Extra/Ordinary Minds: Mad Genius Rhetoric and Women's Memoirs of Mental Illness Public Deposited

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  • Augustine, Nora Katherine
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • This dissertation examines how autobiographical narratives by/for persons with mental illness draw from set of cultural clichés (topoi) I call “Mad Genius” rhetoric. As popular as it is controversial, Mad Genius rhetoric imagines an age-old link between “madness,” or apparently problematic mental states, and extraordinary gifts of creativity, intelligence, and other talents. I ask: How is Mad Genius rhetoric taken up by real mentally ill people, especially women, in self-referential texts? What conditions encourage authors to construct Mad Genius personae in life writing, and what rhetorical purpose do such personae serve? Examining these questions through a lens of mental health rhetoric, I build case studies grounded in four highly influential mental illness memoirs: Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, Nana-Ama Danquah’s Willow Weep for Me, and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation. I argue each author’s narration enacts a Mad Genius persona at the nexus of her severe psychic pain and her personal gifts, explicating both how she draws on Mad Genius topoi in her writing and the contextual factors that apparently encourage her to do so. Specifically, my studies explore four discrete Mad Genius topoi: 1) the Tortured Artist, which posits that genius leads to madness; 2) the Brainiac, which posits that madness confers genius; 3) the Survivor, in which madness and genius are thought to share a common source in external trauma; 4) the Ex-Gifted Kid, in which madness/genius are thought to be innate and inextricably intertwined. As a preface to my case studies, each chapter also analyzes Mad Genius rhetoric in some contemporary pop culture archive, emphasizing both the enduring popularity of these four topoi and the centrality of auto/biographical narratives in their widespread circulation. Notions of personal specialness do seem to carry mentally ill authors through acute crises, but my readings reveal the rhetorical functions of Mad Genius, demystifying its enduring popularity amid broader cultural stigmas against mental illness. Reading these popular books as individualized responses to systemic rhetorical exclusion, I conclude that Mad Genius topoi are evidently effective, yet ultimately unsustainable frameworks through which to cope with severe psychic pain.
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  • In Copyright - Educational Use Permitted
  • Jack, Jordynn
  • Booth, Karen
  • Chua, Jocelyn
  • Danielewicz, Jane
  • Ho, Jennifer
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2021

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