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Gendering psychosis: the illness of Zelda Fitzgerald


Psychiatric textbooks tend to describe psychosis as it is experienced by men. The well-documented illness of Zelda Fitzgerald illustrates the feminine side of psychosis. The distinctive features of Zelda's illness—its specific precipitants, the timing of its onset, the discontinuities in its course, the pronounced mood swings, the preservation of intellect and of agency, the maintenance of human ties, the association of flare-ups with immune and hormonal changes, the responsiveness to treatment, the lifelong creativity and productivity—show the female side of psychotic illness, one that is rarely described in diagnostic manuals. This paper relies on Nancy Milford's biography of Zelda, as well as on several other biographical sources and, using Zelda's own words and the words of her husband and friends, allows entry into a feminine world of psychosis, not encountered in textbooks. The expression of psychotic illness varies from person to person, its exact shape depending on many factors, most of them still undetermined, but gender is a critically important core component of variance.

  • Gender studies

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