Sanity and madness have historically and culturally functioned as binary opposites, the former serving as a representation of normalcy, while the latter functions as shorthand for defect and abnormality. This essay examines the artificiality of this binary construction and offers the mad border body as an alternative. Informed by the works of Chicana theorist Gloria Anzaldúa and queer theorist Jacquelyn N. Zita, the mad border body argues that one can simultaneously inhabit the spaces of sanity and madness. As a third positionality, the mad border body is an alternative to the sane/mad construction in that it advocates for a disruption of binary logic all together. In its examination of this alternative location of being, this essay is also grounded in the author's own bodily experiences with madness, in her own phenomenology of disability.

There is fear in the telling and in the owning of madness. 1 It lies, for me, in the constructed threat of the word, in the stigma of the disability. I am choosing to claim madness now in this space as a political act. If I am going to explore and theorize madness, I must do so in the first person as I am a woman with manic-depression. 2 The first time I wrote this essay, I pushed myself out. I buried mind and body, the ways I access the world. In this revision, I write claiming self-knowledge rather than remaining hidden.

Much work as been done tracing the historical framings of madness (Digby; Foucault; Porter; Rosen), on examining the stigma of madness (Corrigan and Watson; Wilson and Beresford) and, more recently, on focusing on the ex-patients' or psychiatric survivor's movement (Chamberlin). However, I have yet to find significant theoretical discussions occurring around the fluidity of madness in the fields of Disability Studies and Madness Studies. In this essay, I argue for the mad border body, a third positionality informed by critical race theory and queer theory. This body functions as an alternative to the historical and cultural belief that madness is one half of a static binary structure. In honoring a space that allows for movement, the experience of the mad border body serves as a counter-narrative for madness and sanity. As this theoretical framework is based on my own phenomenology of living, my own experiences of living on the border as a woman with manic-depression, I will not address everyone's experience with madness or everyone's experience with manic-depression. I am offering a personal template, a mapping of one way of being.

Crucial in the conversation of sanity and madness are the values and judgments that are assigned to each term; sanity is connected to normality, while conversely madness is connected to abnormality (Sarbin and Keen). Disability theorist Simi Linton, author of Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity, argues that normal and abnormal are "terms often used to distinguish between people with and without disabilities" (22). Similar to sane and mad, the terms normal and abnormal create hierarchies between individuals. Further, they stress an either/or positionality: one is either sane or mad, normal or abnormal. In this construction, there is no variance, no in-between. The role of the mad border body, then, is to undo the absoluteness of these categories, what Linton refers to as "empiricism's reductive and simplifying tendencies" (24). The toxicity of normal and abnormal is that in reference to the disabled body—and I would insert, the mad body—these terms are used as shorthand, as an immediate way to disempower the person with a disability (Linton). In this way, ableist culture uses the abnormal, the mad, to reinforce the potency and power of the center, the normal, the sane.

In speaking through my own bodily experiences, I understand my body to be how I access the world. I am engaging in a phenomenology of disability in my discussion of madness because it repositions my body as a woman with manic-depression. I am no longer object, pathology. I become a person who validly, wholly experiences. In his discussion of phenomenology, philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty defines the subject as a "being-to-the-world" (viii). He argues that we access the body through our lived experiences. Further, it is our bodies that give us access to space (Merleau-Ponty). In her article "Reflections of Bodily Change: The Lived Experience of Disability," Kay Toombs, a professor of philosophy, argues that a phenomenological perspective is particularly resonant when discussing the experiences of a person with a disability: "In this respect the lived body is not the objective, physiological body that can be seen by others (or examined by means of various medical technologies) but, rather, the body that is the vehicle for seeing" (248). Toombs distinction between the physiological body, the medicalized body, and the body as an active agent allows for empowerment. By positioning my own body as a "vehicle of seeing," I engage in a similar activism from the muscles and bones outward, my body challenging the rigid relationship between sanity and madness.

