Illness as Narrative: On Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s ‘Quite Mad’

In her debut full-length memoir, Quite Mad, Sarah Fawn Montgomery details the many struggles and blessings of living with a mental disorder. Since being diagnosed with anxiety, PTSD, and OCD as a young woman, Montgomery has undertaken a journey to live more comfortably with those aspects of herself, pursuing different avenues of healing, many of them pharmaceutical in nature. In the process, she deconstructs the factors of her condition, examining her family history, stressors in her unorthodox childhood, and traumas in her adulthood. In conjunction with exploring her own illness narrative, she examines the often neglected challenges of mental disorders from a broader perspective, addressing stigma, lack of medical help, representation in the media, and the difficulty of remembering after trauma. In speaking outside herself, Montgomery brings in outside sources, statistics, and the history of the psychiatric field, creating a sweeping view of mental illness. It is an ambitious work that extends outside the speaker to address the state of the mental healthcare system in America as a whole.

Perhaps because of her background in writing, Montgomery discusses at length the narratives we construct and the rhetoric we use to describe madness. Reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, Montgomery critiques such seemingly harmless colloquialisms as calling something “crazy” or claiming one has OCD when one is particular about order or cleanliness. This language serves to both stigmatize and minimize the reality of mental illness, generating stock images of what each condition looks like based entirely on public expectation. Montgomery is a writer and academic who is analytical in her approach to her own history, and she writes with an appreciation of nuance, exploring the gray areas and contradictions of mental illness.

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