The sexualization of mental illness in postwar American literature

Patricia Ann Grisafi, Fordham University


The Sexualization of Mental Illness in Postwar American Literature argues how writers during the Cold War period chose to use a rhetorical strategy that associated mental illness with sexuality in order to challenge power structures, especially those regarding gender norms. I assert that Jim Thompson, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Allen Ginsberg create work that sexualizes mental illness to counter predominant conceptions about gender and sexuality such as power dynamics between men and women and the politics of masculinity and femininity. These writers created literature that responded to the anxieties of the Cold War: peoples’ true identities are often opaque, nonconformist behavior is threatening, the re-articulation of domestic roles is destructive, and transgressive sexuality is dangerous. By exploring how these writers engaged with medical discourse as well as Cold War culture, I argue that they both challenged gendered sexual roles as well as subverted expectations about what mental illness looks like and how it can be performed in the public sphere. Additionally, I argue that these writers help us understand that we need to be attuned to the real distress of mental illness while at the same time instruct us to avoid pathologizing what culture labels as abnormal.

Subject Area

American literature|Gender studies

Recommended Citation

Grisafi, Patricia Ann, "The sexualization of mental illness in postwar American literature" (2016). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10013436.