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Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meanings of Madness

In a Victorian-era German asylum, seamstress Agnes Richter painstakingly stitched a mysterious autobiographical text into every inch of the jacket she created from her institutional uniform. Despite every attempt to silence them, hundreds of other patients have managed to get their stories out, at least in disguised form. Today, in a vibrant underground network of “psychiatric survivor groups” all over the world, patients work together to unravel the mysteries of madness and help one another recover. Optimistic, courageous, and surprising, Agnes’s Jacket takes us from a code-cracking bunker during World War II to the church basements and treatment centers where a whole new way of understanding the mind has begun to take form.

A vast gulf exists between the way medicine explains psychiatric illness and the experiences of those who suffer. Hornstein’s luminous work helps us bridge that gulf, guiding us through the inner lives of those diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar illness, depression and paranoia, and emerging with nothing less than a new model for understanding one another and ourselves.

“Riveting, revolutionary and important--not to mention exquisitely written--Agnes's Jacket tells us what we should have been doing all along.”

–Joanne Greenberg, author of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

“An amazing psychological adventure story. Hornstein, an academic psychologist with the skills of a first-rate journalist, enters the world of the truly ‘mad’ and comes out with profound lessons about her profession and herself. In a revolutionary break with therapeutic tradition, she says we need to listen to the voices these disturbed patients hear. But first we need to listen to her!”

–Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

“Compelling and beautifully done.”

–Susie Orbach, author of The Impossibility of Sex: Stories of the Intimate Relationship between Therapist and Patient

“Agnes’s Jacket takes readers on a mesmerizing journey ... Every page is animated by Hornstein’s curiosity, her candor, and her evident empathy for those who have bravely welcomed her into their lives.”

–Robert Whitaker, author of Mad in America

“Useful, passionate, and well-informed ... distinguished by its understanding of what madness is and feels like to those who experience it.”

-Jay Neugeboren, author of Imagining Robert and Transforming Madness

“Hornstein attacks the stigma attached to mental illness with enormous originality and imagination ... She has brought into the light a true literature of protest.”

–Patrick McGrath, author of Spider and Trauma

“A journey into worlds most of us have never heard of, where the question becomes not ‘what’s wrong with you’ but ‘what happened to you, and how did you manage to survive?’ In an age riveted by brain scans and talk of chemical imbalance, Agnes’s Jacket bears witness to the fact that the mad are carrying stories they need to tell. As Hornstein reminds us, madness is more code than chemistry.”

–Carol Gilligan, author of In a Different Voice