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The phenomenon of false allegations of mental illness is as old as our first interactions as human beings. Every one of us has described some other person as crazy or insane, and most all of us have had periods, moments at least, of madness. But it took the confluence of the law and medical science, mad-doctors, alienists, priests and barristers, to raise the matter to a level of science,” capable of being used by conniving relatives, designing families” and scheming neighbors to destroy people who found themselves in the way, people whose removal could provide their survivors with money or property or other less frivolous benefits. Girl Interrupted in only a recent example. And reversing this sort of diagnosis and incarceration became increasingly more difficult, as even the most temperate attempt to leave these homes” or hospitals” was deemed crazy.” Kept in a madhouse, one became a little mad, as Jack Nicholson and Ken Kesey explain in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.
In this sadly terrifying, emotionally moving, and occasionally hilarious book, twelve cases of contested lunacy are offered as examples of the shifting arguments regarding what constituted sanity and insanity. They offer unique insight into the fears of sexuality, inherited madness, greed and fraud, until public feeling shifted and turned against the rising alienists who would challenge liberty and freedom of people who were perhaps simply difficult,” but were turned into victims of this unscrupulous trade.
This fascinating book is filled with stories almost impossible to believe but wildly engaging, a book one will not soon forget.
Sarah Wise studied at Birkbeck College at the University of London. Her most recent book, The Blackest Streets was shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize (2009) and her first book, The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in London was shortlisted for the 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize and won the Crime Writer’s Gold Dagger for nonfiction. She lives in London.