Faffing about on the interweb last weekend, I came across an exposé of the mental health system in New York City by one Nellie Bly, who convinced a host of medical and law enforcement officials that she was dangerously insane, got herself involuntarily committed to an aslyum, and then wrote unflinchingly on the abuses visited daily upon the most vulnerable of the state’s citizens, abuses she endured firsthand.
Bly’s report, Ten Days In A Madhouse, lead to a grand jury investigation which directly resulted in an increase of $850,000 in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. It was 1887, a staggering 33 years before American women won the right to vote. Bly was 23 at the time.
This was by no means her first nor last daring assignment. A foreign correspondent at 21, she’d had to flee Mexico after denouncing Porfirio Díaz’s government; shortly after writing Ten Days, and inspired by Jules Verne’s Around The World in Eighty Days, she broke the record for circumnavigating the globe. But what stunned me most about the Ten Days report was not just Bly’s age or her pluck, but the ease at which she managed to convince all and sundry she was hopelessly crazy.
All it took, apparently, was a night of practising vacant wide-eyes in front of the mirror. Booking into a female boarding house under an assumed name, Bly succeeded in terrifying the women around her simply by acting slightly erratically and refusing to sleep. No tearing her hair out, no speaking in tongues, no physical manifestations of inner turmoil. Sitting up late and sighing; that was enough for the management at the boarding house to cart her in front of a judge and have her taken to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.
It made me wonder … just how frail of mind were women once assumed to be? Any inconsistent behaviour at all and they were flung aside by family, friends, society at large – too much trouble to engage with. And not just by the menfolk, either. “Sane” women, with one or two merciful exceptions, do not come across very well in Ten Days; her fellow boarders need little encouragement to proclaim Bly a danger to them and in dire need of incarceration, and while the male doctors in the asylum are hopelessly incompetent, cold and dismissive, the nurses in charge of the day-to-day care of the inmates are absolute monsters. They are physically and emotionally abusive, and derive pleasure from torturing their weaker or genuinely delusional charges. We’ve certainly come a long way in terms of humanity in the last hundred and twenty years, if Ten Days is indicative of society as a whole. Women were regularly committed for such ailments as postpartum depression, for such slights as flirting with men other than their husbands (sound familiar, Ireland?), for such gaffes as not having working English (most heartbreaking is Bly’s account of immigrant women who are committed who have not even been told where they are and why) … even for frailty brought about by convalescence! It seemed even a swoon on the street could land you on The Island, and should you not have friends and family willing and able to pay your way back again, well. One of the things that almost thwarts Bly in her attempt to be committed is that the judge was reluctant to send such a “good girl” to the asylum; she spoke well, and was pretty. No such luck if you were of the teeming working classes, I’d wager.
Terrifying to think that this was acceptable policy only a couple of generations ago, isn’t it? And it’s mind-boggling that it was in this era that Nellie Bly achieved so much. Whilst born into the upper middle classes, she wasn’t exactly rolling in it – her father died when she was six, and her mother’s remarriage to an abusive lout ended in divorce – and yet Bly managed to blaze a trail with nothing more than unshakeable self-belief as her fuel. Really humbling stuff, no?
You can download Ten Days in Word format here.