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Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945

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The 26 women who tell their stories here were incarcerated against their will, often by male family members, for holding views or behaving in ways that deviated from the norms of their day. The authors' accompanying history of both societal and psychiatric standards for women reveals the degree to which the prevailing societal conventions could reinforce the perception tha The 26 women who tell their stories here were incarcerated against their will, often by male family members, for holding views or behaving in ways that deviated from the norms of their day. The authors' accompanying history of both societal and psychiatric standards for women reveals the degree to which the prevailing societal conventions could reinforce the perception that these women were mad.


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The 26 women who tell their stories here were incarcerated against their will, often by male family members, for holding views or behaving in ways that deviated from the norms of their day. The authors' accompanying history of both societal and psychiatric standards for women reveals the degree to which the prevailing societal conventions could reinforce the perception tha The 26 women who tell their stories here were incarcerated against their will, often by male family members, for holding views or behaving in ways that deviated from the norms of their day. The authors' accompanying history of both societal and psychiatric standards for women reveals the degree to which the prevailing societal conventions could reinforce the perception that these women were mad.

30 review for Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945

  1. 5 out of 5

    Kirsty

    Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945 has proved a difficult book to get hold of. I eventually sourced an inter-library loan which came all the way to my University's library from Cardiff. Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris have presented one of the first books of its kind here, bringing together the voice of women who were incarcerated in American institutions against their will over a 105-year period, and giving them 'the opportunity to speak for themselves'. Twenty-six Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945 has proved a difficult book to get hold of. I eventually sourced an inter-library loan which came all the way to my University's library from Cardiff. Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris have presented one of the first books of its kind here, bringing together the voice of women who were incarcerated in American institutions against their will over a 105-year period, and giving them 'the opportunity to speak for themselves'. Twenty-six first person case studies have been included in all, offering a 'rare privilege' to the reader. 'As a whole,' the editors write in their introduction, 'these narratives offer a clear picture of women's lives from both within and outside the asylums in which they lived. Individually, they provide some of the most harrowing tales of the abuses of the psychiatric system'.44099 Women of the Asylum has been split into four separate, distinct sections to cover the rather vast historical period - 1840 to 1865, 1866 to 1890, 1891 to 1920, and 1921 to 1945 - which all loosely relate to particular periods in treatment, or important turning points within political discourse. Geller and Harris also discuss their decision to split the period up into smaller chunks due to shifting moral and social conditions in the United States. They write that 'the nineteenth-century women of the asylum are morally purposeful, philosophical, often religious. Their frame of reference, and their use of language, are romantic - Christian and Victorian. They write like abolitionists, transcendentalists, suffragists. The twentieth-century women are keen observers of human nature and asylum abuse - but they have no universal frame of reference. They face "madness" and institutional abuse alone, without God, ideology, or each other.' The women focused upon here, some of which you will have heard of (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for instance), and others who were publicly unknown, all 'wanted to right the wrongs they saw being perpetuated by what they perceived to be autocratic families, domineering physicians, unfeeling attendants, and misguided lawmakers' in one way or another. Regardless of their social class, whilst trapped within the asylums, none of the women were 'treated with any kindness, sympathy, or medical or spiritual expertise'. Each account here was written once the woman in question had been handed her freedom once more, and many were later published as warnings to others about the horrors which the asylum held, or as a process of self-healing. Some of the women took direct action afterwards, campaigning for change, and others faded into relative obscurity. As one would expect, I'm sure, some incredibly shocking accounts are presented here; for instance, the way in which 'any sign of economic independence or simple human pride in a woman could be used against her, both legally and psychiatrically.' There was also the fear that an individual would be driven to become mad solely due to her incarceration, or that she would remain in an asylum indefinitely, with no hope of ever escaping. Some incredibly interesting questions have been posed throughout - for instance, whether such firsthand accounts can be trusted due to the mental imbalance which their authors may be suffering from, or the possible delusional aspect of their condition. Each of these women, regardless of her circumstance or the amount of time in which she was locked away - and the periods vary drastically, from two months per year as a 'rest cure' of sorts, to the horrific stretch of twenty-eight years, such as Adriana P. Brinckle had to face - has legitimacy; each has her own story to tell. In Women of the Asylum, Geller and Harris have presented a far-reaching and well-researched account, which has been introduced in a wise and lucid manner by Phyllis Chesler. The concluding message seems to be this: 'Whether they were rebels, social misfits, visionaries or madwomen is left for the reader to decide'. If you can get your hands on this important and invaluable piece of literary gold dust, I would urge you to read it.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jenny Boyce

