Friday, January 17, 2014

Ten Days in a Mad-House

Victorian American journalist Nellie Bly was asked by the New York World to “go undercover” (though it was not known as such) as an indigent inmate of Blackwell's Island insane asylum. She seems to have been slightly more concerned with her abilities to feign insanity than worried about not getting out, nor about the deprivations and horrors she might suffer. She, indeed, found it disgracefully easy to be denounced as mad and then incarcerated. This is perhaps the more fascinating section of her account, published by Wild Side Press, to modern readers who are no doubt aware generally of the barbarity involved in treating mental patients in “olden times.” Though Bly did not perhaps intend it, her account still reverberates with questions on the definition of insanity. If all it took in 1887 to be suspected insane by laymen was to say aloud that everyone around one seems crazy, then I think half the world would now be incarcerated. “Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician” (9).

Bly started her quest at the Temporary Home for Females, where she could board for 30 cents a night, though in retrospect this institution seems uncomfortably close to needing as much exposure to the general public for neglect and abuse as Blackwell's Island. As a living place for working women, the boarders were provided with meals (for which they also paid 30 cents) and in the evenings, had no choice but to sit (or stand) in a dark parlor staring into space (some knit but no one seems to read, probably because there wasn't sufficient light). This environment would surely induce insanity! Bly felt guilty feigning insanity to Mrs Caine, a kind woman who volunteered to stay with her during the night after the rest of the boarders feared for her life because she seemed crazy. Mrs Caine was gentle, patient, persuasive, and seems to have been genuinely concerned about Bly. However, group psychology seemed to take root, as all the other boarders feared and shunned her.

Bly wondered if she would lose her reason during this experiment, and it seems obvious to me that the amount of sleepless nights she got during the undercover operation, both in the boarding house and in the asylums, explain any irrational behavior women tipped off for “nervous depression” would have exhibited—if you weren't crazy before, the lack of sleep would have seriously damaged your nerves. Bly's writing is by no means scientific, but she does have a surprising capacity for humor, especially the way she describes cockroaches falling from the ceiling of the boarding house onto her pillow.

When the head of the boarding house has Bly escorted out by policemen, Bly is sent to the court of Judge Duffy, a man whose good intentions make you feel very sorry for. You begin to realize how much rested on initial impressions and appearances; Judge Duffy believes Bly should be treated gently because she looks like a well-educated lady and that she seems like “someone's darling.” “Poor girl, I will be good to her, for she looks like my sister, who is dead” (26). The courtroom believes Bly when she says she is from Cuba, and the general opinion is that she has been drugged and abused by a scurrilous lover (!). The stigmatization of the mentally ill is such that crowds of bystanders as well as reporters follow Bly wherever she goes, until she reaches Blackwell's.

The first doctor she has seen believes she has been drugged with belladonna, but that by no means convinces him that she is sane. At Bellevue Hospital, Bly finds that the porters are physically violent and the nurses are rude. The Irish washerwoman is by far the most compassionate person, but she asks for pennies from the inmates, perhaps as bribes. The attitude—which unfortunately persists to this day—is that as she is living off of charity, she should be grateful for anything she gets, including disgusting food and inadequate clothing (as I am reading Jane Eyre at the moment, this is much the same attitude in Lowood School). The secoIt nd doctor she sees considers her “a hopeless case.”

Bly occasionally acts in a way we should consider unprofessional, as when she defends the actions of the next young, handsome doctor who comes to her bed in the hospital and throws his arms around her in what she says is a compassionate way. According to her, because he is handsome and a gentleman, he can be trusted. Bly worries about Tillie Maynard and Anne Neville, young women both incarcerated erroneously. However, unlike them, Bly will be able to leave these experiences behind.

Bly censures the fact that foreign-language inmates at Blackwell's do not have a chance to tell their story even when interpreters are available. The conduct of her first receiving doctor and the nurse is disgraceful, flirting during her examination. The brutality at Blackwell's is surprising even if you expect it. The doctors disregard patient complaints. The nurses are actively sadistic, beating patients and sometimes breaking their ribs by jumping on them. They verbally abuse and bully them. The patients are undressed in front of an audience and forced into freezing cold water, then put to bed without adequate bedclothes and their hair still wet. It is no wonder that Bly's companions begin to suffer physically as well as mentally. Bly reasonably notes that if a fire occurred, because all inmates are locked in their rooms, they would all be burned alive.

After ten days, Bly is taken out of Blackwell's and spearheads an investigation into the conditions. It is remarkable that she is even believed, considering that the asylum gets a tip off an hour before Bly and her patrons come to investigate the conditions.

I know from history that Bly's expose made a difference, but cynically it's hard to wonder whether abuses like this will always go on in situations of unequal power.

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