There is historical evidence for the constructed dichotomy between sanity and madness. As the "apothecary at Bethlem" (Digby 6), John Haslam's 1810 Illustrations of Madness defined madness as "being the opposite to reason and good sense, as light is to darkness, straight to crooked … if one party be right, the other must be wrong: because a person cannot correctly be said to be in his senses and out of his senses at the same time" (x). Haslam's assertion positions madness as the binary opposite of sanity and normality. Such a construct creates an immediate power dynamic between the two categories resulting in sanity and madness existing in static oppositionality; in such a structure, one cannot be sane and mad at the same time.

Ableist culture relies on this binary due to the stability it provides, due to the feeling of fear that arises when one witnesses difference, particularly a difference that is difficult to name. In examining the debate surrounding defining madness either too broadly or too narrowly, Dr. Peter Barry Shea argues that,

The definition of [madness] is not a simple matter. There is no satisfactory, all-embracing, all-purpose definition of [madness]. It simply does not exist. There are a number of separate mental disturbances which, traditionally, have been clumped together and called [madness] but they are a very disparate group of conditions indeed and it is very difficult to find a common unifying factor or thread to explain why they are clumped together in this way. (7)

The elusive and ambiguous definition of the term madness firstly serves to create uncertainty and fear (Wilson and Beresford). Gender and Women's Studies theorist Ellen Samuels notes that a similar uncertainty and ambiguity of defining also exists with a femme identity in queer culture, with mixed race individuals that can pass, as well as with people with an invisible disability. For Samuels, "by crossing the borders of identities, [one] reveals their instability" (Samuels 243). In other words, if one can enter a border that dominant culture privileges for one group, then the stability of the border, that exclusive space, is lost. Fear arises in border crossings related to sanity and madness particularly because it is difficult to identify what madness is. Likewise, ableist culture relies on the guarded border between sanity and madness because it provides security, a template that simulates distinction.

In order to examine the ways a border body can revise a binary structure, it is fruitful to investigate how border living has offered successful disruptions and ruptures in other fields. Framed in the discourses of Chicana/o Studies and Women's Studies, Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera served as my theoretical origin point when I began writing of living in the simultaneous spaces of sanity and madness. For Anzaldúa, a borderland exists "wherever two or more cultures edge each other" (preface); the physical border she addresses is the border between United States and Mexico. In this edging, cultures, languages, and identities shift. In this movement, in this combining of two unique spaces, a new identity forms. Anzaldúa speaks of the dual consciousness born out of being a mestiza, someone who has duel indigenous and Spanish ancestry: "As a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman's sister or potential lover" (102). Her discussion of border spaces results in a greater knowledge of how groups of people are controlled and regulated. She addresses the unnaturalness of being split and divided physically, sexually, spiritually, and racially. There is violence, a suturing of self, that happens in the borderland. As a border body, Anzaldúa lives between cultures, sexualities, and languages. Such identification reveals the constructed-ness of culture and sexuality and allows for multiple ways of being, for a dual existence in multiple spaces.

The concept of a border existence also occurs in queer studies, specifically in the work of Jacquelyn N. Zita who coined the term "border body" in the book Body Talk: Philosophical Reflections on Sex and Gender. Zita defines border bodies as "bodies defined by their transgression of normative sex and gender boundaries" (37). For Zita, such a body is "deviant" in that it refuses hegemonic alignments. Border bodies are particularly unique in that they "are out-of-bounds, defying conservative cultural norms and habitual expectations about how bodies are supposed to be sexed and gendered" (Zita 38). There is terror in this act. A body that affronts normativity, a body that comfortably exists in the gaps, has a transformative power. Such a body has the potential to revise and interrogate the rigidity of norms. Zita offers "a man who is too feminine, a woman who is too masculine, a man who desires men, a woman who desires women" (37), among others, as examples of queer border bodies. As such, within queer theory, a border body is one who exists in the fissures of what normative, heterosexist culture deems appropriate for men and for women.