    http://bookreviewsbyme2.wordpress.com... I definitely enjoyed this book. I have been on a kick of books on the history of the asylum lately, and this is definitely one of the better books that I have read in that category. I really enjoyed that the majority of this book is by the women themselves. I found it incredibly interesting to read their stories in their own words. I couldn't believe that the majority of the women in the Asylum's (judging by the women's stories and history of the time) were http://bookreviewsbyme2.wordpress.com... I definitely enjoyed this book. I have been on a kick of books on the history of the asylum lately, and this is definitely one of the better books that I have read in that category. I really enjoyed that the majority of this book is by the women themselves. I found it incredibly interesting to read their stories in their own words. I couldn't believe that the majority of the women in the Asylum's (judging by the women's stories and history of the time) were just put there by their husbands/family for expressing views that were different from what was acceptable at the time or because they were believers in a different religion than their families. I also couldn't believe how awful the treatment was for these women. Many were forced to eat intolerable food and were abused by the people in charge, yet it seemed as if the majority of women were hopeful of a change in the future, of a time when women wouldn't be forced into the asylum by their husbands and would be treated with the dignity they deserved. The authors did a really good job in this book of giving the reader a good, brief overview of the history of the time. The book is broken down into time periods and at the start of each new time period the authors give a history of events that were going on and what women were going through at that time period. I thought that the history of the time allowed the reader to better understand the stories that were in the book. Given a little history of the time, the stories that the women wrote were much more powerful. I thought that the writing in this book was good. Obviously it's more of a challenge to judge the writing when the book is written by so many different authors. But the actual authors themselves did a really good job of picking out stories that were easy to read and well written. Overall, I found this book to be extremely fascinating and enjoyable. While the subject matter is relatively grim, there is still a glimmer of hope for change throughout the entire book. I would definitely recommend this book for those interested in women's right or a history of the mental health system in america for women. Definitely worth the read.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Julie

    This book, with its real life narratives, was very difficult to read. It’s frightening what women went through simply because of their gender. The book gives really good detail at what was going on in the time period of the narrative. It details the political climate, what was going on in terms of medical treatment, and how women were treated and what was expected of them. The mere fact that the medical society thought that simply having a uterus was enough to cause mental illness is astounding an This book, with its real life narratives, was very difficult to read. It’s frightening what women went through simply because of their gender. The book gives really good detail at what was going on in the time period of the narrative. It details the political climate, what was going on in terms of medical treatment, and how women were treated and what was expected of them. The mere fact that the medical society thought that simply having a uterus was enough to cause mental illness is astounding and sickening at the same time. Having a child was also a qualifier for having a mental illness. Stepping outside the ridgid boundaries imposed on women and their conduct was enough to get a woman committed by her father, brother, or husband. If a marriage was in trouble, a husband could make a false accusation against his wife and have her locked up. The book doesn’t tell you if any of these women were actually mentally ill. It just relays their stories in their own words. But frankly, even if they were, the horrors they suffered as “treatment” are beyond imagination. You think you’re reading a work of fiction when one woman tells about the near-drowning water therapy or the forced insulin therapy that put the patient into a coma to “reboot” her brain. Unfortunately, you don’t find out what happened to most of these women after reading their horror stories. Some of them were released, others spent up to 24 years locked in asylums. It was quite a shock to read. It definitely wasn’t easy.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Dawn

