Being restrained and told you are insane, when you are perfectly well, is one of the more terrifying fears. Dozens of movies and novels use this premise as their kernel of horror. For some, the terror is real. In 1860, Elizabeth Packard was institutionalized against her will. Her logical intelligence and extreme perseverance were her only tools. She used her time effectively.
In the decades before the U.S. Civil War, America enjoyed great expansion and decided technological advances. It was barrelling toward an intransigent problem: slavery. As the U.S. economy became more and more reliant upon free or cheap labor and industrialization, tensions strained. The taut rubber band would soon snap.
And in a small town in free Illinois, a mother and preacher’s wife was doing her best to raise six children and help with her husband’s ministry. But as his sermons began to take a dark turn, she announced she would begin attending the Methodist church instead. On this basis, and the word of a doctor who pretended to be a sewing machine salesman, Elizabeth was literally lifted off her feet and carted to the Illinois State Hospital in Jacksonville.
There she did her best to prove her sanity. She befriended the superintendent Dr. Andrew McFarland. She intended to show him, and the hospital board, through logic and reason that she was perfectly sane. What she didn’t understand was that claiming to be sane was considered a sign of insanity. Resisting treatment was a sign of insanity. Speaking forcefully was a sign of insanity. And only trained doctors could diagnosis it. No family members or friends who claimed otherwise could be trusted. The twisted logic was in itself maddening.
“No human being can be subjected to the process to which you subject them here, without being in great danger of becoming insane.” – Elizabeth Packard
The book recounts Elizabeth’s personal struggle as well as her tenacity in assisting to other women similarly mistreated. Not only was all of this legal — married women had no individual and no property rights — it was quite common. Husbands could easily get rid of a vexatious wife, or teach her a lesson, by finding someone to declare her insane. Coupled with the newfound studies that were finally recognizing mental illness as a real affliction, it was quickly used for other purposes.
Luckily for modern readers, Elizabeth was very prolific — even when paper and writing instruments were taken away from her. She kept diaries and notes during her incarceration, and for decades after her release. She tracked her advocacy measures through court decisions, public letters, newspapers, and Congressional transcripts.
It’s a long book, but an engrossing read. It’s enormously infuriating, but in a good way. Moore clearly lays out the absurdity and makes a clear case for individual rights. It’s seems so obvious to today’s reader, but it’s an excellent reminder that not so long ago, these basic principles weren’t enforceable.
While Elizabeth regained her freedom and her good name, untold thousands never did. And untold thousands were saved from the indiginities she suffered because of the reforms she was able to demand.
“There is not a girl in America who has so capable a mother as you have, and the world will know soon.” ~ Elizabeth Packard in a letter to her daughter.
My thanks to Sourcebooks for the review copy.
Publisher: Sourcebooks (June 22, 2021)
Hardcover: 560 pages