Review: Mad, Bad and Sad by Lisa Appignanesi

The full title of this book is Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present. Despite what this may imply, I do not think of it as a specifically feminist book. As far as I can tell it does not set out with a feminist agenda; rather it is interested in how women have been treated and analysed by the ‘mind doctors’ from 1800 to the present. Appignanesi takes women as her subject but does not do so in order to specifically protest their treatment – rather she examines it as objectively as possible, and does mention treatment of men as well. Also, the doctors throughout this book as women as well as men. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a feminist, but this book is not about feminist anger. It’s about women and psychology.


A quote on the back of the book from Viv Groskop, writing for The Observer, states that,

The book’s triumph is to mix evocative case studies with potted histories of the great and good of psychology and psychiatry

I agree. This quote sums up the book perfectly. It is an educational and thoroughly entertaining mix of history and case studies, with added emphasis on the impact of psychology, and psychiatry, and their practices on wider society. Appignanesi carefully chooses case studies to discuss, from those in psychologists’ essays and notes, to celebrity cases, which she deftly compares; in particular Zelda Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath and Marilyn Monroe. Using figures the reader has heard of roots the psychological technicalities and analysis in real life, and as we empathise with and relate to celebrities, this makes the subject matter easier to digest and understand. That’s what I found anyway.

This book could be called a history of psychology, or ‘mind doctors’ and their practices, from 1800 to the present. The fact that it focuses on women makes it easier for the author to sift through the sheer amount of material that is potentially relevant. The book is 547 pages long and probably could have been longer – though I felt that it should have been shorter, as the book became more and more list-like as it went on, and the pattern of case and contextual history, then another case, got a little repetitive.

Lisa Appignanesi’s style is academic but accessible, as well as relaxed. She uses all the correct terminology but does not get buried in jargon and medical language, so you need not worry about getting lost or confused. My only moments of confusion came with her odd comma placement, and too many phrases contained within one sentence.

Lisa Appignanesi. Image:
Lisa Appignanesi. Image:

I have an existing interest in psychology, and the history of women in general, so I found this book fascinating. If you’re the same, you will too. It made me realise how important the development of psychology and psychological treatment is to society, as well as the cultural perceptions of mental illness and those who are in some way different. Mad, Bad and Sad covers everything from hysteria, to sex, mothers, America, schizophrenia, autism, eating disorders, childhood abuse, the anti-psychiatry movement, and the prevalence of drugs in modern psychiatric care. I felt the book suffered from the great weight of knowledge that it tried to contain and would have benefitted from frankly being a bit shorter. I have no problem with long books, but there is simply a bit too much going on in this one.  That said it is wonderfully researched and highly interesting, and I would definitely recommend it. I admire Appignanesi for taking on the ambitious and daunting task of writing Mad, Bad and Sad – no surprise that it was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non Fiction in 2008.


Published by Virago in 2008.


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