Scott Benowitz reviews the Life Inside: A Memoir by Mindy Lewis

I’ve recently finished reading another very interesting and beautifully written memoir, I’ve read Life Inside: A Memoir by Mindy Lewis (Simon & Schuster/ Washington Square Press, 2002.)  People who have ever been in psychiatric hospitals, people who have had experiences with psychiatry on an outpatient basis, people who have had issues with mental health or mental healthcare and anyone who has had a friend or a family member who has had experiences with mental health, depression or psychiatry will find this book interesting.

This book will also appeal to people who have never had experiences with depression, mental illness, psychiatry or hospitals themselves but who are curious to read about these topics.  Life Inside may also likely appeal to people who lived in New York City during the 1960’s through the 1980’s because Mindy paints an interesting picture of certain aspects of life in the city during those decades.

Life Inside begins in December 1967, when 15-year-old Mindy was sent to the adolescent and young adult unit of the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center (renamed New York Presbyterian Medical Center in 1998.)  One does not need to have ever travelled to New York City to understand or to appreciate Life Inside, and while the story evokes the 1960s, in some ways it is timeless.

Mid 20th Century Manhattan And The Worlds We Are Living In

Life Inside begins in December of 1967 when Mindy is admitted to the hospital.  In a later chapter, Mindy describes some of the earlier years in the 1960’s.  Mindy’s parents had separated when she was very young, her father had moved out west to California, and she was living with her mother in Stuyvesant Town in the East Side lower Manhattan.

Prior to being hospitalized, Mindy had begun to engage in some self-destructive behaviors.  She was smoking pot and experimenting with LSD and other drugs. She was promiscuous with boys and truant from school.  Her mother, alarmed, sought professional advice and was directed to the NYS Psychiatric Institute.

Because it was a teaching hospital and research institute that conducted long-term studies, the hospital agreed to accept Mindy only if her mother reminded her to state custody until the age of 18.  Many of the psychiatrists were first or second-year residents in their twenties, some of whom had never seen patients before.

Life Inside raises the question as to whether Mindy’s years at Columbia Presbyterian had further aggravated her existing problems, and whether the experience of being confined in a hospital may have actually ended up becoming a factor that contributed to her engaging in further self-destructive behaviors.

The author questions whether much of her behavior was “normal” for adolescents of that era, and looks at ways in which this behavior was medicalized and diagnosed.  The standard diagnosis for Mindy and the majority of the other adolescent patients at P.I. at that time was “Schizophrenia, Chronic Undifferentiated.”

In her hospital records, which Ms. Lewis obtained while writing the book, she was also described as autistic, psychotic, and hopeless.  Mindy does a beautiful job of getting readers to contemplate just exactly who is “sane,” (as opposed to less than sane), and precisely who gets to make these determinations.

The DSM- II vs. Some Very Basic Common Sense

While reading Life Inside, the obvious comparison that readers may be likely to make will be to Susanna Kaysen’s classic Girl Interrupted (Random House Inc., Vintage Books, 1993), as both Mindy Lewis and Susanna Kaysen were in hospitals during roughly the same time period, 1968 through 1970.  Readers will also likely make comparisons to Prozac Nation: Young And Depressed In America- A Memoir by Elizabeth Wurtzel (Penguin Group USA/ Riverhead Books, 2002),  another innovative memoir that describes how misunderstood mental health issues are within our society.

While these comparisons are quite valid, Mindy Lewis does something with Life Inside that Susana Kaysen did not do in Girl Interrupted and Elizabeth Wurzell did not do in Prozac Nation.  Susanna Kaysen ends the story in Girl Interrupted in 1971, and Elizabeth Wurzell ends the story in Prozac Nation in the late 1980’s.  By contrast, Life Inside does not end when Mindy is released from Manhattan State Psychiatric Center, and continues up to December of 2000, showing how the experiences of being hospitalized for three years affected her ability to relate to the world that she was released back into, and how her experiences in the hospital still occupied a very prominent place in her thoughts into the 1990’s.

Mindy also details her work with the Mental Patient’s Liberation Project, which met in the East Village in New York City in the early 1970’s, where she worked with peers on advocating for the rights of mental patients.  The MPLP was a forerunner to some of the peer support groups which are comprised of people who feel that they’ve had negative experiences with mental healthcare that exist today.

A Timeless Story, And Unfortunately All Too Relevant Today

Usually, when a writer is writing a book review article and we use the word “timeless” in reference to the main themes in the plot to a book, that’s usually a good thing.  Unfortunately, in this instance, I wish that Ms. Lewis’ story wasn’t so easy to relate to. Stories of people who have had disastrous or traumatic experiences in psychiatric hospitals are still far too common and have been common since at least as far back as the 19h century.

In 1887, the journalist Nellie Bly (whose real name was Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, 1864-1922) wrote her classic, Ten Days In A Mad House, in which she describes checking herself into the former Women’s Lunatic Asylum in Blackwell Island (Roosevelt Island since 1971), an institution whose conditions made any sort of recovery or healing impossible. Obviously, more was known about how the human mind functions (and how our minds can potentially malfunction) in the post-Freudian era and technologies available to medical facilities are continually improving.

Life- Inside And Out

Life Inside is a beautiful title for this book.  It can be interpreted to refer to the author’s description of what it is like to live inside of a hospital that most people only see when we drive past it on the West Side Highway or when we ride a bus on one of the routes that pass through Riverside Drive.

Life Inside also refers to the desire to live a healthy life as a lively member of the human species, which cannot happen from within the confines of a hospital.  It also refers to the inner thoughts and conflicts that some people experience, which may not be perceivable unless those people describe their inner thoughts and conflicts to us–which Ms. Lewis has done an effective job of in her book.

An uplifting postscript to Mindy’s story; Dr. Allen Frances, who was one of the psychiatrists who was working as an intern at Columbia Presbyterian back in the late 1960’s, whom Mindy mentions in Life Inside, contacted Mindy when he’d wanted her input while he was writing Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-Of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, And The Medicalization of Ordinary Life (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2014.)

In Saving Normal, Dr. Frances discusses his views on some of the numerous problems which have been plaguing the mental healthcare industry and mental healthcare practices in both the U.S. as well as other countries throughout the world for many decades.

In addition to conferring with some of his colleagues, Dr. Frances was well aware that some of the people who are likely to be most familiar with the manner in which psychiatric care can create problems for some patients rather than solve them would be to confer with patients who feel that they’ve had negative experiences with mental healthcare.

Mindy did end up contributing to one of the chapters in Saving Normal, in which Frances writes, “Mindy …has taught me two great lessons. First, she had the generosity of spirit to forgive my foolish collaboration in her psychiatric imprisonment. And second, she taught me to look at what’s fundamentally normal in people, not just what appears to be sick. We both, in our different ways, eventually succeeded in flying over the cuckoo’s nest.”

Readers who are interested in learning more about Mindy Lewis and the projects that she’s presently working on can learn more about her from her website, which she updates periodically.

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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