Becoming Rational: Rhetoric, Agency, and Mental Illness

Open Access
Kuperavage, Jessica Lauren
Graduate Program:
Communication Arts and Sciences
Master of Arts
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
Committee Members:
  • Jeremy Engels, Thesis Advisor
  • mental illness
  • agency
  • rhetoric
In the wake of other minorities winning their civil rights mid-century, in the 1970s and 1980s the ACLU, fiscal conservatives, civil libertarians and other groups turned to increasing the liberties of people with mental illness. In the 1970s two significant rhetorical obstacles needed to be overcome by civil rights advocates in order to counter the authority of physicians treating mental patients: people with mental illness needed to be constituted as a single and united group, despite the variety and severity of illnesses represented, and they needed to be given the tools to speak to the broader public about their needs. Later, as people with mental illness became a visible contingent of the long-term homeless, another complication to their agency arose: that of the role of the physical body. In the first chapter of this thesis, I discuss The Rights of Mental Patients, which was first published in 1973. This book addresses common legal concerns about civil commitment. In this chapter, I argue that The Rights of Mental Patients shifts the agentic orientation of people with mental illness from marginalized group to citizen activists, both in the ways it frames the readers, and by teaching them how to speak. The second chapter examines Kenneth Donaldson’s book Insanity Inside Out, his memoir about experiences during civil commitment. I argue that the book both demonstrates Donaldson’s loss of agency in the institution and restores his agency by entering his experiences into public deliberation about civil commitment. The third chapter examines the ongoing debate in the New York Times about the rights of homeless people with mental illness in the 1980s, specifically during the winter, when the mayor sought to have them removed to shelters. By studying editorials and letters to the editor on this issue, I show the arguments that were made about the agency of homeless people with mental illness. By studying these texts, I argue that the opposition of the body and the mind in portrayals of mental patients complicates our understanding of rights and agency.