remembering is really an act of creative re-imagination.

Provided this acknowledgement is made very clear to readers, we, as writers, can move forward in our quest to bring the past alive within the present, by embracing a kind of free movement between different perspectives and sensibilities - some lyrical, some analytical. We may reconstruct events and experiences to maximise narrative power from a blend of reportage, poetry, analysis, confession and rhetoric. Finding the right balance between these is part of the artistic challenge.

In my own work, this meant redressing the balance between madness and reason, and so I developed two distinct narrative voices. My publisher called one voice: ‘rational Kate’ and the other: ‘mad Kate.’ Rational Kate is the voice of reason, a medically trained writer, able to reflect on the illness (the madness) and try to make sense of it within the context of her whole life and the lives of the people she loves. This narrator bridges the gap between the external world and the internal one because readers do need insight into the why: something beyond just a description of what happened; some kind of objective analysis of the episodes of illness and their consequences, and a broader, medical discussion of madness.

Sometimes I was too close to the work to see what was missing. Sometimes I was too close to the work to see that I was writing alongside my fallibility and failures and lack of insight but I hadn't turned to face them head-on. In other words, I had to search for the truth within the madness - a painful but essential process for a writer attempting to provide meaning in creative work.

‘Mad Kate’ is the contrasting voice of unreason. A narrator whose consciousness is part-delirium and part-dream, whose sensibility is boundless, a fire of open and burning flame, an agitation of cerebral fluid, the air around filled with magic and music and colour and the boundaries of everything shifting, including those of space and time. This narrator believes she can absorb sound in all three dimensions and process each independently. She spends hours writing columns of words that rise from the page into strange spirit phrases and engulf her. It seems to her that every person, and the sky, the air, a tree in the garden, a leaf on that tree, the veins in the leaf on that tree ― each is the most significant entity, the most vital piece of existence on earth.

After an episode like this, it takes around three months to find and regain ‘Rational Kate.’ Time re-asserts itself into seconds and minutes and hours, trees are no longer animate, my speech resumes a normal rate and flow. Most importantly, the manic chaos of thought is filtered by the frontal lobe of my brain – I begin to recognize this flight of ideas (as it’s called in psychiatry) as representative of illness.

Along the city beach where I walk, the tide is right up to the stone wall and I splash through early winter water and my shoes leave a momentary impression in the sand. Seagulls call out. The wind is vigorous, there’s sand now in my mouth and hair and sand stuck to the wet ends of my jeans. I keep my mouth shut and breathe and smile at the rawness of it – sea and sky. The light is changing from sharp white to a pensive ivory and though the sea and wind are endlessly shifting, there’s a certain kind of stillness in the repeat of the waves.

The literary representations of madness in memoir and autobiography share some similarities with those in contemporary fiction. The mysterious nature of madness and its association with extremes of thought and behaviour lend it narrative power – symbolic and rhetorical in fiction, the lived experience of the writer in memoir.

Throughout human history, madness has been used as a symbol of extreme emotion and traumatic experience, a means of expressing traumatic memories or a way of recreating and explaining the intolerable and the unbearable: terror, pain, violence, abuse, grief and loss, guilt, rage, despair, shock, torture, imprisonment, isolation; death – and our flight from it.

For some people: madness, or insanity, is their only way of making sense of the irrational, the unexplainable and the inexplicable in human nature. This particular narrative representation of madness can have ethical and political implications, particularly when unsubstantiated links are made: for example, between mental illness and a propensity to deviant or violent behaviour. In fact, people with a mental illness according to Australian research, are twice as likely to be the victims of violence compared with the general population. The risk of someone with schizophrenia harming or killing another person is the same as that for the general population. One in ten people with schizophrenia however, will commit suicide: this is ten times the risk compared with the general population.

In memoir and autobiography, madness has a particular language. There is a driven quality about the work, a personal urgency and a fierceness based on the determination to recreate, to untangle and purify those experiences – both in mind and feeling – perhaps even to have them safely captured on the page. There, after all, lies a form of control for the author. Of course, such writing is an enormous risk because it requires voicing a sizable chunk of the writer’s heart and mind and soul, her most private and defining confusion and pain, which then becomes a public thing. As a writer, you hope so much the work will resonate with its readers and yet, you know it’s impossible that it will resonate for everyone.

The English poet Lord Byron wrote of himself:

It is an awful chaos - light and darkness
And mind and dust and passions and pure thoughts
Mixed, and contending without end or order,
All dormant or destructive.’

Genetic analysis, neuroimaging and observation have shown us that cultural productivity in the arts and madness tend to occur in the same families. In the time of Plato and Socrates, divine communication and inspiration were thought obtainable only during particular states of mind such as a loss of consciousness, affliction with a fever, madness or possession by the Muses. Aristotle asked, ‘Why is it, that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry or the arts, are melancholic?’

The English writer Virginia Woolf suffered from melancholia, and its opposite, mania throughout her life. Her friend and fellow writer Nigel Nicolson said, ‘Virginia’s imagination was furnished with an accelerator and no brakes. It flew rapidly ahead, parting company with reality. She had a way of magnifying simple words and experiences. If you gave her a dull piece of factual information, she would hand it back to you glittering with diamonds.’

Perhaps then, the depth and breadth of perception and thought associated with madness may act as a catalyst for artists: to confront and examine both the memory and reality of extremes of experience and emotion, and to search within them for meaning. Such a search is difficult, and painful, because it challenges artists to look deeply within themselves and to sit - for a long time - with their own fears, and failures, and frustrations: the memories of times of chaos and despair. But it is exactly these memories, these fragments of thoughts and experiences and sensory impressions that - when connections are made between them - may be transformed into works of art that give us a new unity of understanding.

The artist may need to live through the experience again and again, disassembling it and reassembling it with each act of recollection, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. The creative process also requires courage to face up to the intolerable and shameful in human nature, to confront injustice, to consider the philosophical questions of the age and to wrestle with the meaning of life.

Many of the resulting works of literature - also of poetry and theatre, music and visual art and film - demonstrate not only a particular originality of ideas but also an original combination of ideas, a unique perception or expression, a transformation of very personal suffering into a meditation that is universally understood, that fosters connectedness and so gives us solace and the reassurance that we are not alone.

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