book-reviews

Ten Days in a Mad-House

by Nellie Bly

Rating: ★★★

Perhaps it's because I was forewarned about the core of this book before reading, or perhaps it's just that I'm naturally inclined to find irrelevant tangents, but I actually found that a few odd details in this reportage weighed more on my mind than the central message. So, to get that out of the way, Nellie Bly wrangled her way into a mad-house in late 19th Century New York, and uncovered some pretty appalling treatment. As well as the rough and cold nature you would expect of nurses who have to deal with naturally annoying patients all day, she documents systematic insanity in the form of day-long enforced sitting in silence, brutal indifference to temperature, and deliberate provocation and sadistic beat-downs from carers. She actually seems to have done a lot of good in breaking this story, and bravely, so certainly she deserves some applause for it as journalism.

But, okay, here are my weird niggles about this story. First, Nellie comes off as pretty stuck-up with some of the things she decides to complain about. A big focus in her story was how bad the food was, even in the women's house where she went to establish her background story. I'm perfectly willing to accept that the food was not great in these places, but the way Nellie describes it is, well, not that bad?

the patients had to try to choke down fresh fish, just boiled in water, without salt, pepper or butter; mutton, beef and potatoes without the faintest seasoning

I mean, I could see that this would quickly get tiring and is not a great repast or anything, and could even wear you down over a long period, but when you're complaining about sick women being flung into cold baths and nurses choking old women, it's sort of incongruous to talk with the same scandalised voice about the food being bland and gasp sometimes being served on tin plates rather than china.

My second tangent is that, actually, the New York that Nellie wandered through at the beginning struck me as bizarre because of how nice everyone was. My impression of modernity (without a lick of direct experience) is that 1) shelters like the one Nellie went to are a lot less accessible and accepting nowadays; 2) Nellie's 'weird' behaviour in the shelter would nowadays earn her no more than a few raised eyebrows, and definitely not provoke the sort of fascination it seemed to, or the sort of gentle escort to the courthouse she achieved; 3) Nellie was able to get lots of people to bend various rules for her, just by acting sort of affronted by things, even though they all thought she was crazy. Of course nowadays she could have herself voluntarily committed, but I feel like if Nellie tried this approach now she would find herself experiencing life as a vagrant rather than an inmate (although from reading her other stories it seems she might also want to report on that).

Relatedly, I really didn't understand why exactly her case was considered so unique and interesting that it was worth reporting in the papers and people following her in the street and coming and pointing her out in her confinement. Possibly it was because she had a 'proper' bearing to her that suggested some kind of wealthy connection?

Of the writing, I found it was mostly nothing to complain about, with a punchy journalistic style. However, the dialogue in the book hits the ear very strangely, and even considering the cultural distance of continent and time, I find it hard to credit that some of the sentences given are truthfully reflecting actual speech -- but this isn't a terrible flaw. One thing I did notice was that Chapter 16 is out-of-place, explaining the transition to Hall 7 and the character there after several chapters in which Bly had already discussed being in Hall 7 and some of the events there. I'm not sure who is to blame for that mixup. On the whole, I could easily take or leave Bly as a writer -- neither bad, nor good enough to be stylistically interesting.

The book as a whole didn't resound with me, and I didn't learn much about the history of psychiatry, but I found it interesting enough reward for the short time investment of reading it, and I can see its value as an emotive piece for its subject (it would be ideal for students), or as a lens (albeit flawed) into the treatment of women in this period.