    (Hardcover) Read this while researching for a paper in History of Medicine class. It is true that the stories are about white women (women of color just weren't "put away" the way white women were during this time period). The narratives are believable, especially after further researching this topic and reading first-hand accounts (dusty diaries). Are things much different now? Well, sure - if you consider how hard it is to get anyone inpatient psych care anymore. Now we mostly medicate our wom (Hardcover) Read this while researching for a paper in History of Medicine class. It is true that the stories are about white women (women of color just weren't "put away" the way white women were during this time period). The narratives are believable, especially after further researching this topic and reading first-hand accounts (dusty diaries). Are things much different now? Well, sure - if you consider how hard it is to get anyone inpatient psych care anymore. Now we mostly medicate our women behaving badly. Pharmaceutical restraints. We still have a long way to go in understanding (and defining) mental illness, and in not confusing it with social dissent (don't get me started). It is good for us to know and to remember where we have been.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie

    This one had been sitting on my wishlist for a long time, and I finally got around to hunting down a secondhand copy. This book features excerpts from publications written by women who had been institutionalised in insane asylums over a hundred year period, with each time period preceded by a short introduction giving an overview of the general state of mental healthcare at the time. All of the stories are brutal. It's horribly fascinating watching the shape of the asylum changing. In the beginning This one had been sitting on my wishlist for a long time, and I finally got around to hunting down a secondhand copy. This book features excerpts from publications written by women who had been institutionalised in insane asylums over a hundred year period, with each time period preceded by a short introduction giving an overview of the general state of mental healthcare at the time. All of the stories are brutal. It's horribly fascinating watching the shape of the asylum changing. In the beginning of the time periods covered, the women were locked away not the reasons of insanity, but usually for disagreeing with their husbands (and it seems in almost every case it was a husband signing their life away) on domestic, or more usually, religious matters. The treatment the women underwent was abhorrent - no real medical or mental health care, revolting food, revolting conditions. You'd almost hope that things would get better as time went on and medical knowledge progressed. In some respects, maybe. There are some latter cases where the treatment actually was said to work for the patient (one patient underwent fairly intensive insulin shock therapy, which broke a severe depression). However, the treatment never got much better - you can see the rise of insulin shock and electroshock therapy, as well as the use of hydrotherapy, which basically bordered on abuse. Mention of outright abuse increased as well (possibly because the women were more aware of it actually being abuse - it's difficult to tell, based on these brief accounts), with the very last account bluntly describing horrific physical abuse at the hands of her "carers" as well as rape and prostitution of patients. These are only a handful of cases, written by the women who were well enough to tell their stories. Who knows how many perished and suffered in asylums over the years, many of which weren't even mentally ill?

  6. 4 out of 5

    Becky Loader

    I had a hard time rating this book as a "like" because of the heart-rending material in its pages. First-person written narratives from women committed to insane asylums does not make for easy reading. Geller does an excellent job of introducing the various periods of time covered by the narratives and in providing an overview of the contemporary psychological practices and beliefs. The women tell their stories in deep, emotional words that depict the despair and utter devastation they suffered I had a hard time rating this book as a "like" because of the heart-rending material in its pages. First-person written narratives from women committed to insane asylums does not make for easy reading. Geller does an excellent job of introducing the various periods of time covered by the narratives and in providing an overview of the contemporary psychological practices and beliefs. The women tell their stories in deep, emotional words that depict the despair and utter devastation they suffered in asylums. Committed by their families for unbelievable reasons (not agreeing with a husband's beliefs, daring to speak up at a public meeting, being a spiritualist), the women do not have any recourse to fight the incarceration process and to obtain their releases. Sobering.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    I feel good reading this for an interesting reason - these women often seem to have little hope in anything other than that someone, someday, would read their words and know what they endured. The other comments on here are correct - the editors are definitely focused on affluent (and very literate) white women. I'd love to read an accompanying book of collected experiences of black, Native American, or other minority women. But the editors seem to have simply been looking to collect certain kin I feel good reading this for an interesting reason - these women often seem to have little hope in anything other than that someone, someday, would read their words and know what they endured. The other comments on here are correct - the editors are definitely focused on affluent (and very literate) white women. I'd love to read an accompanying book of collected experiences of black, Native American, or other minority women. But the editors seem to have simply been looking to collect certain kinds of stories - not because of racism, just because that's what they were looking at. Very interesting, and some of the writings are really moving.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Justine OConnor

