Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ten Days in a Madhouse by Nellie Bly

Ten Days in a Madhouse is a very simple book - I hesitate to call it a book. More like a particularly long pamphlet, or a serialized newspaper special more accurately. The premise is simple: Nellie Bly was a reporter at the turn of the century who, in order to uncover what conditions were like for people who lived in insane asylums, moved anonymously into a poor district of town, and pretended to go crazy, so that she might be declared insane and committed to an asylum in New York. The book recounts her experiences.
The writing is less than stellar, and it's very strange to read Journalism that is more focused on the journalist than the subject - much of the book involves the reader worrying, with Nellie, that she'll be caught in her little ruse. But, that's hardly the point. Nellie Bly is sort of like reading Aeschylus, except in investigative journalism instead of drama - it feels dated, pompous, and artificial now, but only because she was helping to invent the genre from the ground up. The Muckrackers like Nellie Bly were creating a new role for journalism - instead of simply recording public events, they were exposing and describing the parts of the world that they felt needed to change, inventing the modern 'fourth estate.'
And the book certainly WAS an expose. If one is able to read through Nellie's highbrow attitudes, you can see her genuine outrage at the way the women are treated. Many seem to be perfectly healthy, but the doctors she describes are more interested in diddling the nurses than treating patients. The furnaces in the place aren't turned on until November (in New York City, on an island in the bay, mind you). The women are stripped naked (forcibly if necessary) and thrown one after another into the same, frigid bathwater,regardless of their level of health or if they have pussing boils on their skin. The butter they eat is so rotten as to be uneatable. The nurses cannot even take a temperature or read a scale, and take delight in beating patients, or torturing their diseases - one woman who is described as having a hypersexual disorder of some sort, is encouraged by the nurses to flirt with the doctors, for instance. And it goes on in the same vein. This article alone, more or less, triggered reforms across the Mental Health System. It feels stodgy and self-important now, yes, but when you read it in it's context, Nellie is a courageous, idealistic fighter, working for the rights of the forgotten of New York.


hamilcar barca said...

did she keep a journal while she was an inmate there? if so, i'm wondering how she kept the staff from finding it.

Unknown said...

Well, she started off by writing notes and scribbles on a notebook, interspersed with rambling crazy notes to throw off anyone that might take the notebook from her, but the notebook and pencil was taken from her when she entered. She asked for them back from the doctor, and he said he'd consider giving her thenotebook back, but the nurse declared that Nellie had not had a pencil when she came in. The doctor assumed that the pencil was a delusional fantasy. Weird, huh?

L said...

Those things were horrible back then, clear until the 50-60's. They were put in for the oddest reasons, or they chose to go in on their own. My grandmother checked herself in one briefly, in the late forties. She'd had enough of her five boys apparently and thought she was going a bit crazy. Maybe it was more like a spa.
Hmm, a spa. I could probably handle that.