"WOMEN OF THE ASYLUM: Voices From Behind the Walls, 1840-1945" by Jeffrey L. & Maxine Harris -- Eds. Geller

"WOMEN OF THE ASYLUM: Voices From Behind the Walls, 1840-1945"

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A hundred years of first-person reports from women committed to mental institutions that seem no less distressing in the 20th century than in the 19th. Geller (Psychiatry/Univ. of Massachusetts) and Harris (Down from the Pedestal, 1994) have excerpted accounts from the speeches, journals, reports, and books of well-known and unknown women who found not asylum, but degradation, injustice, deprivation, and even torture in the ghettos for the mentally ill where they were confined. The testimonies begin with Elizabeth Stone in 1840, committed because her religious views differed from her family's, and end with actress Frances Farmer in 1943, committed by her mother to an institution where ice-cold baths and sadistic attendants were the order of the day, much as they had been 100 years before. Early accounts make clear how women were subject to the whims of fathers, husbands, and even brothers, with no legal or moral recourse. One author points out an Illinois law that permitted a man to ""put his wife into an Insane Asylum without evidence of insanity."" As society's views of women changed, so did the diagnoses that justified the asylum. ""Brain strain"" and ""nervous prostration"" were early favorites, when women were considered too frail to bear the burden of both domesticity and education. The forthright Phebe Davis, an inmate in a Utica, NY, asylum from 1850 to 1853, offers an eloquent commentary on such misguided thinking. St. Paul said a woman must not speak a loud word, she reports, but ""that was only his opinion and who cares for the opinion of one lovesick old bachelor, and he had been dead for centuries."" One carp: The editors have condensed the writings, but left no indication of where or how many cuts were made. Worthwhile if only for Phebe Davis's pungent observations, but also for framing historic patterns of abuse of the mentally ill.

Pub Date: July 11th, 1994
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Anchor/Doubleday