    Reading essays from women about time spent in asylums is not nearly as interesting as spending time in asylums yourself.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Arcade Annie

    I love first hand accounts of true events, especially if those events were somewhat tragic, and I especially love stories of women who have been considered insane, or been institutionalized in one form another, and this book was no exception. The book features 26 first hand accounts of different women considered mad or insane, spanning two centuries, from 1840-1945. (If there is a more modern account, covering the last half of the 20th century into the 21st, I need to find it.) What the stories t I love first hand accounts of true events, especially if those events were somewhat tragic, and I especially love stories of women who have been considered insane, or been institutionalized in one form another, and this book was no exception. The book features 26 first hand accounts of different women considered mad or insane, spanning two centuries, from 1840-1945. (If there is a more modern account, covering the last half of the 20th century into the 21st, I need to find it.) What the stories these women present is really an account of the strength of human endurance, and a test of faith, strength, and survival. Many women were suppressed, oppressed, and otherwise swept under the rug or “gotten rid of” for various reasons for by shipping them off to inanse asylums for periods of “rest” which more often than not were anything but restful. In a patriarchal society, the reasons a woman could be carted off to the asylum ranged from her “delicate mental condition”, to refusal to follow family or Church rules, or simple defiance or disaobedience. Consequently, these women were often abused in horrible ways in order to “cure” them of their willful ways, ranging from rape, beatings, torture, confinement in straightjackets or small cells, or used as labor in laundries. It’s fairly well known from a 21st century perspective that these are all methods used to break a person’s will, but many of these women struggling and fighting valiantly, managed to hold onto their minds and personalities, although each and every one was invariably changed by their experiences. Some of the women, upon being released once they were “cured”, worked outside the system for mental health care reform.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Tara Lynn

    wow..fascinating read. It was definitely a little difficult to get; I finally had to buy it through BN used booksellers, but I think it was worth it. In my undergrad work in Psychology we only had one class that discussed the treatment of women by the mental health profession. For most of us, the class was definitely an eye opener, and years, later the book is a great companion to the course material. I definitely recommend it for history fans, as well as pyschology students.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Angel

    Completely worth reading, full of information- the content demands to be read. But what a dull book.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kathy Maher

    The stories of these women are sad but there is no connection to the stories - no flow. They are just a collection and it would have been nice if we knew how the women made out after the institutionalization occurred.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Janelle Molony

    Take a look into the minds and lives of women behind bars... some with good cause... others with none at all other than a disgruntled husband. It's dark, insightful, sad, and a "thinker." We've come a long way! Take a look into the minds and lives of women behind bars... some with good cause... others with none at all other than a disgruntled husband. It's dark, insightful, sad, and a "thinker." We've come a long way!

  14. 5 out of 5

    Kizz Robinson

    A little dry and disjointed but left me with a lot to think about.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Siobhan

    What an insight. I loved it!!

