Monday, June 25, 2012

Review: Ten Days in a Mad-House

Original Publication Date:  1887

Genre:  Non-Fiction, History

Topics:  Women as Victims, Mental Illness

Review:  I did a Google search for "Best Librivox recordings" and one of the first suggestions I came across was Nellie Bly's Ten Days in a Mad-House.  It's hard to read that title and not be uber-intrigued, so I downloaded the book immediately and was able to listen to it in just one afternoon.

Nellie Bly  is the pen name of one of those fantastic women who seems to have been lost in history.  She was one of the first female journalists in the US, and this book is an expose of her time working undercover, posing as a patient at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island in New York.  She also took a very fast trip around the world in only 72 days, beating Jules Verne's fictional trip of 80 days.  She married a millionaire 40 years older than her (making him around 70 at the time of their marriage) and became president of Iron Clad, going on to invent items and getting patents in her own name.  Then she went bankrupt and returned to reporting, choosing the topics of World War I's Eastern Front and women's suffrage on which to focus.

Oh, and after writing this book, a grand jury investigation was initiated into the treatment of inmates of insane asylums.  Bly was a key witness who helped increase the budget for the ill by almost $1 million.

Pretty awesome, right?

In the narrative, Bly comes off as an intrepid, determined and very engaging woman.  She manages to fool a lot of people into thinking she's insane to get her into the lunatic asylum, only to find once she is incarcerated that none of the medical staff is inclined to believe that she (or any of the other women) is actually quite sane and should be released.  Bly is clearly horrified by this fact, pointing out that if the doctors are there to help treat patients, then they should run tests and see if their treatments are working so that people can be released.  Bly also spotlights many women in the asylum who were not insane, but somehow ended up there because their families couldn't afford them or their husbands didn't trust them.  She told the story of a very sane German woman who did not know English; the doctors didn't know German and made no attempt to find a translator, so the poor woman was incarcerated with very little hope of ever being released, just because of a language barrier.

The conditions were horrifying- there was no heat, the baths were cold and harsh, the food was miserable, and the doctors seemed to completely ignore the women.  I couldn't help but think about all the women who were quite sane when they arrived at the hospital but probably went slowly insane because of the hopelessness of their situations.  While many of the women did suffer from mental illness, there were many that were incarcerated through the workings of their families, and it was very disturbing to see how little access to help they had.

It feels wrong to say that I enjoyed reading a book about poor women being locked up and slowly driven insane.  But Bly's writing is crisp, she is an excellent investigative reporter, and the Librivox narrator was a very engaging reader.  I am so glad to have learned more about Nellie Bly, too, who sounds like an amazing woman.  Really great historical source on mental illness and how women particularly were made to suffer at the hands of men who had no idea how to diagnose or treat illness (case in point:  Nellie never acted insane while in the asylum, but everyone insisted that she was insane.  She was only there for 10 days, so was able to withstand this onslaught, but what about the women who were told this so many times, for many years?).  This piece resulted in some big, important changes to the system in New York, and we have a lot to thank this amazingly brave woman for!