To Be Sane Amongst the Insane

Nellie Bly, portrait

Nellie Bly (Wikipedia)

New York, September 1887. Twenty-three-year-old journalist, Nellie Bly (real name: Elizabeth Cochran Seaman) has agreed to go undercover in Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum and write a report about her experiences for the New York World. After her employers promise that they will somehow get her out, she is left to find a way in. At the time, to be sent to an asylum, a judge had to declare you insane, after two physicians agreed you were of unsound mind. Nellie fears she cannot fool them.

It proves to be easier than she thought.

Here is an excerpt from her report Ten Days in a Mad-House (my emphasis).

Quote: But here let me say one thing: From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician, whose kindness and gentle ways I shall not soon forget.

Just to be clear: this is non-fiction.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Fear of the paradox.

Fear that sanity is decreed by consensus, and that any mind may, therefore, at any time, without any say, be decreed to stand outside the norm.

Fear of those outside the norm because they are unpredictable.

Fear of being perceived as unpredictable and dangerous.

Fear of being perceived as subhuman.

Fear of being dehumanised.

Of being animalised.

Fear.

map of Blackwell Island

Detail of Roosevelt Island (formerly Blackwell Island), from the Taylor Map of New York in c. 1879, the Asylum buildings are on the northern tip, (Wikipedia)

 

Nellie Bly’s desire to be convinced that the most helpless of God’s creatures, the insane, were cared for kindly and properly, is left unfulfilled. The Asylum converts her fears into reality. The conditions are dire: they’re fed rotten potatoes, cold beef, lumpy black bread, weak tea that tasted as if had been made in copper, and a few prunes; the women are cold, in thin clothing next to open windows, scrubbed down in the same freezing bathwater, wiped in the same towel; they must sit in the day rooms quietly, not walking, not slouching, not reading; those that disobey are kicked and choked and sent to the Retreat, a special section for the violently insane where the treatment of the ill, too, is more violent. The boredom is almost worse than the cold and the hunger, and most fill their days by fantasising about food or about being released.

Blackwell's Island Asylum

Blackwell’s Island Asylum (Wikipedia)

 

Upon first arriving, Bly says: everything was spotlessly clean and I thought what good workers the nurses must be to keep such order. In a few days after [sic] how I laughed at my own stupidity to think the nurses would work. (The inmates cleaned.) Those nurses, vilified again! The doctors, according to her description, as well as, in Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest (which I discussed in my previous post: Hiding Behind Hyperbole), have little power compared to the controlling nurses.

However, at least at the end of the nineteenth century—before electricity, before lobotomy, before psychotropic drugs—the methods used to control the patients, their reactions, and their diseases were less perfidious than those used in the 1950s. Still, Bly notes that criminals had it better.

Compare this with a criminal, who is given every chance to prove his innocence. Who would not rather be a murderer and take the chance for life than be declared insane, without hope of escape?

This is also a theme in Cuckoo’s Nest, when the protagonist discovers that Big Nurse can keep him committed, forever. Hence my statement above about fear, the fear that once our sanity is discredited, we may never regain status as equal members of society, and worse, we may never regain confidence in our own judgement.

As a result of Nellie Bly’s report and testimony in front of a Grand Jury, the conditions for the hundreds of women at the Asylum were improved, despite the Asylum having been forewarned about the Jury’s visit to the Island.

Met Hospital

The Asylum later became the Metropolitan Hospital, until 1955, when it was moved to Manhattan (Wikipedia)

What is at the core of the Quote?

Paradox.

An insane person can be made to stand out from a multitude of sane people, like a blotch of vivid colour stands out on grey background. On the other hand, a blotch of grey on a colourful motley background is just another blotch, which might superficially explain why detecting sanity amongst the insane is difficult.

Worse still, when a healthy mind is surrounded by abnormal circumstances, will it too not turn to abnormal behaviour, just to survive?

Few willingly want to find out.

I do not know how, if deemed insane, you would prove soundness of mind today. Desperately asking, then begging, then screaming, to take the sanity tests, as many women did in Nellie Bly’s time, would potentially only stack up evidence for your neurosis, as it did back then.

It is Catch-22.

 


Reading Recommendations

  1. Hiding Behind Hyperbolemy previous, companion post on Ken Kasey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
  2. Ten Days in a Mad-House, Nellie Bly. Because you’d like to hear her voice tell the horrors.
  3. Asylum : Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals, Photographs by Christopher Payne and Introduction by  Oliver Sacks. Because it’s a positive take on Asylums, and it’ll be discussed in my next post!
  4. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann. Because it’ll give you an idea of life in a Swiss sanatorium at the beginning of the 20th century. Whilst staying at a sanatorium was voluntary, the ensuing mental experience may have been disturbingly similar. I would inflict the book’s tedium on no one, but I am a minority voice: it is lauded as the most influential work of twentieth century German literature, and receives consistently high reviews. Caveat emptor.

 

 

 

 

 


Fun fact: Nellie Bly was also known for completing a record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days. Watch the Google Doodle Tribute made in her honour and published on her 151st birthday.

12 responses

  1. What a powerful post! Nellie Bly’s name has long been known to me – but for what? It certainly wasn’t for her many remarkable achievements; I’m intrigued to know why I know her name with no labels attached to it until now. Your post prompted me to learn a little more about her and although I’ve barely scratched the surface, I can see that she must have been an astonishing woman. I’m surprised that I can’t immediately find a well-regarded biography of her.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was surprised and fascinated when I came across her; even better that I was then able to blog about her, and spread the word! I’m glad she’s caught your interest as well.

      Unfortunately, I too don’t seem to be able to find a well-regarded biography. The best I can do is Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist by Brooke Kroeger. Although it seems long and cumbersome and some reviews on Goodreads suggest the prose is lacklustre (a shame given that her story shines!). But people had a lot of positive things to say about it too. In case you’d missed this one in your search, here’s a link to the book on Goodreads:

      https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/311625.Nellie_Bly?from_search=true

      If I were to read more in relation to her, I suspect I would read more of her work; there’s A Nellie Bly Collection: The Books containing her four books: Ten Days In A Mad-House, Around The World In 72 Days, Six Months In Mexico, and The Mystery of Central Park. Or I’d start on one of the three I hadn’t read and see where it took me 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a thought-provoking post, especially as a person who has experienced mental wards. The decrease in funding and lower rate of psychiatrists going into fields that specialize in the most severe mental disorders are terrifying once you’ve been acquainted with the system.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a sensitive topic and a difficult one to cover in a balanced way in so few words/posts—I’m glad it at least asked the right questions. I appreciate that experiences of mental wards vary.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, much appreciated!

      Like

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