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10 Days in A Mad - House by Nellie Bly

Updated: Oct 26, 2019

(A First - Hand Account of Life at Bellevue Hospital on Blackwell’s Island in 1887)

Nellie Bly

Mental health issues affect men and women equally, yet some are more common in women than men, and vice versa. Before I continue, I am very aware of my privilege as a white western woman and I am by no means a professional of mental health, but I am a survivor. Here at Máthair we not only celebrate the wonder that is motherhood but also the darkness that can rear its ugly head that none of us are immune to.

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious” (Carl Yung)

This year at Máthair we hope to really focus on an eclectic range of issues relating and pertaining to motherhood, the glorious and the futile, the spoken and unspoken. We believe in starting conversations, looking the abyss straight in the eye and not only talking about solidarity but implementing it. We hope you will take part in this journey with us and yes, we know it’s scary and yes, we are scared too. The word happiness would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.

Hysteria is undoubtedly the first mental disorder attributable to women, accurately described in the second millennium BC, and until Freud considered an exclusively female disease. Over 4000 years of history, this disease was considered from two perspectives: scientific and demonological. It was cured with herbs, sex or sexual abstinence, punished and purified with fire for its association with sorcery and finally, clinically studied as a disease and treated with innovative therapies. However, even at the end of 19th century, scientific innovation had still not reached some places, where the only known therapies were those proposed by Galen. During the 20th century several studies postulated the decline of hysteria amongst occidental patients (both women and men) and the escalating of this disorder in non-Western countries. The concept of hysterical neurosis is deleted with the 1980 DSM-III. The evolution of these diseases seems to be a factor linked with social “westernization” and examining under what conditions the symptoms first became common in different societies became a priority for recent studies over risk factor.

Ten Days in a Mad-House is a book by American journalist Nellie Bly. It was initially published as a series of articles for the New York World; Bly later compiled the articles into a book, being published by Ian L. Munro in New York City in 1887. The book was based on articles written while Bly was on an undercover assignment for the New York World, feigning insanity at a women's boarding house, so as to be involuntarily committed to an insane asylum. She then investigated the reports of brutality and neglect at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island. The book received acclaim from critics at the time. Accumulation of her reportage and the release of her content brought her fame and led to a grand jury investigation and financial increase in the Department of Public Charities and Corrections.

I found the book to be extremely poignant and Nellie’s courage is admirable. Putting herself in such a situation, in an age where communication was extremely limited, I was awestruck by her will to expose the inhumanity in these places. She ran the high risk of being drugged and losing her wits herself or even worse, but she courageously continued her façade even when a fellow journalist came by to check on her. She was starved and suffered bitter cold. She was humiliated and endured watching the agony of others. Because of this book she got the attention of many and began an investigation into the treatment of mental patients who had no voice. Through her and others, she brought about awareness to the poor conditions of these poor people.

You might doubt whether really the food was so bad that apart from a crust or two and a bowl of cold tea, it was totally inedible - the bread had spiders baked into it. You might wonder if the nurses were all nasty, brutish and extremely violent. Question if the doctors were either having public affairs with their illiterate nursing assistants or just plain blind to the extreme violence, starvation and freezing conditions all around. You might even conclude, as I did that even if half (or perhaps a quarter) of all this was true then it was outrageous and perhaps fantastical. But it was a good bit of reporting, because she was taken seriously, and conditions did change for the better, or were said to, which is the same thing in a book.

Nellie Bly was a fierce feminist and exposer of the terrible attitudes and sometimes treatment women faced from the completely male-driven society of her time. Nellie Bly's schtick extended to exposing prison conditions and corruption in the State Legislature. Nellie Bly was a woman who stood together with Emma Goldman and Susan B. Anthony. She should be better known now and an icon of her times and profession.

“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat trap. It is easy to get in, but once in it is impossible to get out” - Nellie Bly

Written by Cheryl Gault

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