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Cummins’ Anatomy of Insanity considers the subject of insanity from a historical perspective. The book is constructed to resemble a patient’s medical chart and was, in fact, inspired by patient records in the medical archives at McLean Hospital, one of the nation’s leading psychiatric institutions. Printed on translucent pages, one side of the book is dedicated to “male insanity” and the other to
“female insanity.” By using this structure Cummins allows the viewer to compare the variety of conditions that were considered to cause insanity in the different genders. Each page is printed to look like graph paper, with an anatomical diagram of each patient. Inscribed at the top are details such as the patient’s number, date of admission and age. The “male” page shown here displays a 20-year-old sailor diagnosed with “original want of balance.” It is not clear if the cause is mental or physical, but certainly this lack could be a problem for a young seaman.

The depicted woman is a 19 year-old “tailoress” whose insanity has been purportedly been brought about by a “suppression of menses,” the words written in a vertical red line between her legs. The diagnosis of “hysteria” ostensibly caused by instability of the uterus was common in ancient Greece as well as in this era so it is not surprising that Cummins found disturbing discrepancies in these archived documents. The origins of the men’s insanity were diverse: the death of a loved one, professional stress or various large and small traumas. The source of the women’s madness tended to be caused by conditions of the female body, such as lactation and “critical time of life.” As the artist states, “…men went crazy for a variety of reasons, women went crazy because they were women.”

Medea, as the consummate figure of feminine power carried to the extreme, ironically functions in these artists’ books as a kind of ghost moderator, one who sets out the ultimate limits of actions, illustrates what is redeemable and what grossly outsteps the boundaries of acceptable human conduct. An avenging Virgin, a murderous battered housewife, a heart-eating crocodile, bad girls with mythic traits, dreamers who fly over walls, the questionably insane, the limits of marriage both heavenly and earthly – all of these themes pass muster when compared to Medea’s grievous acts. Medea has passed the point of defying all, even at the risk of losing her own identity, if not her humanity. The women in these books may attempt to push toward greater freedom, or at least dream of it, but, unlike Medea, they always keep an eye on that self-destructive tipping point.

Anatomy of Insanity
Maureen Cummins

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