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The psychiatric hospital once a week: the madness dissected by Joy Sorman

IT. How did this book project come about?

JOY SORMAN. I began to take an interest in psychiatry during my studies in philosophy, particularly through the work of Michel Foucault and his work on institutional psychiatry, and I had always said to myself that I would like to write about subject. And then I like going to places that are a little forbidden, or at least a little hidden …

IT. How did you go about it, in concrete terms, to access the privacy of a service?

J.S. I had to find the right moment and find a pilot fish that would open the doors for me … Writing about psychiatry had to go through the field, for me, and took time; psychiatric units are places that are too complex to go through in a hurry. It took me a year to find the right place and convince a manager to welcome me. I encountered a lot of mistrust, they were afraid that I would come snooping around or denounce mistreatment … I had to convince him, present the project, meet the teams and sign a confidentiality contract, but from the day I was trusted, it was open bar. I was given the keys to the service. So I went there every Wednesday for a year.

IT. Was it difficult, emotionally?

J.S. No, it was an experience. I’ve been told a lot “but why are you doing this to yourself?” It didn’t actually depress me at all. It was nervously tiring at first to discover this reality and the violence of the place. Nervous fatigue. And then I picked up the pace, and even though there were some hard times, especially those spent with Arthur, this great melancholy that I describe in the book, I have never been contaminated by sadness. I was faced with an important subject, I attended the spectacle of the power of life, which is also the power of resistance of the sick, developing all kinds of strategies to escape power and rules.

IT. How much latitude have you allowed yourself with respect to the “truth” of what you have observed?

J.S. For the sake of confidentiality, I have changed the names of the characters. I’m not a journalist, and “À la folie” is not a report, but a documentary story. That’s why it was important to use the “I”, and that I appear here and there to show my subjectivity, and to underline the fact that my presence, of course, impacts the scenes that I describe. For the fluidity of the narrative, I made a few fictional adjustments, but I would say the result is no more than five percent fictional. And then I always invent to uplift and serve the character, so it never seems like betrayal to me.

IT. Language, both diagnostic tool and therapeutic instrument, is at the heart of the book. How did that affect your writing?

J.S. The language of those I wrote about was so rich that there was nothing for me to do other than take samples, both as regards the verb of the sick and that of the psychiatrists. I didn’t want to touch it at all, or manipulate it, and especially not to play with a “poetry” of madness when what I am describing is primarily due to the suffering of being locked up and broken lives. I wanted to testify and nothing else. Only the fool has the right to play with his verb.

IT. As the word is central in the lives of your characters, literature seems very absent from the psychiatric universe … In the ward, nobody reads. How do you explain that ?

J.S. The only patient reader is Arthur, who also had a correspondence with Amélie Nothomb at one time! But by the time I met him he was too sick and too drugged up to be able to read, which made him in much pain. Apart from him, it is true that patients do not read. Most of them come from cultural backgrounds where they are not used to reading, and then they are often physically incapable of doing so. They listen to a lot of music on headphones, but reading takes a little bit of shape.


“À LA FOLIE”, by Joy Sorman (Flammarion, 274 p.). In bookstores on February 3.

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