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Review of "People Like Ourselves"

By Jacqueline Noll Zimmerman
Scarecrow Press, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jul 4th 2006
People Like Ourselves

People Like Ourselves discusses about 70 movies in seven chapters, each with its own broad theme.  These are titled:

  1. The Price of Conformity: The False Self
  2. The Denial of Reality
  3. Hitchcock, Chaos, and the Devils
  4. Women Who Can't Forget
  5. Divine Madness: Poets, Prophets
  6. War: A Battle for the Mind and Spirit
  7. Violence and Mental Illness

Zimmerman mainly discusses well-known Hollywood films, such as Dead Poets Society, The Snake Pit, Ordinary People, Psycho, Sophie's Choice, The Fisher King, Saving Private Ryan, and The Silence of the Lambs.  But she also includes some more obscure films, such as An Angel at My Table, Raintree Country, and Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams.  For nearly each film, Zimmerman sets out the basic plot and comments on various aspects of the portrayal of mental illness.  She does not have any overall thesis for which she is arguing, and she does not employ any theoretical apparatus in her discussion.  The films are grouped together loosely by theme, but the book is best approached by browsing through it.  It will provide the reader with ideas for films to watch, especially for those who are looking for illustrations of particular themes or ideas.  For example, in my teaching medical ethics, the culture of madness, and disability studies, I include discussion the ways in which mental illness is represented, so Zimmerman's book will be a useful tool for me to find more films to use in my classes, and to plunder for points about the films I use. 

However, I would not recommend trying to read the book from start to finish.  There's not enough unity to the chapters for readers to get much from taking them as essays, and unless one has seen all the films discussed, it is very difficult to assess Zimmerman's descriptions.  The writing style is a little awkward, and often reads like a series of rather unconnected points, and ultimately she doesn't seem to have any gripping general points to make.  For example, in the forth chapter, her conclusion seems to be that, "In films, Hollywood has managed on several occasions to explore, convincingly, the hold the past can have and its relationship to mental illness" (p. 89).  She might be right about this, but it is a very anticlimactic conclusion.

  The topic of the portrayal of mental illness in popular culture is fascinating, and there should be more discussion and analysis of it. While Zimmerman's book does not do much to advance our conceptual understanding of the issues, it does provide a starting point for others who want to explore these issues further.  Recommended for libraries, or library borrowing.


© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.