Considering the ways that one can live in-between the strict binaries that regulate race, gender, and sexuality, I began to consider the applications of this in-betweenness for Disability Studies and Madness Studies. Identifying a border existence in the context of madness allows for movement away from the ableist assumption that one is either sane or mad, that one can never simultaneously exist between both spaces. Anzaldúa and Zita's theoretical discussions of borderlands and border bodies respectively have created a language and a framework of existing that I connect with, mind and body.

A mad border body exists in-between the fixed definitions of sanity and madness; this body is a duel inhabitant. I believe the mad border body reminds us, just as the mestiza and queer border body do, that identity categories are not given but constructed; identities are created in the act of edging, in the in-between living that dominant culture often scrutinizes and assumes invisible. Just as the queer border body demands we reinvestigate the contradistinctions between men and women, heterosexuality and homosexuality, the mad border body demands a similar deconstruction between the categories of sanity and madness. The mad border body challenges the belief that madness is an "individual pathology … [a] permanency of defect" (Wilson and Beresford 144). This body challenges the notion of permanent rigidity, the belief that madness diminishes one's ability to access full personhood. Thus, the role of the mad border body is to re-examine the ableist belief that one is either sane or mad, that one body cannot possess the attributes of both categories.

Ableism ascribes cultural meaning that is hierarchically opposed to the sane body to the mad body: violent, illogical, dangerous, dependent, burdensome (Institute for Information Studies). Cultural Studies theorist Stuart Hall highlights the effects of such cultural meaning making arguing that, "cultural meanings are not only 'in the head.' They organize and regulate social practices, influence our conduct and consequently have real practical effects" (3). In other words, social ideologies, culturally derived meanings, are not simply theoretical concepts; they have real, tangible effects. Here lies the toxicity of ableism: it is perpetuated not simply by the hands of an individual or a group of people, but more insidiously, by "social ideologies" (Siebers 33) and stereotypes.

This is where the speaking of madness complicates. As I enter into my own experiences as a mad border body, I need to acknowledge the dangers, the tangible effects, of disclosing. In the original writing of this essay, I did not address my own phenomenology of living as a mad border body because I was concerned about the personal and academic implications of confessing madness. Given the rigid, binaristic ways we view madness, I was concerned—and I still am—about the potential judgments that could arise from claiming madness. This is not a baseless fear. I am aware of the culture surrounding madness, the moves that solidify the mad as abnormal and as needing to be isolated from a "normal" population (Porter); to claim madness, in my mind, meant to claim the weighty history of instability and stigma that it accompanied (Foucault; Porter). It meant that if I occupied madness, to any degree, that I was by definition held at a constant distance from sanity. The implications of this were overwhelming.

Knowing this, the use of language as a tool for revising ableist ideologies still exists in me with internal conflict. I feel similarly linked to the mestiza's "psychic restlessness … [caught between] mental nepantilism, an Aztec word meaning torn between ways" (Anzaldúa 100). While I am aware of the strengths of speaking the body, I am also aware of the culture that informs the history of madness: a genealogy of fear and abjection. There is a fear of being considered unpredictable, illogical, dangerous, a dread that the entirety of my personhood will be judged and determined by a single part of me. In the article "Stigma Against Mental Illness," psychiatrist Narendra N. Wig identifies the varying emotional reactions that specific illnesses garner:

Most physical illnesses like a fracture or heart disease … causes a feeling of sympathy for the victim. Some other communicable diseases like tuberculosis …causes fear of catching the infection … Still others, like leprosy … causes feelings of disgust. Emotional reaction to [madness] is usually more than all these; it is perceived as something strange, mysterious, and also dangerous. (187)

