... the book feels at once crafted, its prose full of calibrated grace, and startlingly unmediated. No brush (with obscurity) is necessary to buff its surface ... Howland seems reluctant to reinscribe the cruelties of these categories: sick and well, normal and abnormal. Suspicious of the ways in which they are delineated, she proceeds according to a simpler binary. Those who suffer are patients. Those who don’t are not ... The choice for Howland thus becomes one between the vulnerability of the inmate and the brusque, fatuous bullying of the keeper ... Her tone, recounting the stampede toward the doors, feels slightly mocking. She’s no longer present in the anguish of the moment, but she isn’t explaining it to us from without, either. Instead, she seems to be ironically reconstructing a flood of feelings that has already subsided, serving them up as a wry, self-conscious simulation: 'We’re being forced, that’s what it is!' There’s the nauseating sense that Howland is veering ever closer to a real, claustrophobic horror—one that even now lunges toward her, out of the past—but, thank God, the doors are sliding shut ... Howland holds her life at arm’s length; recounting a nurse’s rudeness or a fellow-inmate’s aggression, she sounds grateful for the good material ... It all feels like an attempt to overwrite, or perhaps just write away from, the present tense of suffering—which, for Howland, is akin to madness. Similes, any device that transforms a thing into what it is not, become helpmeets: if Howland’s mother suggests a glamorous animal, then the patients appear as beautiful aliens ... When people write about their rendezvous with mental illness, there are often a few false notes scattered among the true ones, places where the meaning of the thing feels not fully absorbed. Howland’s book struck me as remarkably perceptive and wise, but there was one passage, toward the end, that protruded as an exception .. This may not be the smug sentimentality of the memoir’s psychiatrists, who are eager to congratulate Howland for submitting to their expert care. But it does seem to contain the felt truth of someone who parted from her life and then returned. No one is going to rediscover you. You have to rediscover yourself.
This is not a story of mere neglect but of a writer’s collusion with invisibility, with a lifelong ambivalence toward selfhood and its burdens ... The onus of personality, the weight of the past, crop up often in Howland’s work ... As that first paragraph portended, this is a story about her neighbor’s heart, not her own — an anthology of the lives she encounters in the ward known as W-3 ... here’s a refusal to romanticize sickness or health. Her suffering doesn’t make her unique or interesting; instead it folds her into a common experience. Her insistence is on telling the story of a collective with blunt clarity, and sidestepping the genre’s potential for sentimentality or sensationalism. She brings the particularities of the world to life, how hair care was a miserable problem for the women of the ward; everyone just gave up and resorted to wearing towels like turbans ... It’s what hooked me — the temperature of the prose, its cool watchfulness. The narration isn’t distant, but it isn’t intimate either. Howland isn’t interested in redemption or instruction — but something more elusive ... It’s that quality of depiction that Howland seems to pursue — the clarity that allows readers to feel as if we are encountering the ward itself, Zelma herself, and not the narrator’s projections, not her own need.
... a slim, witty and uncompromising memoir ... Structured less as a self-portrait and more as a mosaic, Howland tells the stories of her fellow patients with astuteness and empathy. She contextualizes the late 1960s milieu—with its ubiquitous racism and misogyny—in which she and her peers had become ill and were now attempting to get well. Calmly, coolly, she recounts the astonishing sexism of the medical profession that had dismissed her troubles ... With its incisive humor and unsparing descriptions, W-3 refuses a tidy resolution, instead showing how all the 'clumsy, good intentions' in the world can't always provide a cure for the horror and tedium of losing one's mind.