7 Institutionalised Female Writers

Authors’ suffering from mental instability is a subject that has interested me since reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

Here are 7 female writers who were institutionalised:


Unica ZürnZurn(July 6th 1916 – 19th October 1970)

Unica Zürn was a German born author, poet and painter. Zürn began writing radio plays and short stories shortly after the end of World War II. In 1957 whilst living in France she began to suffer increasingly from mental health issues. The writer went on to spend time in various psychiatric facilities in Paris and Berlin. Her struggle with mental illness influenced much of her writing, most notably Der Mann im Jasmin. She committed suicide in 1970.


Zelda Sayre FitzgeraldZelda Fitzgerald(July 24th 1900 – March 10th 1948)

Novelist, poet and short story writer Zelda Fitzgerald was the wife of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. The party-going pair’s tempestuous marriage came under strain due to Scott’s rampant alcoholism. Zelda suffered from increasing mental instability, and in 1930 she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Zelda was a patient in the Sheppard Pratt sanatorium in Towson when in 1932 she wrote the semi-autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz. In 1948 the author died when the mental hospital she was residing in burnt down.


Janet FrameFrame(August 28th 1924 – January 29th 2004)

Novelist, poet, short story writer and essayist Janet Frame is widely considered to be one of New Zealand’s best ever authors. Frame’s traumatic childhood saw 2 of her sisters drowned. In 1945 she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalised. The author was saved from a lobotomy, when days prior to the procedure, she unexpectedly won a national literary contest. In 1961 her novel Faces in the Water was published. It went on to become a best seller in her native country.


Sylvia PlathSylvia Plath(October 27th 1932 – February 11th 1963)

Sylvia Plath was well known for her poetry during her short-life. Examples of her early success included winning The Glascock Prize for poetry in 1955. Plath suffered from bipolar disorder, and in 1953 spent 6 months in a psychiatric facility after a suicide attempt. In 1963 Plath committed suicide. She went on to achieve posthumous fame for her mental health themed semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, which was published in the UK a month after her death.


Suzanna Kaysen Kaysen(Born: November 11th 1948)

American author Suzanna Kaysen is best remembered for her memoir Girl, Interrupted. In 1967 she was sent to the McClean Hospital for psychiatric treatment for depression. It was here that she was diagnosed as having borderline personality disorder. Her 18-month stint in the facility provided the material for her seminal work, Girl, Interrupted. In 1999 the book was adapted for the silver screen. In the film Winona Ryder portrays Kaysen.


Valerie ValereValere(November 1st 1961- 17th December 1982)

French author Valerie Valere was only 13 years old when she was incarcerated in an asylum due to her anorexia. She later wrote a novel, Le Pavillon des infants fous, which is about this traumatic period in her life. Valere went on to write several other books before her premature demise at the age of 21. The exact cause of her death remains unknown, but it is suspected it was due to an overdose.


Anne SextonAnne Sexton(November 9th 1928 – October 4th 1974)

Anne Sexton was a Pulitzer Prize winning American poet. Themes in her confessional style verse included her mental instability and depression. Sexton, who suffered from bipolar disorder and had suicidal tendencies, was institutionalised on multiple occasions. It was during a stint in Glenside Hospital that her therapist suggested she start writing poetry as a form of therapy. Madness and depression are reoccurring themes in much of Sexton’s writing. The poet committed suicide at the age of 45.

I haven’t forgotten about male authors who were institutionalised.  There will be a post dedicated to them.


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