The distinction between illnesses and the reactions they harvest make revealing madness, for me, an act involving risk. After a recent hospitalization that forced me to leave a teaching obligation two weeks early, I debated whether or not to tell my boss—who was not aware of my diagnosis—the reason for my hospitalization. Although I made the transition into finding an instructor to cover my class without any lost class time and though I provided that instructor with my remaining lesson plans, the potential fear of being considered incapable and unprofessional lingered. This was a greater concern particularly because of the implications of madness: "Except for unwanted behavior that can be attributed to the malfunctioning of brains damaged by trauma, tumors, or toxins, the diagnosis of madness is a moral judgment" (Sarbin and Keen 130, italics mine). After returning to work, when my boss asked me whether or not I was fine, instead of stating a simple yes, as a result of the discomfort of the situation and the fear of being found out as mad I blurted, "I'm fine, I just need two more weeks of physical therapy." The truth was that I needed two more weeks of group therapy, however, stating that something physical was wrong with me carried a less weighty stigma. Given the connotations surrounding madness, the word "physical," at that moment, served as a more manageable and acceptable adjective.

When connecting this to the stigma and stereotypes attached to madness, I am reminded of why I hesitate in speaking, yet alone in writing, from my body. How will my body be read in this active claiming of madness? Yet, then again, how can social ideologies and cultural meanings be challenged and deconstructed if I embody a refusal to speak? The belief that the only way of reading the mad body is as one devoid of the ability to reason and function is an inaccuracy that moves me to now use language as a form of protest and reclamation, to tell how my experiences as a mad border body sever the artificial dividing line between sanity and madness.

I have lived as a mad border body before manic-depression was a word I knew. In my first semester in college, I found myself forced to negotiate the rising and falling of moods along with my coursework. I did not possess what historian Roy Porter refers to as the "public transparency of madmen" (35). I attended classes like everyone else, turned in my assignments on time, and managed a part-time job. Despite these markers, these signs of productiveness, I struggled with my moods. My depression swelled with the slightest of gestures: walking from one classroom to another and seeing leaves gathered, the industrial smell of the soap in the restroom.

Sometimes, I found myself using bursts of energy to write and complete assignments. In other moments, I would sit reading and re-reading the same passage, unsure of what the letters were spelling, unsure of what the sentences meant. At first, no one knew of these internalized highs and lows. I was terrified of what was happening to me. I could not interpret it or rationalize it away. Having seen the movies One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Tom and Viv, I knew how dominant culture saw madness. Seeing what madness supposedly looked like terrorized me just as much as the overwhelming stretches of depression and the uncontrollable surges in mood. By the time I received my B.A., I had been hospitalized three times in the span of four years. I had battled moods and finally felt as though I had entered calmness. Though I no longer felt as though I was in a room without a door, I still felt fear surrounding what had happened to me. I was certainly not close to claiming my duel inhabitancy as a mad border body; the word madness was fearfully rooted fearfully within me.

A period of stability followed me as I began my M.A. program, majoring in English with an emphasis in creative writing. I began to teach a freshman composition course and continued tutoring at a writing center. My thesis, a book-length collection of poetry, crystalized my experiences. While my symptoms never completely went away, I was able to manage them. Soon, due to my constant negotiation of sanity and madness, I felt as though I existed in a border space. The totality of my being was not regulated to a place of complete sanity or complete madness; I rested in simultaneous in-betweenness. Stress and negativity would move me more toward madness, while moments of therapy, happiness, and balance would bring me back closer toward sanity. Although I still negotiated racing thoughts and depression, I found the acute intensities were severed at the ends. Even though I was not hospitalized throughout the two years it took me to complete my M.A., I considered myself living in a border space, always battling internally with moods, however tempered, that no one else, other than my family, close friends, and partner ever saw. My thesis became the space where I was able to further investigate these ideas; it became a space where I was able to re-contextualize my relationship to madness the word, madness the concept.

Upon graduating, I entered into a doctoral program where I majored in Cultural Studies. I further questioned the language that I had caged my body in: crazy, insane, incapable, and abnormal. I reexamined the implications of each word, the myths that they individually carried. As I continued studying Disability Studies, I realized that sanity, as a word, carried an oppressive, silencing power over me as a woman with manic-depression. My hospitalizations and diagnosis medicalized my experiences and distanced me from the nouns that are so frequently connected to sanity. Certainly, I had experienced madness, yet at the same time, I knew that my experiences and accomplishments positioned me, as Haslam stated, to be "in my senses" (x). This growing consciousness resulted in an active questioning of the binary sane/mad. Reflecting upon my lived experiences revealed to me the potential in re-writing oppressive ideologies about the body and madness. I could exist in the paradoxical space of being "in … and out of [my] senses at the same time" (Haslam x). As this new consciousness developed, I saw myself as a mad border body.

