The best books set in psychiatric hospitals by women who have spent time there

Mikita Brottman Author Of Couple Found Slain: After a Family Murder
By Mikita Brottman

Who am I?

In addition to being an author, I’m a literature professor and a psychoanalyst; I have worked in prisons and psychiatric hospitals. I have also been a psychiatric patient. I’m fascinated by narrative, and by the way we use language to make sense of our own experiences and to connect with other people.


I wrote...

Couple Found Slain: After a Family Murder

By Mikita Brottman,

Book cover of Couple Found Slain: After a Family Murder

What is my book about?

On February 21, 1992, 22-year-old Brian Bechtold walked into a police station in Port St. Joe, Florida and confessed that he’d shot and killed his parents in their family home in Silver Spring, Maryland. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and ruled “not criminally responsible.”

But after the trial, where do the "criminally insane" go? Brottman reveals Brian's inner life leading up to the murder, as well as his complicated afterlife in a maximum-security psychiatric hospital, where he is neither imprisoned nor free. In the tradition of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Couple Found Slain is an insider’s account of life in the underworld of forensic psych wards in America and the forgotten lives of those held there, often indefinitely.

The books I picked & why

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W-3

By Bette Howland,

Book cover of W-3

Why this book?

This is a recent reissue of a book first published in 1974 and long out of print. Bette Howland gives us a vivid and honest account of her time in Ward 3 of a Chicago psychiatric hospital after a serious suicide attempt in her late twenties. I was moved by the moments of communion, camaraderie and even comedy the narrator shares with her fellow patients. Having said that, Ward 3 is a terrible place. The “treatments” are also punishments. The narrator confronts the ward’s alienation with clear, unsentimental detachment. I was absorbed by her struggle to retain an element of dignity in the face of the hospital’s fatally indifferent bureaucracy. 


I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

By Joanne Greenberg,

Book cover of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

Why this book?

Originally published in 1964 under the pen name Hannah Green, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is a bleak but beautifully-written book that has recently been reissued after some time out of print. It tells the story of Deborah Blau, 16, incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. The book is a thinly-disguised autobiographical account; Greenberg spent years at Maryland’s Chestnut Lodge, where she was helped in her recovery by the understanding and unconventional therapy provided by Freida Fromm-Reichman (Dr. Fried in the book). Much of the time, Deborah retreats into her own world, with its own language, gods, and history. The book helped me to understand why a person might elect to live in their own mind, where their world, although dark, is at least within their control.


The Bell Jar

By Sylvia Plath,

Book cover of The Bell Jar

Why this book?

First published in 1961 under the name Victoria Lucas, The Bell Jar describes Esther Greenwood’s suicide attempt and subsequent “nervous breakdown,” loosely based on the author’s own experiences. With its wry, mordant humor, memorable scenes, and unexpected observations, the book has become a classic, its status tragically affirmed by Plath’s own suicide in 1963. Like many young women, I read it in my late teens, but I’ve returned to it more than once over the years. With time, the book resonates on different levels. Now, I identify less with Esther and admire her more. Only the second part of the book is set in a psychiatric hospital (based on McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, where Plath was a patient in 1953). 


Faces in the Water

By Janet Frame,

Book cover of Faces in the Water

Why this book?

Faces in the Water was first published in 1961, though it received far less attention and acclaim. The “story,” such as it is, is narrated by Istina Mavet, a shy, introverted young woman (again, based closely on the author) who, like the author, spends ten years in a New Zealand psychiatric hospital. Faces in the Water recounts long, dull years of cruelty and suffering. But don’t let this put you off—Frame’s style is marvelously poetic. The narrative is abstract in places and was at first difficult for me to get into, but once I began to see things from Istina’s perspective, the story came to life, and I found it brutally beautiful. 


The Snake Pit

By Mary Jane Ward,

Book cover of The Snake Pit

Why this book?

This is the 75th anniversary edition of a book first published in 1946, a best-seller at the time, and the impetus for changes in the treatment of psychiatric patients. The narrator, novelist Victoria Cunningham, finds herself incarcerated in a corrupt and badly-run hospital with little memory of how she got there; I was disturbed by the way she had to navigate through an obscure, nonsensical bureaucracy that seems more insane than any of the hospital’s patients. Virginia is supported by her loving and loyal husband, but at times she loses track of her memories and forgets who he is. The book is frightening—especially given that it’s based on the author’s own experiences at Bellevue Hospital in New York—but also intimate and moving.


5 book lists we think you will like!

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