Routledge, London (2015)
ISBN: 9780415739450 (hb)
Reviewed by Catriona Hugman, Northumbria University
When this book dropped through the letterbox I had no idea what to expect from Nicole Moulding. I’d been intrigued enough by the title and blurb to review it, but I had no idea how she was going to approach the trauma in people’s lives. It quickly became apparent that this was a much needed contribution to the feminist sociology of mental health and abuse. Whilst feminists have contributed to the field of understanding sexual, physical and domestic abuse there has been little work to develop a more critical approach to emotional abuse and its affects. Moulding has therefore had her work cut out. This book is particularly relevant in the UK where in 2014 the coalition government proposed legislation, the ‘Cinderella Law’, to tackle children’s experiences of emotional abuse.
The book begins with a detailed overview of the way in which feminist analyses have approached childhood physical and sexual abuse, demonstrating important developments in the way in which these experiences are approached and theorised. The early chapters are theoretically rich, this may pose a barrier to newcomers, but it does provide a good grounding in feminist approaches to the field.
Whilst the qualitative data used in the book is from Australia, the topic and its arguments will be useful for those researching and working with survivors of abuse. Moulding clearly reports the methodology she used and the rationale for drawing data from three separate studies for this work. However more details about the limitations, ethical dimensions and practical difficulties here would help others, conducting research into sensitive areas, learn from Moulding’s experiences. Through the use of a Foucauldian inspired discourse and thematic analysis Moulding has designed a feminist theoretical framework. This focuses on the ‘situated intersubjectivity and its emphasis on the entwinement of the symbolic and material’ (p.42) dimensions of participants’ accounts.
At the beginning of the book Moulding describes and reflects on her own journey with feminism. Describing the ‘relief’ she felt from the credence that the ‘personal is political’ (p.33), the question is then: has this book communicated how individual experiences of abuse, trauma and mental health are political?
Overall this has been achieved through a nuanced discussion of very complicated ideas. Throughout the chapters focusing on narratives of emotional abuse, eating disorder, recovery and domestic violence Moulding continually reiterates their cultural and social dimensions. Through this she presents the complexities of her participant’s accounts, working with the ambiguities produced to explore the contradictions inherent within gendered discourses. However, this political element is often soft and vague; this may well be a direct consequence of the discursive post-structural paradigm. One particularly pertinent example is in the way that Moulding pays attention to how selfhood and personhood are discursively constructed. She shows that women spoke of being a good, or better person; men on the other hand, conflated their personhood to being a better man. Furthermore, the analytical approach has also reiterated the dissonance between survivor understandings of emotional distress and disorders and the medicalised approach taken by those who are positioned as professionals to help. What comes through strongly is that some women reject medicalised notions of their emotional distress. This adds to the discussion about how mental illness is diagnosed and subjectively negotiated. Overall recovery as a concept is underexplored in this book. It has already been shown that this is a politically loaded concept that has its history in the psychiatric survivor movements, but has recently been appropriated by the medical professions.
This book is a significant development; through analysis Moulding has contextualised individual experiences of emotional abuse, trauma and domestic violence. The evidence and arguments in this book successfully problematize individualised approaches to emotional distress, eating disorders, self-harm, anxiety and depression. Moulding’s work resonates with other sociologists and feminists researching the affective dimensions of mental health, trauma, abuse and recovery as it explores the way in which dominant approaches individualises the influence of societal factors.