THE LOONY-BIN TRIP
By Kate Millett
Simon and Schuster. 316 pp. $19.95
ONCE UPON a time literature had its seasons: poetry for youth, fiction and essays for the mature years and autobiography for old age. Benjamin Franklin wrote his autobiography in his sixties and seventies; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, hers at the venerable age of 80. Increasingly, this literary calendar has given way to the tell-as-you-go chronicle, of which Kate Millett's The Loony-Bin Trip is an unusually provocative specimen.
Millett, now 55, has already written two other autobiographies -- Flying and Sita -- in the 20 years since the publication of Sexual Politics catapulted her into international fame. As a cutting-edge feminist theoretician, a much headlined political activist, a bold writer and artist, Millett the celebrity became the colorful persona of her outrageous narratives. Not only did we come to know her, but she also brought to public attention a bevy of intimate portraits depicting her bicoastal friends -- artists, civil rights activists, an ex-husband and lesbian lovers, as well as her more conventional Irish Catholic family from St. Paul, Minn. What right did she have, I wondered (recalling George Sand's judgment of Rousseau's Confessions), to "confess" so many others as she confessed herself?
Now her confessions have taken an unexpected turn. The Loony-Bin Trip tells the story of Millett's second mental breakdown, which occurred in 1980 when she voluntarily went off the drug that had been keeping her "sane" for seven years. Without the lithium prescribed for her manic-depressive condition, she experienced the "high" characterized by mile-a-minute speech, exuberant spending and grandiose illusions -- odd behavior in the eyes of her lover, Sophie, and the young apprentices gathered that summer at the women artists' colony she had founded in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The summer turns from an idyll of communal farm work, with early morning swims in a bucolic pond and late evening talks and lovemaking, to a quarrelsome dystopia. Millett skillfully records the cumulative havoc wrought by a manic person, even as she stubbornly disowns responsibility for the disintegration of her once blissful community.
Against the advice of friends and family, she takes off in the autumn for Ireland where she has speaking engagements and feminist connections. There she lands in Our Lady of Clare, in her words "a real madhouse . . . the worst bin of all . . . the end of the road." This state mental hospital is a forbidding fortress containing "thirty-five tired female captives." But the "true evil" is not the locks and bars on the doors, but the drugs that, in Millett's view, erode the will and transform one into a compliant puppet. She is determined to outwit the system, to fight against the lithium and Thorazine by hiding pills in her cheek until they can be disposed of, or by eating an inordinate number of counteractive oranges: "To remain sane in a bin is to defy its definition."
Not since Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has the literature of madness emitted such a powerful anti-institutional cry. However "high" or however suicidal -- for the manic period is invariably followed by depression -- Millett refuses the labels that would declare her insane. The entire medical model is seen as a social construct fashioned upon the criminal code and designed to treat patients as prisoners. "Having committed no crime, one can . . . lose one's liberty for an indeterminate period, even for life."
Ultimately Millett pleads for a new tolerance toward the entire range of mental activities, including madness, which she characterizes as "a certain speed of thought, certain wonderful flights of ideas. Certain states of altered perception . . . Mental activity at the margin. Or over the line."
Millett's prose is rich, her passion compelling. If it were not for the sight of thousands of severely disturbed people released from now defunct mental institutions and gracing the pavements of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, one might almost be persuaded by her writing that it is indeed drug-dispensing psychiatrists who cause, rather than alleviate, mental illness.
Raising questions about the etiology of madness, Millett is clearly in the camp of psychiatrists like Ronald Laing and Thomas Szasz, both cited in her book, who believe that we do not go crazy because of genetic predispositions but that we are driven crazy and declared insane when we deviate from oppressive systems. But this book's strength does not derive from that already tired political message. Rather, it is valuable as a literary representation of what it is like to go mad and to be institutionalized against one's will -- "the shame, the terror of being locked up," the feel of being "cornered" and "busted," "convicted but never convinced." Like Sylvia Plath some 30 years ago, and more recently Marie Cardinal in France, Millett takes us into internal landscapes where no one goes by choice. She conveys the paranoid terror of being judged cruelly by others for what seems to the afflicted person to be a reasonable act. She has added to the madness memoir gripping hallucinations, such as her recurring identification with Joan of Arc, and wild sexual fantasies, like her loving description of a horse's genitals conflated with her father's, that flout conventional ideas about bestiality and incest.
Now that Millett has presumably exorcised the obstacle that madness presented to her creativity for almost a decade, an obstacle that "stood like a boulder in the middle of the room, demanding to be attended to," we can expect further chapters in her by no means ordinary life. Marilyn Yalom is senior scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University and the author of "Maternity, Mortality, and the Literature of Madness."