My fourth hospitalization occurred shortly after I completed my doctoral coursework and five months before I took my qualifying examination. During this hospitalization, after the development of my new consciousness as a mad border body, I was acutely aware of my existence in a middle ground. I continued writing, reading, and critically examining my moods and thoughts while I was in the hospital. I consciously challenged the cultural belief that the sane and logical individual cannot simultaneously be caught in moments of madness. My engagement in both states revealed to me the limitations of binaries. I was "defying conservative cultural norms and habitual expectations" (Zita 38) regarding how a sane body was to behave. I was successfully completing a terminal degree and working; however, I was also negotiating moments of madness. I was moving fluidly in both spaces. Once I was released from the hospital, I promptly returned to teaching and tutoring. I passed my exam as well as my proposal defense and earned the long awaited title, "all but dissertation."

For me, the new consciousness I cultivated around madness taught me that I could reclaim my bodily history. Through sharing my stories of madness the heavy weight of stigma and shame slowly lifted; I am now able to see and understand myself through a self-created lens, rather than through a reductive, ableist one. The act of owning a new understanding of madness, rather than being claimed by its negative, constructed lineage, has enacted within me deconstructive strengths.

These bodily experiences and transitions demonstrate that claiming madness outweighs the risks; counter-narratives of madness cannot exist without the act of telling. In this journey, I am reminded of Anzaldúa's use of language in border living as a way to protest and to create such counter-narratives. For Anzaldúa, language birthed in the borderland is interrogative; it challenges and questions the language and stories that instigate oppression and silence. Such language results in "a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave" (Anzaldúa 102). For Anzaldúa, then, the potency of language is in the ways it allows for revision and reclamation. Language used by the New Mestiza and her new border culture results in "conscious ruptures with all oppressive traditions of all cultures and religions. She [then] communicates that rupture, documents the struggle, and reinterprets history, and using new symbols, she shapes new myths" (Anzaldúa 104). Given this re-interpretive framework, language in the borderland creates space for the revisions of oppressions.

I now believe that the language used to reference madness is similarly constructed with the goal of oppression. Linton suggests that the language used by ableist culture "conveys passivity and victimization reinforces certain stereotypes when applied to disabled people" (25). Similar to the Anglocentric language that Anzaldúa argues is used to persecute women, particularly indigenous women, ableist language is used to render the mad voiceless (Beresford). The belief that the mad are dangerous, without logic and independence (Institute for Information Studies), functions as a reductive narrative. Given Anzaldúa's positioning of the New Mestiza as a border body who possesses the power of "reinterpreting history" and "shap[ing] new myths," I found myself ascribing similar strengths to the mad border body. As a mad border body, I too must re-examine the history of medical and stigmatic language used to frame my body. I must place all that I have been culturally and medically taught about madness, as Anzaldúa constructs, "through a sieve, winnow out the lies, look at the forces that we as a race, as women, have been a part of" (104). By reclaiming madness, as well as the language surrounding it, I can use language and the sharing of narrative as a form of protest. The stigmas of madness, the falsity of the sane/mad binary and the assumption that one cannot exist simultaneously in the border spaces of sanity and madness are all perpetuated by silence, by the act of refusing to tell one's story. By claiming madness, by stating that I am a mad border body, I am acknowledging the ways history is rewritten through language. I am taking apart what I have been taught of madness in order to create my own story.