  16. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    I heard good things about this book but was unfortunately disappointed. The content was good, but I was unable to finish this one. I felt like I was reading the same story over and over, just the grammar changed because the storyteller changed. It was way too repetitive to hold my attention.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Amber Martin

    I had been wanting to read Women of the Asylum for a long while but as others have said it is a difficult book to find. The copy I ended up with had to be shipped from England and had a few unprinted pages. I'm glad I took the time to read it anyway as it was one of the most fascinating books I've read on the subject of Asylums. Though it's pages are filled with heartbreak from many view points I found the more detailed stories from 1921-1945 the hardest to read as those women did not feel socie I had been wanting to read Women of the Asylum for a long while but as others have said it is a difficult book to find. The copy I ended up with had to be shipped from England and had a few unprinted pages. I'm glad I took the time to read it anyway as it was one of the most fascinating books I've read on the subject of Asylums. Though it's pages are filled with heartbreak from many view points I found the more detailed stories from 1921-1945 the hardest to read as those women did not feel society hushing them as much as the women from 1840-1920. If you're looking to read an honest book on the subject then this is it. Knowing that I could have been locked away for an indefinite period of time just for reading this book, not agreeing with someone on religion, or just having a fast pulse somewhat blows my mind. Many interesting and horrible stories from so many women asking "Why am I here?". Researcher in 1870 assumed that unfeminine activities caused uterine derangement, which in turn caused mental illness. Just another reason I'd be locked away. Learning just what women went through in this time period makes me appreciate that it has gotten better in some regards. A very intriguing read.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kristin

    FINALLY! I have been waiting to read a captivating book about asylums. I've read a few duds over the past few years. This book was amazing. It covered 100 years of women in asylums and the way the book was organized was fantastic. Each time period had a historical introduction of women's lives and the psychiatric establishment. Then there was a small introduction before diving into excerpts from asylum patients' journals and publications. Without the historical context, it would have been diffic FINALLY! I have been waiting to read a captivating book about asylums. I've read a few duds over the past few years. This book was amazing. It covered 100 years of women in asylums and the way the book was organized was fantastic. Each time period had a historical introduction of women's lives and the psychiatric establishment. Then there was a small introduction before diving into excerpts from asylum patients' journals and publications. Without the historical context, it would have been difficult to understand the setting of the journal entries. Out of the 26 women in this book, I would say that only 4 of them needed psychiatric help. I found that I had a few things in common with Sophie Olsen...trying to stay optimistic in an awful situation: "August 6th was the fatal day in which the formidable doors of that institution, the world calls as "Asylum," were locked upon me, and I found myself indeed a prisoner. Finding it inevitable, I submitted with cheerfulness. This submission however was given under a very mistaken idea of the gloom impending over me." Kate Lee's story was probably the most descriptive. I definitely bookmarked her account of the asylum life. This book is going to remain on my bookshelves!

  19. 5 out of 5

    Elsie

    This is ok. Gripping descriptions of what it meant for a woman to be mad in the US before the end of asylums. But by "woman" Geller and Harris mean "white woman," and they also arrange the narratives between neat, historical synopses which seem dishonest. If narrative can be honest, I know. But the historical sections kind of limit the possible meanings of the stories. Something REALLY GOOD that we read along these lines was "In Our Own Voices" by Vanessa Jackson, but they don't have that here b This is ok. Gripping descriptions of what it meant for a woman to be mad in the US before the end of asylums. But by "woman" Geller and Harris mean "white woman," and they also arrange the narratives between neat, historical synopses which seem dishonest. If narrative can be honest, I know. But the historical sections kind of limit the possible meanings of the stories. Something REALLY GOOD that we read along these lines was "In Our Own Voices" by Vanessa Jackson, but they don't have that here because it's an essay.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Cat.

