Book Review: A Madness So Discreet, Mindy McGinnis (2015)

October 5th, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

asylum [uh-sahy-luh m] – an inviolable refuge; sanctuary

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape and other forms of violence, ableism and misogyny, and suicide.)

“These are your friends now, Grace Mae. A madman who eats cancer in the dark and another who searches for a different kind of killer, the kind who smiles at you in the light of day. This is your new life. I hope you can stand it.”

Like so many women before and after her, Grace Mae was institutionalized not because she was “crazy,” but inconvenient: Women who possess opinions, as well as the voices to express them; women who have little interest fulfilling their prescribed gender roles; women who don’t want (or can’t have) children – or become pregnant out of wedlock; women whose possessions – money, land, even their very bodies – are coveted by the men in their lives; women who, simply put, stand between men and what they want. Women like Grace, who’s pregnant with her rapist’s child. Her father’s child.

With nothing more than a judge’s decree and a single male relative’s testimony, such women could be forcible imprisoned in “asylums,” many of them never to be heard from again.

Grace’s sentence is lighter than most; after she gives birth, she’s to rejoin the Mae family in Boston. Her friends and extended family think she’s on a protracted European tour. Yet as miserable are the conditions in the Wayburne Lunatic Asylum, she’d rather spend the rest of her years there than be thrown back into the viper’s nest. A man of privilege, and a senator to boot, Nathaniel Mae is used to getting his way. Grace is just the latest in a long line of victims. (Picture New York Magazine’s infamous Cosby cover.)

Temporarily rendered mute by the injustices visited upon her, Grace is at first a model patient inmate. That is, until the lecherous Dr. Heedson sets his sights on her. One impaled, misplaced hand later, Grace is sent to the dreaded basement to serve out the rest of her time. But this possible death sentence becomes her salvation when she befriends her cell neighbor, the mysterious Dr. Falsteed, as well as his colleague, the visiting surgeon Dr. Thornhollow – sent to lobotomize certain problem patients ahead of the Board’s upcoming visit. The trio fakes Grace’s death and smuggles her to an asylum in Ohio, where she’s to pose as a mental patient by day – and serve as Thornhollow’s assistant by night.

A doctor with a curiosity in criminal profiling, Thornhollow finds few outlets for his detective work in this small Ohio town. That is, until he and Grace uncover a possible serial killer. As the bodies begin to pile up, so does the evidence leading them slowly but inexorably to the culprit. Yet even as these crimes strike close to home – one of the victims is the daughter of Grace’s upstairs neighbor – Grace finds her thoughts pulled back home, to Boston. With Grace gone, she’s afraid that her father’s attentions will soon turn to her ten-year-old sister, Alice. But how can she prevent in death that which she had little control over in life?

A Madness So Discreet is a bit of a departure from McGinnis’s debut novel, Not a Drop to Drink, though only slightly less enjoyable. Dystopias are kind of my jam, yet the psych major in me appreciated McGinnis’s attention to detail. Misogyny (along with racism, homophobia, and the like) is embedded in the history of psychiatry, including asylums: deciding who to lock up, how to “treat” them, and what constitutes an illness – and thus a cure. It was all too easy to commit inconvenient women against their will, requiring nothing more than a judge’s signature and the word of a single male relative. There, women (and men) could be abused, drugged, tortured, and even lobotomized into compliance. Unwed mothers were often forced to relinquish their babies for adoption. Grace’s story may sound outlandish, and it is – but it’s also rooted in the truth.

We also get a glimpse of how the mentally ill were regarded by society as a whole through Grace’s forays into the outside world. A large part of Grace’s value to Thornhollow is in her ability to fade into the background, move around crowds unnoticed, and soak in information to which she wouldn’t otherwise be privy. In short, mental patients were regarded as less than human – and Grace is treated thus, more like a piece of set dressing than a rational, sentient being:

“You mind is quick, your attention to detail established, your memory infallible. But the bandages on your forehead – and the scars that will form – provide the perfect cover for all your assets. It’s established; you’re insane.”

“And therefore I am not human,” Grace finished for him.

“Precisely. Most people will assume you lack reason. They’re bound to say anything in front of you.”

Likewise, the detectives with whom Thornhollow consults are amazed at how Thornhollow (and his institution) treats his patients: like humans. They’re given jobs, some measure of freedom, a purpose in life. In stark contrast to the Wayburne Lunatic Asylum, the doctors and nurses seem to actually care for their charges, as people. What a crazy concept!

Meanwhile, constable George argues for forcible sterilization of those deemed mentally ill – a practice that persisted in the United States into the 1970s. (Coerced sterilization/sterilization abuse continues to this day; especially vulnerable are those women giving birth while incarcerated.)

In many ways, A Madness So Discreet is a story driven by its characters – and they are quite a cast. Falsteed is as lovable as he is creepy; Thornhollow isn’t nearly as cold and calculating as you might think; Nell and Elizabeth are just the sweetest; Mrs. Clay will leave you yearning for a turn-of-the-century version of a Thelma & Louise bender; Adelaide just might oblige you; and Grace is a BAMF who exhibits courage and cunning in even the most trying of circumstances. Haunted by past traumas, she harnesses them to find peace for herself – and others.

Grace and Thornhollow make a odd couple; at times they seem like an alt. ‘verse version of Holmes and Watson. Thornhollow assumes the role of both doctor and eccentric, while Grace stands in as Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson – as a mental patient.

While the ending isn’t quite as satisfying as I would have liked – our heroine is somewhat thwarted in her quest for vengeance – it nonetheless has a certain sense of poetic justice about it.

One more word, if I may. The original meaning of the word asylum is, in fact, protection. I hope you have found it to be so in your bright surroundings, as I have found my own niche here in the dark.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Just in terms of disability. The story takes place in two late 1800s mental asylums; and, while many of the women committed there aren’t crazy – merely inconvenient to the men around them – there is Grace’s friend Elizabeth, who talks to “String,” like her grandmother before her. (Her father thinks she’s a witch.) Nell is dying of syphilis, and there’s an unnamed girl who thinks there are spiders in her blood; she’s “cured” with a lobotomy.

Animal-friendly elements: Nope.

 

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