Monday, September 13, 2010

Aren't we all a little crazy inside?

My thoughts frequently jump from one subject to another, seemingly unrelated subject in a matter of seconds. However, my mental wanderings aren’t entirely random. My mind simply grasps one small detail and follows it to other related topics, and the small details of those topics, and so on. For example, upon reading a brief description of the life of Lord Alfred Tennyson, I decided to check out a book about Nellie Bly. Most people do not know who Nellie Bly is and those who do would wonder why she relates to Tennyson in any way. Just follow me on this one.

Lord Tennyson had a brother, Edward, who was institutionalized in a private mental asylum. This small detail leads me to think of how differently mental illness was perceived in the nineteenth century. In that time, mental illness was extremely misunderstood. Anything from schizophrenia to epilepsy to masturbation could cause someone to be put into a mental asylum. Many people who were placed in mental asylums were completely sane, but it isn’t surprising to learn that some of those people did not remain sane while institutionalized.

Patients were treated terribly in these asylums. They were often beaten, subject to disgusting living conditions and sometimes caged or tied together. In an attempt to understand or treat patients, some asylums conducted painful and horrendous experiments, truly the stuff of horror stories. Patients were treated more like caged animals than patients in need of care.

Nellie Bly experienced the horrors of a mental asylum when she entered one herself, in search of a story. Nellie Bly was a young reporter for the New York World looking for the next big story, the next big truth she could unveil to the public. She took a room at a boardinghouse where no one knew her and proceeded to feign a mental breakdown in front of the guests. She was confirmed to be completely insane by several physicians and was institutionalized at Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for Women.

After ten days in the asylum, Bly had acquired more than she’d bargained for. She spent the last couple of days begging the guards to free her and attempting to prove her sanity before she was removed from the asylum at The World’s behest. She not only had the story she’d been looking for, but also a traumatic experience she’d not soon forget for years to come. Bly’s story shocked many, discredited the physicians who’d declared her insane and brought a critical eye down upon the treatment of the mentally ill.

I get chills just from reading her comments about living in an insane asylum, can you imagine actually living it? Although I don't think my tendency to jump from one idea to another would have caused me to be institutionalized if I lived in the nineteenth century, it's still a pretty chilling thought. Anything beyond the societal norm could have been cause for institutionalization back then, whereas what we perceive to be the societal norm today is always reshaping to include different situations and circumstances. By nineteenth century standards, most people today are crazy.

Want some more info on Nellie Bly? Check out these books:

  • Chipman, Dawn, Mari Florence, Pamela Nelson, and Naomi Wax. Cool Women. Los Angeles: Girl Press, 1997.
  • Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly:: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist. 1st ed. New York: Crown, 1994.