Liralen's Reviews > Ten Days in a Mad House

Ten Days in a Mad House by Nellie Bly
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Nov 04, 2013

it was amazing
bookshelves: nonfiction, hear-me-roar, z-2014, reviewed

This kind of manuscript (never mind that it was originally published in parts) would never fly today. Publishers would want far more detail, copious research, and three or four times as much length. They'd want her, ideally, to draw on extensive interviews with doctors and nurses and patients. They'd want a discussion of other treatment models. They'd want, in short, a very different book.

And I am very, very grateful that this is not that very different book. Because this? This is excellent. Nellie Bly's picture should be in the dictionary under 'intrepid reporter'. (Other apt words: plucky, muckraker, adventurous.) Given how readily the authorities had her committed, it would not have surprised me if, after her release, they had tried to have her committed again -- for willingly going in in the first place.

Even if only half of what Bly reported was true -- and I have no reason to doubt her -- it would be enough to offend modern sensibilities. It sounds like the people who had her committed -- the people on the outside -- were well intentioned but had little recourse (though I'm surprised reporters were so interested, given how easy it seems to have been to be declared insane), but those inside just. didn't. care.
I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 A.M. until 8 P.M. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during those hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck. (page 68)

The care Bly received was not fashioned to help anyone -- it existed to keep the insane (or, possibly, the poor or the foreign or the ill) contained and out of reach of normal society. As a state hospital, it provided only the barest services: yes, you can sleep on a bed, but it won't be comfortable; yes, you can have food, but it won't be edible; yes, you can have clothing, but it won't be adequate. Maybe the nurses went in caring and lost their ideals or maybe they never cared in the first place, but Bly presents them as at best indifferent and at worst abusive.

I will note that I can't be too hard on the experts (or 'experts'?) who declared her incurably mad -- more contemporary experiments have demonstrated that physicians still make similar diagnostic errors and are susceptible to confirmation bias, whereby they interpret evidence/symptoms as supporting what they already believe is true.

Bly's exposé had positive short-term effects, but I wish I had more information on the long-term effects. Mass deinstitutionalisation (which has its own critics) in the U.S. didn't happen until decades after Bly's death, and inpatient care can still be hit or miss.

Pretty fair to say that Bly was ahead of her time. Excellent read.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
November 4, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
November 4, 2013 – Shelved
December 8, 2013 – Shelved as: nonfiction
December 8, 2013 – Shelved as: hear-me-roar
March 12, 2014 – Shelved as: z-2014
March 14, 2014 – Shelved as: reviewed

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