This was, perhaps, Sheehan’s greatest challenge, and it’s one she masters memorably in the book’s opening pages:

Shortly after midnight on Friday, June 16, 1978, Sylvia Frumkin decided to take a bath. Miss Frumkin, a heavy, ungainly young woman who lived in a two-story yellow brick building in Queens Village, New York, walked from her bedroom on the second floor to the bathroom next door and filled the tub with warm water. A few days earlier, she had had her hair cut and shaped in a bowl style, which she found especially becoming, and her spirits were high. She washed her brown hair with shampoo and also with red mouthwash. Some years earlier, she had tinted her hair red and had liked the way it looked. . . . She imagined that the red mouthwash would somehow be absorbed into her scalp and make her hair red permanently. Miss Frumkin felt so cheerful about her new haircut that she suddenly thought she was Lois [sic]* Lemaris, the mermaid whom Clark Kent had met in college and had fallen in love with in the old “Superman” comics. . . .

On the way out of the bathtub, Sylvia slips, smashes the back of her head, and ends up in a hospital emergency room. Because she is psychotic, she then gets sent to Creedmoor—and the book’s journey begins.

Is There No Place on Earth for Me? is divided into four parts that, taken together, tell three stories: what happens to Sylvia once she gets to Creedmoor; her personal and family history in the years before her hospitalization; and a larger tale about how mental-health care has evolved over the decades to the point where Sylvia finds herself enduring her eighth trip to Creedmoor and is confined there for months on end.

In the mid-1950s, the rise of new psychotropic drugs sparked a nationwide effort to move patients out of state mental hospitals and back into their communities. As patient populations shrank and state budgets did, too, these hospitals came to feel like rickety, forgotten places to those patients who’d been left behind. For someone like Sylvia, who was too sick to survive on her own, even in a supervised setting, Creedmoor remained her de facto home, albeit one that, Sheehan writes, “smelled of coffee, stale cigarettes, and unwashed and incontinent patients.”

In many ways, Is There No Place on Earth for Me? is a textbook on how to report inside a closed institution. Step one, of course, is getting inside. Sheehan doesn’t detail exactly how she pulled this off, but the book’s acknowledgements section offers a couple clues. The first person she thanks is the hospital’s director, who, she writes, “welcomed me to Creedmoor” and “encouraged me to spend 24 hours a day at his institution.” As she puts it, he told her: “Talk to everyone, go to all our meetings, and let the public know how bad things are here, and perhaps they will get better.” For a journalist, it’s hard to imagine sweeter words than those.

The benefit of walking in through the front door—rather than, say, feigning insanity and getting committed, as Nellie Bly famously did to report on the “Women’s Lunatic Asylum” in New York City in 1887—is that you can do in-depth interviews with everyone you encounter, reporter’s pad in hand, a task that’s much harder to pull off when you’re busy pretending to be crazy. By weaving together everybody’s point of view—Sylvia, her parents, sister, psychiatrists, therapy aides, hospital administrators—Sheehan presents a devastating picture not only of the ferocious power of schizophrenia to destroy one woman’s prospects of a decent life, but of the ways in which those charged with caring for her, despite their good intentions, often made a bad situation worse.

*****

Jennifer Gonnerman is a contributing writer for New York and Mother Jones. Her book Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award.