At this point in my phenomenological exploration, I have arrived at a resting place within myself. I now inhabit and claim the mad border body as a positionality that questions the implications of undoing social ideologies and stereotypes, particularly those that construct madness as categorically distinct from sanity. If dominant culture begins to acknowledge the mad border body, that individuals can exist simultaneously in states of sanity and madness, then it must also question the belief that sanity is stable. The power in this questioning does not simply rest in the unhinging of binaries and re-visioning of language. I see the potential for activism in this revision, for the occurrence of tactile changes in how dominant culture and Madness Studies views the mad. In this way, the mad border body creates a space for dialogue, a framework for the political reframing of madness.

Works Cited

  • Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: the New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987. Preface, 100, 102, 104. Print.
  • Chamberlin, Judi. "The Ex-Patients' Movement: Where We've Been and Where We're Going." Journal of Mind and Behavior 11 (1990): 323-336. Print.
  • Corrigan, Patrick W. and Amy C. Watson. "Understanding the Impact of Stigma on People with Mental Illness." World Psychiatry 1.1 (2002): 16-20. Print.
  • Digby, Anne. Madness, Morality and Medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. x, 6. Print.
  • Foucault, Michel. History of Madness. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1972. Print.
  • Hall, Stuart. "The Work of Representation." Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Ed. Stuart Hall. London: Open University, 1997. 13-74. Print.
  • Haslam, John. Illustrations of Madness. 1810. London: Routledge, 1988. x. Print.
  • Institute for Information Studies. How to Make Friends and Influence the Media. Washington: National Institute of Handicapped Research, 1979. Print.
  • Levers, Lisa Lopez. "Representations of Psychiatric Disability in Fifty Years of Hollywood Film." Theory & Science 2.2 (2001): n.p. Print.
  • Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability. New York: New York University Press, 1998. 22, 24. Print.
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. London: Routledge, 1962.
  • Porter, Roy. Mind-Forg'd Manacles. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987. 35. Print.
  • Rosen, George. Madness in Society. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1968. Print.
  • Samuels, Ellen. "My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 9.1-2 (2003) 233-255. Print.
  • Sarbin, Theodore R. and Ernest Keen. "Sanity and Madness: Conventional and Unconventional Narratives of Emotional Life." Eds. Flack, William F., and James Laird. Emotions in Psychopathology: Theory and Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc. 1998. 130. Print.
  • Shea, Peter. Defining Madness. Leichhardt: Hawkins Press, 1999. 7. Print.
  • Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008. 33. Print.
  • Toombs, S. Kay. "Handbook of Phenomenology and Medicine Reflections on Bodily Change: the Lived Experience of Disability." Philosophy and Medicine 68 (2001) 247-261. Print.
  • Wigg, Narendra N. "Stigma Against Mental Illness" Indian J. Psychiatric 39.3 (1997) 187-189.
  • Wilson, Anne and Peter Beresford. "Madness, Distress and Postmodernity: Putting the Record Straight." Disability/Postmodernity: Embodying Disability Theory. Eds. Mairian Corker and Tom Shakespeare. London: Continuum, 2002. 144. Print.
  • Zita, Jacquelyn N. Body Talk. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. 37-38. Print.

Shayda Kafai is a doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies at Claremont Graduate University. She is currently working toward completing her dissertation, a focused investigation on the role of the body in disability performance art.


  1. I have chosen to use the term "madness" as opposed to "mental illness" for several reasons. Mental illness is language that is entrenched within the medical model. Madness on the other hand, while it was used as a derogatory term, has been reclaimed. Similar to the term queer, madness, in its reclamation and re-appropriation by individuals from within the community possesses agenic power. The use of madness within this article speaks to this history.
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  2. Although manic-depression is a term coined by the psychiatric community, and thus is a part of the medical model, I am not using it here to replicate those systems. Since this is the vocabulary we currently have, I am using it to describe the highs and lows in an individual's moods. Further, I am not using the term bipolar because, in agreement with Kay Redfield Jamison's argument in An Unquiet Mind, bipolar positions one's moods as very dichotomous and polarized. As a term it problematically suggests that one's depression and mania are distinct and never intersect.
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