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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 324-325 ( 20 August )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/melia.html

Book Review

From the Ashes of Experience. Reflections on Madness, Survival and Growth
Edited by Phil Barker, Peter Campbell and Ben Davidson
London: Whurr Publishers, 1999

Reviewed by Yvonne Melia, Research Associate, Brain Injury Rehabilitation Trust (UK).

From the Ashes of Experience presents 10 narrative accounts of personal experience of mental illness. In reading these, I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of the reality of ‘madness’, however the book posed a number of barriers to achieving this.

Primarily, several of the narratives were concerned with themes less about the experience of mental illness and more about how we define and treat mental illness. For instance, with a few exceptions, the accounts decried the damaging effects of psychiatric interventions, conditions for the detained mentally ill, the medicalisation of mental illness and mental health services. Whilst history justifies such accusations somewhat, these debates are not novel and do not bring the reader any closer to an understanding of the experience of mental illness.

Whilst I have sympathy with the authors’ attempts at interpreting mental illness, done through descriptions of alternative theories to contemporary ‘medical models’ e.g. mysticism and spirituality (for example in Madness and Reality, Avalon and Que Sera Sera) again this disengages the reader from the experiential emphasis one would expect from the book. The chapter Madness and Reality, in particular, emphasized the fact that altered states of consciousness were previously integrated into the experience of being human, and produced society’s prophets and saints. Altered states were then established as a necessary part of being human, with modern society afflicted by spiritual loss. Debates around a priori issues such as these, for example, dealing with the question of what is normal and when a mental illness is or is not a mental illness in a book supposedly concerned with the experience of ‘madness’ seems somewhat contradictory. If the accounts themselves are unaccepting of a state of madness, what experience is the reader being privy to? Or, is this part of what the book is questioning? This seems unclear.

Perhaps I too am a product of contemporary society but opening this book, I was more interested in questions being answered around the pragmatics of a person in an extreme mental state. That is, daily life, thoughts and feelings, relationships, impact of medication, experience of stigma. Jan Holloway and Rachel Perkins redressed the balance for me in this respect, by providing fascinating accounts of life with a mental illness, augmented by their roles as both mental health service providers and service users.

Overall I didn’t leave the book with the insights to the experience of madness I had hoped. The book is also limited by restricting the accounts of personal experience of madness to extreme mental states, such as mania and psychosis, and not mental illnesses such as unipolar depression or anxiety disorders. Moreover, one of the book’s aims through the accounts of the personal experience of ‘madness’ was to address the difficulty service users have with their lives not being viewed as a whole by mental health practitioners. Whilst it was noted that a considerable number of the authors had become committed to advocating for the empowerment of the mentally ill as service users, I felt the accounts themselves gave little time to teasing out how progress could be made in this respect, and resorting to the alternative theories and anthropological perspectives on mental illness as some of the authors did, seemed to achieve little pragmatically in this respect.

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© Yvonne Melia.


Melia, Y. (2002). Review of From the Ashes of Experience. Reflections on Madness, Survival and Growth edited by Phil Barker, Peter Campbell and Ben Davidson. Human Nature Review. 2: 324-325.

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