Gail Hornstein, AGNES’ JACKET

Gail Hornstein

Gail Hornstein

Gail Hornstein talks about AGNES’ JACKET: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness.

The dominant view of mental disorders is that they are genetic diseases caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Imbalances for which psychiatric medication is the primary–and often only–treatment. But psychologist Gail Hornstein says that madness is more code than chemistry. There’s meaning in madness — meaning that’s largely overlooked by the mental health profession because patients’ accounts of their own experiences aren’t listened to. After all, why listen to people who are, by definition in the professional’s view, irrational?

Gail Hornstein has been listening to them. She’s teaches psychology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. In the course of her work, she became fascinated with accounts written by mental patients themselves–personal memoirs, theoretical treatises on mental illness, and documents advocating for the rights of mental patients. One of the most famous is I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, by Hannah Green (pen name of Joanne Greenberg), which was a bestselling book and then a Hollywood movie. Hornstein wrote a biography of the real psychologist behind the book’s thinly veiled fictionalized version, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann.

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Hornstein found that not all patient accounts are on the printed page. One of the most intriguing is the hand-tailored jacket created by 19th century mental patient Agnes Richter in Austria. Richter embroidered her experience of madness on every centimeter of the garment’s fabric in a kind of code. It struck Hornstein as not only a beautiful work of art, but also a wonderful metaphor for the intense desire of mental patients to make sense of their own experiences.

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