Much Madness Is Divinest Sense: Wisdom in Memoirs of Soul-Suffering
(2007), by professor and theologian Kathleen J. Greider, is a collection and critical discussion of real stories by people who have experienced religious crises. Its title comes from the Emily Dickinson poem “Much Madness is divinest Sense.“ The work is heavily inspired by Christian teachings. Greider teaches pastoral care and counseling at Claremont Graduate University in California. She was inspired to write the book after dealing with her own chronic depression. Its themes include questioning the definition of sanity, depending on others to endure emotional trauma, and recognizing the possibly pernicious effects of one’s socio-cultural context.Much Madness Is Divinest Sense
is divided into five parts. Throughout, Greider questions how both the mentally ill and the able-minded can love themselves and others with more imagination and intelligence. If the goal is to alleviate suffering in ourselves and others, how can one help people, specifically those struggling through mental illness? In the first part, Greider considers the pros and cons of memoir writing to alleviate intrapsychic tension, or what she calls “soul-suffering.” Suffering is the best word to describe mental illness because, as Greider shows, its effects on the individual, as well as on family and friends, can be excruciating. Though one memoirist she references prefers the term “madness,” Greider avoids that term so as not to romanticize what is essentially a harrowing experience. While writing about oneself can have curative and comforting effects, Greider considers the ways in which it may also lead to mental implosion and lead one to feeling disheartened. Greider also adumbrates why she studies soul-suffering, namely because she has chronic depression; she has family with the same issues; and she treats individuals with mental illness/soul-suffering and she wants to share the knowledge and strength found in mental illness memoirs.
The next four parts deal with identity, suffering, care, and healing. Before each story she shares, Greider prefaces the anecdote with what the reader can learn from the story. Her goal is, through analytical readings, to “discern the integrity that marks such wisdom.” After reading this book, she hopes that mental health professionals will be inspired to act with compassion and empathy toward soul-sufferers. Each contribution comes from a respected scholar in the field of mental illness or theology. These writers deal with severe depression, suicidal ideation, and schizophrenia in the family. They include Susan Gregg-Schroeder, Lizzie Simon, Albert Y. Hsu and dozens more.
With Part Two, on identity, Greider considers how great spiritual and emotional trauma can be an opportunity for powerful and sustaining personal revelation. Greider’s thinking is followed by that of Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist who says she likes her manic depression so long as she can have lithium when the side effects become too dire; in her mania, Jamison maintains that she feels emotions, colors, and thoughts more deeply. Jamison may be best known for her acclaimed book on bipolar disorder and creativity, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament
(1993). Greider also examines how cultural factors such as daily violence and overwhelming discrimination can influence one’s mental health. In her readings of dozens of memoirs, Greider finds that mentally ill people can only appear to be healthy once they completely shut themselves off from the world, thus being unable to feel the bad or the good aspects of existence.
Part Three collects thoughts on suffering. Here, Greider quotes Anton Boisen, the father of hospital chaplaincy: “Mental disorder is, I hold, the price humanity has to pay for having the power of choice and the capacity for growth.” Greider looks at the long-term effects of suffering and brings up examples of the frequent social isolation and physical damage this causes to the body. She cites memoirists who were shocked when their churches didn’t step in to help them, or when a family member stopped responding to their pleas for help after their diagnoses.
In Part Four, care, Greider gives advice to practicing mental health professionals. Using examples from the memoirists she has read, Greider pinpoints helpful and unhelpful activities that the memoirists encountered during their treatment. She emphasizes the validity of listening to past patients, as there are still a lot of unknown variables when it comes to caring for soul-suffers.
In the final section, on healing, the author considers the roles of religion, spirituality, and social services. Surprisingly, for many of these soul-sufferers, facing the complexities of their mental illness made them feel closer to and more grateful to the world. Greider concludes that the mentally ill, or soul-sufferers, have much to teach all people about life, love, and resilience. Those who are able-minded should not, she writes, be afraid to reach out to the mentally ill; indeed, they should view such connection as their duty. She also suggests that finding peace with mortality and life's discomforts may be found most in those who have endured mental illness.