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the novelist Joy Sorman immersed in the “mad”

Joy Sorman likes to immerse herself in worlds before taking up the pen. She had plunged into that of meat, butchers, slaughterhouses for Like a beast (Gallimard, 2012). In 2014, she slipped into Bear skin (Gallimard, 2014) and the same year had written down an immersive experience in a bedding factory with Lit national, published by Le bec en L’air.

His latest book, To insanity, published on February 3 by Flammarion editions, is the restitution in a literary form of his immersion in two psychiatric units “somewhere in France”.

“For a year, every Wednesday, I was granted permission to move freely in pavilion 4B which has twelve beds and an isolation room”, begins the novelist, who has invited herself into the daily lives of patients and caregivers. Those who are just passing by, those who have taken root. She meets there (all names have been changed) Franck, 40 years old, “well known in pavilion 4B, he has been there regularly for over twenty years”, Maria, “the barefoot witch”, the “splendid Youcef”, but also Robert, the dean, Julia, Jules, Esther or the nurses, Barnabé and Catherine, Adrienne, the hospital service agent (ASH), “thirty-five years of profession” and his immeasurable patience, and Sarah and Eva, psychiatrists.

“Often I would have liked to be more discreet, flexible and instinctive like the lynx, to be equipped with the same brushes of hair at the tips of the ears, sensitive to the tiniest movements of the air, to the most tenuous waves, and thus capture the invisible and silent. “

Joy Sorman observes, collects, describes: a setting, “clean”, “clair”, “modern and lifeless, a functional, economical layout, in line with administrative aesthetic standards”, sounds, “an incessant noise of the key in the lock sets the rhythm”, that of meals, that of the distribution of treatments or cigarette breaks at fixed times.

From her observation post, the novelist scrutinizes the moods, atmospheres, colors, smells, materials, postures, scans the patterns that make up this closed universe, from the isolation room to the obligatory pajamas, through the ‘single telephone station planted in the middle of the road, chemical treatments, the process of hospitalization without consent, or even the elaboration of a “diagnosis”.

The novelist, as a discreet visitor, lingers with one, discusses with the other, questions, listens, occasionally makes mistakes, tries to understand. What is madness? How did the patients get there? What are they suffering from? How are they taken care of? All of these questions run through the book. Some find answers, others do not. Here, she will learn, “the only valid principle is uncertainty”.

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Through a factual account, nourished by the words of one and the other restored in a shared “I” and without quotes, Joy Sorman paints a radical picture of today’s psychiatry. Returning to her history, from asylums to open psychiatry, including the appearance of neuroleptics, she questions the very nature of madness, and its relationship with the “normal” world. The management also that this world makes of those who are excluded from it, more because they disturb than to relieve their suffering.

“We are more likely to intern a man who yells in the street and breaks a bus shelter with an iron bar than one who speaks in a low voice to the trees, even if the latter may be suffering more.”

The psychiatric unit recovers all those for whom there is no place elsewhere in society, and is often a symptom of the dysfunctions and shortcomings of the “normal” outside world, economic, political or professional.

Joy Sorman’s latest book questions the functioning of a victim institution, like the entire hospital system, of budgetary restrictions, administrative and economic injunctions, which are gradually driving out humans in favor of results. An institution that favors the strict application of protocols rather than listening and attention.

“Adrienne does not have the right to take care of patients, if she does, the administration calls this gap a slippage, and condemns it.”

With this very beautiful book in hybrid form, built in short chapters and deployed in a precise and immersive writing, Joy Sorman, “stealthy visitor” sketches an impressionist painting of madness and those caught up in it. Clinical in the medical lexical field, “madness” takes the form of a prose poem, an epic or a melancholy song. Because those whom one does not want any more today to call the “madmen” hardly have only the words and the imagination to make bulwark with the “demons” which assail them. This is why this plunge into madness resonates like an allegory of literature, a necessity that is certainly exacerbated among madmen, but vital for all.

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“A la folie”, by Joy Sorman (Flammarion, 274 pages, € 19)


“Youcef told me here time flies and passes, we wait for the time of the cigarette, he passes and repeats, we watch for lunch time, he passes and repeats until nausea. For me too, visitor furtive yet, time stretches, I feel it flaccid as Youcef describes it, much more than therapeutic as the Barnabas dream.
One morning I felt it even more, seeing Arthur slumped in a chair, stunned by pills, his T-shirt soiled with drool, his heavy head, as if guillotined, neck broken, resting on his chest; this head weighs a ton, weighted down with all the weight of the drugs and the rehashes of the days that repeat and sediment, of his thoughts which are much more than a simple neuronal activity, rather a flow of lead which carries his whole body towards the front. Further on, it is a woman who dozed off against the radiator, her body contorted, sucked into the hard and cold radiator, drunk with boredom.
Here we sleep sitting or standing as much as lying down. Here everything freezes in the ice of neuroleptics and confinement. Time is also an ice floe, unless it is molasses, something that sticks and stretches. By dint of time it isn’t even time anymore, but a shapeless mass that we see sliding in weightlessness in the corridors, like a creature of Miyazaki. “(To insanity, page 131)

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