Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945 has proved a difficult book to get hold of. I eventually sourced an inter-library loan which came all the way to my University’s library from Cardiff. Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris have presented one of the first books of its kind here, bringing together the voice of women who were incarcerated in American institutions against their will over a 105-year period, and giving them ‘the opportunity to speak for themselves’. Twenty-six first person case studies have been included in all, offering a ‘rare privilege’ to the reader. ‘As a whole,’ the editors write in their introduction, ‘these narratives offer a clear picture of women’s lives from both within and outside the asylums in which they lived. Individually, they provide some of the most harrowing tales of the abuses of the psychiatric system’.
Women of the Asylum has been split into four separate, distinct sections to cover the rather vast historical period – 1840 to 1865, 1866 to 1890, 1891 to 1920, and 1921 to 1945 – which all loosely relate to particular periods in treatment, or important turning points within political discourse. Geller and Harris also discuss their decision to split the period up into smaller chunks due to shifting moral and social conditions in the United States. They write that ‘the nineteenth-century women of the asylum are morally purposeful, philosophical, often religious. Their frame of reference, and their use of language, are romantic – Christian and Victorian. They write like abolitionists, transcendentalists, suffragists. The twentieth-century women are keen observers of human nature and asylum abuse – but they have no universal frame of reference. They face “madness” and institutional abuse alone, without God, ideology, or each other.’
The women focused upon here, some of which you will have heard of (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for instance), and others who were publicly unknown, all ‘wanted to right the wrongs they saw being perpetuated by what they perceived to be autocratic families, domineering physicians, unfeeling attendants, and misguided lawmakers’ in one way or another. Regardless of their social class, whilst trapped within the asylums, none of the women were ‘treated with any kindness, sympathy, or medical or spiritual expertise’. Each account here was written once the woman in question had been handed her freedom once more, and many were later published as warnings to others about the horrors which the asylum held, or as a process of self-healing. Some of the women took direct action afterwards, campaigning for change, and others faded into relative obscurity.
As one would expect, I’m sure, some incredibly shocking accounts are presented here; for instance, the way in which ‘any sign of economic independence or simple human pride in a woman could be used against her, both legally and psychiatrically.’ There was also the fear that an individual would be driven to become mad solely due to her incarceration, or that she would remain in an asylum indefinitely, with no hope of ever escaping.
Some incredibly interesting questions have been posed throughout – for instance, whether such firsthand accounts can be trusted due to the mental imbalance which their authors may be suffering from, or the possible delusional aspect of their condition. Each of these women, regardless of her circumstance or the amount of time in which she was locked away – and the periods vary drastically, from two months per year as a ‘rest cure’ of sorts, to the horrific stretch of twenty-eight years, such as Adriana P. Brinckle had to face – has legitimacy; each has her own story to tell.
In Women of the Asylum, Geller and Harris have presented a far-reaching and well-researched account, which has been introduced in a wise and lucid manner by Phyllis Chesler. The concluding message seems to be this: ‘Whether they were rebels, social misfits, visionaries or madwomen is left for the reader to decide’. If you can get your hands on this important and invaluable piece of literary gold dust, I would urge you to read it.