Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Classics Club: Ten Days in a Mad-House

(photo credit)
Ten days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly, may not be your average work of classic litetrature - it is actually non-fiction.  I include it, however, in the Classics Club, because of the tremendous impact it had on people - just like some of the world-renowned works of literature ...

This has been a revelation to me, in more ways than one: a woman reporter, in Victorian time, decides to commit herself in an asylum in order to reveal the way these institutions worked.  Her courageous work resulted in an official investigation taking place and a USD 1 million funding to be allocated to the improvement of these services.




Bly lives at a time (1887) when it's really very easy to have a person committed - a husband doesn't like his wife's fondness of other men, he gets her committed; a woman can't afford housing, she gets herself committed (...). In Bly's case, it only takes her a day of good acting to get people to feel uncomfortable around her:
"it was amusing to see what a remarkably short time it took her to get up from her chair and to whisper hurriedly: "I'll come back to talk with you after a while".  I knew she would not come back and she did not"
Things move disturbingly fast from then on, and before she can fully realise it, Bly is indeed committed. She remarks that while even criminals the chance have to prove their innocence before being sent to prison, people accused of mental instability do not have such rights - they are convicted on the spot:
"who would not rather be a murderer and take the chance for life than be declared insane, whithout hope of escape?" 
Naive as she may be with regard to the sacred duty of treating patients in an institution (... be convinced that... the insane were cared for kindly and properly), she is nevertheless akin to write down in a journalistic manner all that is happening in the institution:  the beating, the scolding, the torture, the drugging.  While I was aware of the circumstances in asylums in those days (and, I'm afraid, even to this day in some cases), it was not always easy to read Bly's account her ten days in the mad-house.  I'm still not sure what will-power she exergued to make this happen, given that she went days without food, but she soon got her story:  life in an asylum is not what the public likes to think.  The people who are supposed to show society's kindness are themselves abusers, who will not think twice before beating an old lady who just likes to talk to herself. 
"Yes, (they) actually choked her...This punishment seemed to awaken their desire to administer more...they caught hold of an old gray haired woman (who was) sitting harmlessly chattering to her..."
At this point, I thought of a lady I often see walking in the Merode metro station in Brussels, also talking to herself - she bothers noone, noone bothers her.  How glad I am that peole like that, posing no menace to society, have the "ability" to go on with no fear of being reported, of being beaten, of being locked up.  I'm also glad that today's society is more tolerant (sometimes going to extremes, it's true) of what actually "mental instability" is.  We can accept differences in the people around us and we can live full lives even when we do respond to society's norms and standards.

Bly managed to get out after ten days, and she immediately set to report all the incidents she encountered during her stay.  A major investigation took place to uncover the whole story, alas, without total success:  the other inmates who had suffered and could corroborate Bly's story had magically disappeared and, suddenly, the service was much better and the beating had eclipsed.  Fortunately, the rest of the evidence was strong enough to change society's perception of what was going on in such asylums and a major funding was allocated towards the general improvement of the mental health system in the USA.

Bly was way ahead of her time (her whole life was, actually) and I'm always in awe of such pioneers who leave their nice little stamp on the planet, affecting many lives to come...

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I first heard about this book from the Project Gutenberg Project, a dedicated site that posts reviews of books found in the common domain (like Project Gutenberg and Librivox). What a treat it is that some of the older works of literature (and the majority of the "classics") are, in this way, made accessible to a wider audience.  Better still, they provide the incentive for  someone to read more and more and thus become acquainted with an immense wealth of the written word.

1 comment:

  1. Have you read Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman? Since you've read both Ten Days in a Mad-House and Around the World in 80 Days, you might enjoy it.

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