Rowan Pelling: I have finally grown out of my youthful ambition to be bonkers

Women who go off the rails are sexy. But the Pelling genes are just too sturdy for that
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The Independent Online

Do you think women are just that bit more bonkers than men?" asked a female friend as we had lunch last week. "Almost certainly," I said, thinking momentarily of frizzy-haired Jo on The Apprentice. Any bloke in a suit could be Sir Alan's whipping boy, but it takes a woman to be that magnificently tonto and un-cowed by the old bully.

My friend and I were discussing the current crop of "mad lit". Four impressive books by female writers have hit my doormat in the past month, all of which could loosely come under that particular literary umbrella. There's Elizabeth Speller's beautiful and haunting memoir The Sunlight on the Garden, which traces a history of mental instability through the female line of the author's family. Mary Loudon's moving Relative Stranger, a voyage of discovery around the death of her schizophrenic sister. Clare Allan's pyrotechnic first novel Poppy Shakespeare, set in a psychiatric ward (the author is herself a former long-term patient of such an institution). And then there's a compelling account of one woman's lifelong dysfunctional relationship with food, Candida Crewe'sEating Myself, which persuasively argues that the author's abnormality is in actual fact most women's reality. Take it from me, the sisterhood doesn't look too stable after you've devoted yourself to this particular school of literature for a few weeks.

Reading the four books provided a vivid reminder of the different ways psychiatric disorders can manifest themselves in the two sexes. Whereas female mad lit often roots itself in emotional and familial terrain, male writing about madness tends to be grounded in facts and forensic medical examination of such conditions as manic depression. When men suffer breakdowns the fallout is often explosive and destructive to the world around the sufferer, whereas with women the process of deterioration is frequently gradual, interior in its expression and inclined towards self-harm. Women cut and starve themselves, pop pills and purge and slyly hit the gin. Men bottle their emotions, deny the despair and the damage, then blow a fuse. Knives, fists, rage, whisky, hard drugs and suicide: this is the terrain of which bewildered relatives whisper, "He just went mad." Male lunacy is a big marauding beast on the psychiatric safari, whereas the female variety is a pet cobra, harboured in the bosom.

This also probably explains why men with psychiatric disorders are seldom viewed as sexually desirable, while women in the throes of madness often are. The veils that obscure the extent of a woman's instability exude a powerful sense of mystery. Indeed Elizabeth Speller's memoir is compelling in her candid examination of the fact that her allure was intensified in men's eyes by periods of mental fragility.

I first became keenly aware that madness in a woman might not be viewed as entirely undesirable when I was a student at Oxford in the late 1980s. The Gallic shag-fest Betty Blue was a seminal film for my generation. You soon came to understand that any male undergraduate with pretensions to the arts was looking for a sultry sack-artist who renounced such dreary qualities as reason, humour, kindliness and restraint, and might ultimately prove her lunatic credentials by gouging out a chunk of flesh. I suspected several female contemporaries of affecting their bruised demeanour and hurling of crockery to better enhance their bid to be a femme fatale. It was hard not to slap some lovelorn male friends with their Pavlovian refrains of, "I'd better go after her - I don't know what she'll do." "Read Tatler in bed with a packet of Hobnobs until you turn up, you deluded sap," I often thought.

But there were plenty of other women who had no need to strain for effect; their less flamboyant aberrations weren't so highly prized, however. Brilliant girls whose quest for academic excellence was undermined by a crippling lack of self-confidence, who rocked sobbing in lavatory cubicles at the Bodleian Library. Females whose intellectual and social insecurities were sublimated to a pitched battle over food, while their wasting and bingeing took place behind closed doors. The most severely affected trudged back and forwards between tutorials and the Warneford psychiatric hospital, leaving little space for relationships. In any case, anorexia is often linked to the rejection of puberty and womanhood, while bulimia is frequently rooted in self-loathing. Neither is conducive to revealing your body to another person.

I too binged and vomited throughout my student years, though I have to admit I wasn't a very convincing bulimic and even gained weight. I lacked the discipline to ensure every last bit of food was purged. I also felt deep down that there was something too robust and pragmatic in my barmaid stock to fully succumb to the seductive lure of the psychiatrist's couch. It seemed to me real madness took breeding, flair or commitment. I would never be lusted after like the cool society girls who had "a bit of an episode" after taking too many drugs in India.

It's probably just as well that at that susceptible time of my life I didn't know my paternal grandmother hadn't died before the war, as my father told my mother, but had spent most of her life in an institution, surviving well into her nineties and only dying in 1981. We never found out the exact diagnosis, but the most likely trigger seems to be the death of a baby at birth and my grandfather going bankrupt. At the age of 20 I would have swallowed the myth that there's something romantic - almost admirable - in such a gothic episode lurking in the family chronicles. Now I am nearly 40 I know there is only tragedy and desolation in mental illness, and the young men who idolise and date unstable young women rarely grow up to marry them.

All the four books I was sent contain this truth: normality is the Holy Grail. The three authors who themselves wrestled with some degree of psychiatric disorder all appear thankfully to have recovered sufficiently to achieve some degree of that blessed banal state. As the Louis MacNeice poem from which Elizabeth Speller's book takes its title concludes, I am sure they are "grateful too/For sunlight on the Garden".