Dancing with Ophelia

Reconnecting Madness, Creativity, and Love

By Jeanne Ellen Petrolle

Subjects: Memoir, Psychology, Psychiatry, Transpersonal Psychology, Cultural Studies
Series: Excelsior Editions
Imprint: Excelsior Editions
Paperback : 9781438468785, 200 pages, March 2018

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Table of contents

Author’s Note

1. Through the Looking Glass

2. Where the Wild Things Are

3. Escape, Flight, Freedom, and Survival

4. Mad Love

5. Passions of the Mind

6. Traveling in the Underworld

7. Dark Nights of the Soul

8. Burning Alive and Rising from the Dead

9. The Power of the Paradigm

10. Things We Do with Words


Uses real-life episodes of psychosis and recovery to show how poetic paradigms for thinking about psychiatric symptoms can enlarge contemporary understandings of mental illness and improve long-term treatment outcome.


"Twenty-two years ago, I lost my mind. " So begins Jeanne Ellen Petrolle's fascinating personal narrative about her mental illness and recovery. Drawing on literature, art, and philosophy, Petrolle explores a unique understanding of madness that allowed her to achieve lasting mental health without using long-term psychiatric drugs.

Traditionally, Western literature, art, and philosophy have portrayed madness through six concepts created from myth—Escape into the Wild, Flight from a Scene of Terror, Visit to the Underworld, Dark Night of the Soul, Spiritual Passion, and Fire in the Mind. Rather than conceptualizing madness as "illness," a mythopoetic concept assumes that madness contains symbolic meaning and offers valuable insight into human concerns like love, desire, sex, adventure, work, fate, spirituality, and God. Madness becomes an experience that unleashes extraordinary creativity by generating the spiritual insight that fuels artistic productivity and personal transformation. By weaving her personal experiences with the life stories and work of surrealist painter Leonora Carrington and modernist novelist Djuna Barnes, Petrolle shows how poetic thinking about severe mental distress can complement strategies for managing mental illness. This approach allowed her, and hopefully others, to produce better long-term treatment outcomes.

Jeanne Ellen Petrolle is Associate Professor of English and Cultural Studies at Columbia College Chicago and the author of Religion without Belief: Contemporary Allegory and the Search for Postmodern Faith, also published by SUNY Press.


"This fascinating work is an insightful examination of historical and contemporary conceptions of madness. " — CHOICE

"This is an extraordinary book that combines meticulous literary scholarship with memoir. It bravely challenges us to reconsider and reframe mental illness, defined here as an 'ultimate adventure in selfhood' that connects to beauty, creativity, and the sublime. As it traces how skepticism of prevailing attitudes and treatments can save lives, Dancing with Ophelia is also, at its root, a deeply spiritual book that grapples with love, courage, ambition, and the idea of God. " — Aviya Kushner, author of The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible

"This book offers an interesting and engagingly written exploration of mental distress that draws on a range of literary and scholarly sources in combination with personal experience. It sits within the small, but growing, body of work that interweaves personal narrative with an academic analysis of 'illness' or disruption. " — Deborah Bowman, coauthor of Informed Consent: A Primer for Clinical Practice