Author: Nellie Bly
Genre: Historical Non-Fiction
Pages: 96 (paperback)
Selected By: Elle Tea
“Nellie Bly took an undercover journalist assignment to pretend to be insane to investigate reports of brutality and neglect at mental asylums. After a night of practicing deranged expressions in front of a mirror, she checked into a working-class boarding house, where she feigned insanity so well that everyone was convinced. She was then examined by several doctors, who all declared her to be insane.
“Committed to an asylum, Bly experienced its dire conditions firsthand: horrible spoiled food; the patients mistreated and abused; unclean and unsanitary conditions. Furthermore, speaking with her fellow patients, Bly was convinced that some were as sane as she. After ten days, Bly was released with her editor’s help, and she published her experience in book form as Ten Days in a Mad-House. It caused a sensation and brought her lasting fame. More importantly, thanks to this book, living conditions for the insane were improved and funds for their care were increased.” – from the Amazon summary.
Elle Tea’s Review
Despite being a short and fairly quick read, this is a really interesting book and one that I would recommend whole-heartedly to anyone interested in this period of history, women’s rights, psychiatric practices of the 19th century, or American history. I also think it serves best as an introductory companion to Jeffrey Geller’s Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840 – 1945.
“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.”
The summary of the book really explains it best: this is an expose of a New York asylum in the 19th century. The conditions were dismal, the staff was comprised mostly of despots and bullies, and a startling number of the patients were quite probably completely sane – or, at least, they were completely sane when they were brought to Blackwell’s Island (whether they remained so was left unsaid for all save one who slowly lost her grip on reality while the author was behind the asylum’s walls). The populous and government were completely willing to accept the abysmal living conditions for society’s cast-off men and women without question until Nellie Bly’s (the alias used by journalist Elizabeth J. Cochrane) expose was published in New York World. Ms. Cochrane took an enormous risk in accepting this assignment: once in, it was very difficult for patients to prove their sanity (especially since the more emphatically one insisted that one was sane, the more insane one was determined to be), and it was only through the efforts of her editor that she was finally granted her freedom.
“My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly, I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head – ice-cold water, too – into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth. I think I experienced the sensation of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once, I did look insane.”
As long as I’m sure those ten days seemed for her, and as much mistreatment and neglect as she witnessed, this book really just represents the very tip of the iceberg that was psychiatric care for women in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a wonderful introduction to the topic, giving readers a bit of an understanding of how asylums were run (or were left to run) and what it was like to interact with the doctors and nurses from a patient’s perspective – but there is always a sense that Ms. Bly was on the outside looking in. She makes a point to remind readers that she is only there temporarily – reminders that make the plights of the women around her even more tragic: they have no hope of rescue and are completely at the mercy of their captors. Luckily, her ten days within the walls of the asylum did serve more of a purpose than just a bit of interesting reading: the public outcry caused by the article led to a review of the hospital system and administration, and more funds were eventually granted for the use of long-term psychiatric care facilities.
“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?… Take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”
My only real complaint is that Ms. Cochrane went to such great lengths to point out that many of the women with whom she was intimately acquainted during her stay at Blackwell’s treated her with kindness and were obviously completely sane – she repeatedly made comparisons to her sanity and their own, stating that they were at least as sane as she was – but then she provided us with no updates as to the their fates. When she returned with the investigators and other journalists, she found that the staff had been tipped off to their arrival and many of her acquaintances had been moved to other areas within the facility, making them – for reasons which are never explained – completely inaccessible. But Ms. Cochrane never seemed to have made any efforts towards securing the release of a single one of the women whom she herself knew were not in any way mad – indeed, she never even seemed to have attempted to visit or contact any of them at a later date to ensure their safety, or even to reach out to their family members to see if they knew under what conditions their relatives were truly being held.
As stated, this is a great introduction to this shady period in mental healthcare. But for those of you who really want to know how a majority of these sane women found themselves locked away from society (usually at the whim of a husband or other male relative) and what their lives were like during and (for the few who were able to secure a release later on) afterwards, make sure to also check out Women of the Asylum, which is a collection of journal entries and correspondences written by women who had no choice in their institutionalization.
Elle read the Kindle version of this book.