    What a depressing book! This covers the years a full century and uses primary sources to explore what "madwomen" experienced in terms of treatment. I only read up to the turn of the (20th) century, just after Charlotte Perkins Gilman's chapter. Frankly, the stories share a great deal of similarity, although I was surprised at Gilman's description of what sounds a lot like post-partum depression. For anyone interested in the history of women and/or the history of the treatment of mental illness, What a depressing book! This covers the years a full century and uses primary sources to explore what "madwomen" experienced in terms of treatment. I only read up to the turn of the (20th) century, just after Charlotte Perkins Gilman's chapter. Frankly, the stories share a great deal of similarity, although I was surprised at Gilman's description of what sounds a lot like post-partum depression. For anyone interested in the history of women and/or the history of the treatment of mental illness, this book would be a good resource.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie

    My quest for information about lives in an asylum was sparked by the book "What She Left Behind." How our society has changed is remarkable. And what women went through is unbelievable. What will the people think of our society in the 22 century? A dark read. A few women's accounts were a bit unclear but I was still able to follow the. Prefaces before the accounts helped to put the author's writings into appropriate context. My quest for information about lives in an asylum was sparked by the book "What She Left Behind." How our society has changed is remarkable. And what women went through is unbelievable. What will the people think of our society in the 22 century? A dark read. A few women's accounts were a bit unclear but I was still able to follow the. Prefaces before the accounts helped to put the author's writings into appropriate context.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jen

    This book was eye opening to say the least. I appreciated the historical sections which served as a reminder to the reader as to what was going on in the United States at the time the first person accounts occurred. It was interesting to read accounts from the Indiana state asylum, as well as the Manteno State Hospital in Illinois. I could have finished sooner; however the depressing subject sometimes kept me from wanting to read.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Syd

    because if what i have gone through in my life, i have always been fascinated by the tales of women institutionalized by others in their families -- the ways in which hysteria and craziness were defined -- and how these women learned to survive in such oppressive circumstances. the stories told in this novel are raw, disjointed, painful, guarded and sad...all at the same time.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    This is fascinating & educating reading! I can't believe why women used to be put in asylums. I don't want to say any more for fear I'll give too much away. I think men and women alike should read this book. I will hang on to my copy and pass it down to my children and grandchildren so they will know how far we've come in our society. This is fascinating & educating reading! I can't believe why women used to be put in asylums. I don't want to say any more for fear I'll give too much away. I think men and women alike should read this book. I will hang on to my copy and pass it down to my children and grandchildren so they will know how far we've come in our society.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jen

    Don't get your hopes up with this one. It is a good read, but it's written like a boring history book. Now, I like history books, but not ones like this where they are boring and the writing, even from the professionals who add in historical context and what not,is something akin to teenage angst. This book had the ability to be amazing, but nope not so much. Don't get your hopes up with this one. It is a good read, but it's written like a boring history book. Now, I like history books, but not ones like this where they are boring and the writing, even from the professionals who add in historical context and what not,is something akin to teenage angst. This book had the ability to be amazing, but nope not so much.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kay Baird

    First-person accounts from women labeled as "insane" in order to get rid of them, and the torture they were subjected to in the name of treatment. I want to read this scary stuff because they define courage. First-person accounts from women labeled as "insane" in order to get rid of them, and the torture they were subjected to in the name of treatment. I want to read this scary stuff because they define courage.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Angela Wade

    I'm not sure why, but I wasn't nearly as moved by the accounts in this book as I expected to be. The section with the long list of reform suggestions really killed it for me, and I almost didn't pick it back up. I'm not sure why, but I wasn't nearly as moved by the accounts in this book as I expected to be. The section with the long list of reform suggestions really killed it for me, and I almost didn't pick it back up.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Cynthia

    Awesome compilation of essays from 19th-century and mid-20th-century female patients of lunatic asylums. Even in their brevity, many of the pieces are written with such emotional candor that a vivid portrayal results.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Gia

    Very interesting read. To see and really feel what it was like in 1840-1945 in asylums. The poor women forced into these places for not feeling well or speaking up. The last story being written by actress, Frances Farmer.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Novell

    A great book that sheds light on the plight of women in the nineteenth-century. Often, as we heard from they own first hand accounts, many women found themselves victims of a society which saw any expression of self-determinacy an outward sign of madness.

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