RIT English Professor Explores History and Evolution of ‘Mania’

Author also reveals personal struggle with mental illness




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Lisa Hermsen

“I am bipolar and have a medical diagnosis. And I am a freak; I am mad. There are no two options; I am both and more. I can have it both ways. And…I can tell a good story.”
—Lisa Hermsen, associate professor, Rochester Institute of Technology

Mania. Throughout centuries, the word has been synonymous with madness, fury, rage and frenzy. Although its meanings have shifted over time, the word has remained connected, even in clinical descriptions, to the same madness and rage. As a result, it is profoundly affecting individuals living with medical and psychological conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety.

In her latest book, Manic Minds: Mania’s Mad History and its Neuro-Future, Lisa Hermsen, associate professor and chair of Rochester Institute of Technology’s English department in the College of Liberal Arts, traces the multiple ways in which the word “mania” has been used by popular, medical and academic writers. She also explains the way medical professionals analyzed the manic condition during the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Today, we don’t classify people using the terms lunacy, insanity or melancholy, but the word ‘mania’ still appears as a diagnosis,” says Hermsen. “The problem with the world ‘mania’ is that it carries madness with it. Madness lingers with mania and can’t be shaken. The purpose of this book is to talk about what kind of language we can use to change how we think about madness. The word mania and the baggage that comes along with it interfere with people’s ability to manage their disorders.”

Hermsen, who teaches courses at RIT in the rhetoric of science and the history of madness, knows firsthand about the struggle with the perception of mania. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her early 20s. Many of her colleagues and students had formerly been unaware of her diagnosis, but Hermsen believed that her admission was necessary to include in the book.

“My husband and I talked about whether I should ‘out myself’ in the book as someone who lives with bipolar disorder,” says Hermsen. “I feared that my colleagues and students would look at me differently if they knew—and maybe some will. But if my intention is to help others understand the history of their disease and learn that it can be managed, lived with and that these individuals can become successful, then I knew there was no way I could leave it out.”

Throughout the book, Hermsen offers in-depth analysis of contemporary figures that have written from within the illness itself, as well as her thoughts on her personal experiences with mania. Hermsen’s story was included in the book based in part on a note that was sent to her from an RIT alumnus who experienced a serious depression that temporarily interrupted his studies. The note says, “I’m glad to see someone like us chairing the English department.”

Hermsen writes: “By emerging from this diagnostic silence, I am able to tell a story beyond my own limited narrative. There were certainly times during the writing when I had to come to terms with the debilitating effects of a manic episode—the bodily reality of psychic tension, times when linguistic power eluded me. But in the end, I hope to have written with the confidence and credibility of one who possesses a dynamic relationship to mania.”

Hermsen’s book is available for $23.95 at rutgerspress.rutgers.edu or amazon.com.

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Lisa Hermsen

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A. Sue Weisler

Lisa Hermsen’s new book, Manic Minds: Mania’s Mad History and its Neuro-Future, traces the word “mania” and its uses throughout history and offers in-depth analysis of contemporary manic autobiographies.