Monday, August 1, 2011

Voluntary Madness

Posted by Kurt

I almost never give up on books without finishing, but after suffering through a little over sixty pages of this garbage, I tossed it aside. The basic idea of the book is intriguing - a journalist checks herself into three psychiatric facilities in an effort to get a close look at mental health treatment in the United States today. I bought my bargain-priced copy of this book because Matt is a psychiatrist, because I am a public defender who has many clients who spend significant periods of time in hospitals, and because I love investigative journalism works by talented authors like Barbara Ehrenreich, Ted Conover, Piper Kerman, and A.J. Jacobs.

This book, though, is just vile. 

Vincent starts out with a clear "smarter than the doctors and everyone else" agenda, which is grating to me on a personal level and makes all of her observations suspect from a purely journalistic standpoint. She has valid concerns about whether or not doctors know all of the side effects of the drugs they prescribe, but when she vents in such a snotty way, I have no interest in listening. She also details a history of psychiatric medications and inpatient treatments that make her "ha ha, these stupid doctors don't even know that I'm not crazy" attitude that much more repulsive (and when she rants about the chemical processes used to create a dinner roll provided for patients at a meal, she sounds pretty mentally ill to me - her point is a fair one, that good nutrition could have a valuable impact on a patient's physical and mental health, but when she makes the point in such a shrill and out-of-nowhere way, she loses credibility).

Also, even if I weren't thoroughly repulsed by her character as presented in the first few dozen pages, I would still have abandoned the book because it is written so poorly. Immersive journalism works because a journalist gathers first-hand observations, laying out for the reader a number of facts and conclusions. Then the writer has earned the right to expand his/her analysis to question the systemic implications of these observations. Vincent just throws everything into a jumble. She'll begin to describe, say, an intake interview at a hospital, and she will suddenly veer off into a philosophical discussion of how and why we give doctors power, and what our system is like, then she'll return to the narrative. It is poor writing that would be savagely edited in a college class, and it is insulting to pay money for a book and find such a low level of professionalism.

I respect Vincent's goals, to an extent. She clearly believes that the mental health care system in the United States is broken, and I applaud her efforts to personalize the problem and present it to a wider audience. Her lack of self-awareness, her refusal to set aside her personal agenda, and her failure to abide by a simple "facts first, then discussion of implications" structure, though, make this an unreadable mess, and I wish that I had never wasted time or money on it.

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