A compassionate portrait of a complicated 19th-century woman who converted the conventions of genteel ``femininity'' into a substantial public career. Dorothea Dix, advocate for the impoverished mentally ill and founder of the asylum movement, knew whereof she spoke. Battling periodic depression, the chronically restive Dix also overcame anxieties connected with her gender and social class identity, forming complex sympathies, antipathies, and remedies regarding all things vulnerable. The sudden downward mobility occasioned by the murder of her grandfather, an enterprising apothecary, in 1809; her shiftless father's irresponsibility and neglect of his own family; and other factors fortified Dix and led her to pretend she was orphan when as a young woman she gained access to Boston society. Never married, she traveled from New England through the South, visiting prisons and almshouses, raising money, calling on elected officials, and righteously raising public awareness of the plight of the poor and mentally ill. Sailing under the banner of selfless service, Dix founded 30 ``lunatic'' asylums across the United States. But Dix's missionary vision was limited; neither her politicking for state asylums in the south in the 1850s nor her better-known stint as a Civil War nursing organizer aroused in her any sympathy for slaves, who she thought would be better off in Liberia. Her experience with politics, even the devastating presidential veto of her pet Ten-Million Acre land bill to care for the indigent insane, never formally radicalized her. Gollaher (president of the California Health Care Institute) deftly avoids situating Dix too firmly in political or cultural history, instead revealing her personality, her complex and powerful sympathies for certain kinds of suffering, her racial prejudices, crusading tone, and increasingly difficult ego on the job. This thoughtful biography makes real a problematic personality who created a movement as she also created herself.
Read full book review >