In and Out of Madness: a fictionalized account of a true experience

Jan 19, 2010

This book comes heavily blurbed, including one by a psychiatrist, and the blurbs all say essentially the same thing: "In and Out of Madness" is powerful, raw, brutal and honest. I guess it is all those things. It was not for me, however, a satisfying piece of fiction.

This book comes heavily blurbed, including one by a psychiatrist, and the blurbs all say essentially the same thing: "In and Out of Madness" is powerful, raw, brutal and honest. I guess it is all those things. It was not for me, however, a satisfying piece of fiction.

It is, as the subtitle announces, a thinly veiled account of a woman's true experiences with mental illnesses of various kinds, and although a number of people in Alabama know the actual name of the author, it is published under a nom de plume.

Let me begin with that pen name, because, chosen on purpose or not, it is amazingly appropriate. Many readers will remember that in Joseph Heller's novel "Catch-22"( 1961), Snowden was a crewmate of the protagonist Yossarian. Snowden is wounded in the thigh and Yossarian tends to that wound only to discover Snowden's worst wound is inside his flak suit. "Yossarian?heard himself scream wildly as Snowden's insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out.?Here was God's plenty?liver, lungs, kidneys ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten that day for lunch. Well that is a pretty good description of this novel. Snowden spills her guts for the reader to see.

Set in fictional Senora, a small town near Opelika, the story begins on May 5, 2003, with the protagonist, Lee Thames, 54 years old, saved from suicide by overdose in the nick of time. Her stomach is pumped; she is sent to Birmingham to see her psychiatrist. He wants her hospitalized but she escapes, drives back home in her convertible Miata, and waits with a pistol for midnight so she can kill her ex-husband when he gets off work.

Throughout the long evening of waiting she tells her story.

Lee had been sexually abused by her grandmother, who bathed her, "rubbing hard in the tender places," and then displayed her naked in front of strangers. When Lee tells her mother, she doesn't believe Lee's story and, instead, "narrow[s] her eyes into snake-like slits" and announces to the neighborhood children "'I'm fixing to tear Lee up for lying to me. I want y'all to watch what I do to bad girls.' She would actually have a grin on her face as she hissed those words." For reasons not easily understood, Juanita, the family maid, also beats Lee. "Girl, I gonna tear you up," says the faithful Mammy retainer figure.


This fictional Lee grows up with enough mental problems to merit her own DSM. She has memories blocked by an interior manifestation called The Secret Keeper along with multiple personalities, Dee Dee and Nancy, who take over from time to time. She becomes wildly bipolar, has manic highs, during which she spends tens of thousands of dollars in a frenzy, and gruesome dark depressions. She is also a very rambunctious sex addict. Lee marries a man in a wheelchair and they have an "open" marriage. She reports her activities to him when she gets home, because he is writing a book. This fails, of course. He's no healthier than she is.

Her second husband, Joe, the intended murder victim, is called a sex addict in the novel, but he seems more like a dedicated serial adulterer. They too try "open" marriage but it is, not surprisingly, a failure. Her intimate life with the wheelchair husband William, second husband Joe, and all the many others is pretty explicitly described, so be warned.

Lee and Joe do have one bright spot in their lives and that is their daughter, Jolly. Lee dotes on her, and it could be said Lee would probably have succeeded at her suicide attempts by pills, drowning, electrocution and leaping in front of an eighteen-wheeler if not for Jolly.

This account of mental illness seems "accurate" and honest but makes for difficult reading. Since the narrator is obsessive/compulsive, as the evening wears on she returns many times to the same grievances. This should be no surprise, but, just as one might find it hard, in real life, to listen to Lee Thames talk for five hours about her problems, so it can become tedious to read 340 pages of it. The imitative fallacy is at work here. To reproduce a tedious monologue on the page is to produce more tedium, not art, and this novel would have benefited from more selection, arrangement, condensing of the raw material into fiction.

Nor do the characters other than Lee become real to the reader. The dialogue is sometimes stilted. Understandably, the novel contains a lot of therapeutic jargon.

N.L. Snowden, wanted, perhaps needed, to tell her story and she has. I hope that the writing of this novel was therapeutic, a kind of John Barth scriptotherapy. Professionals in the field, and fellow sufferers, may well find this novel insightful and useful. I think it might have been better altogether, though, if Snowden had done what William Styron chose to do. A chronic sufferer from severe depression, Styron published "Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness"(1990 ), a nonfiction account of his battle with depression which, eloquent, powerful and honest, is now assigned reading at nursing and medical schools all over the country.