Book review of Committed by Suzanne Scanlon


Writing saved Janet Frame’s life.

In 1951, the 27-year-old writer was scheduled for a lobotomy. She’d spent her adulthood in psychiatric facilities, and the extremely damaging practice was in its heyday. But after Frame’s debut book won a literary award, a doctor called off the procedure.

Frame is one of many authors Suzanne Scanlon references to create a throughline between reading, writing and illness in her memoir, Committed: On Meaning and Madwomen. Here, the author of novels Promising Young Women and Her 37th Year, an Index, traces her entwined reading and mental health histories.

In her early 20s, Scanlon spent more than two years in a psychiatric hospital and experienced shorter hospitalizations for several years to follow. Both during that first stint and the years since, she’s turned to books for insight into the world and her own mental health, a practice mirrored in her childhood. When her mother was dying, 8-year-old Scanlon created order from the grief and chaos around her through imaginative play. The immersive nature of this coping strategy is akin to what Scanlon now finds in literature.

Committed leaps across time, mirroring how Scanlon comes to understand her own narrative, organizing an unconventional timeline from her fragmented memories. She also plays with form, occasionally breaking from running narrative with lists explaining her illness, or switching from first- to second-person to place the reader in a scene.

Committed is also about authors who faced mental illness, among them Marguerite Duras and Sylvia Plath. Janet Frame, Scanlon writes, is “the patron saint of writers once institutionalized, the long-institutionalized, the young women everywhere told they were hopeless, what would become of them now, defined by the places where they lived.”

“What we call mental illness is so rarely portrayed with any depth or complexity,” Scanlon writes. But as she combs the archives of her reading, she finds “information about what it means to be alive in [any] shifting historical moment.” By lacing her story with literary analysis and cultural history, she creates a thoughtful reflection on how societal expectations can impact people, women in particular, and how writing and reading can provide a port in the storm.

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