Ten Days in a MadHouse: The Original 1887 Edition by Nellie Bly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Free Public Domain Version Here
This late 19th century work of immersion journalism tells the tale of Nellie Bly getting herself put into (the aptly nefarious sounding) Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for ten days (after which time her editor got her released.) Unlike the famous Rosenhan Experiment in 1973, in 1887 Bly had to get herself committed, and had her editor not gotten her released she might have been institutionalized indefinitely. Disturbingly, yet fortunately for Bly, it took no great acting skills to convince the authorities that she was mentally ill, pretending to be poor and having no husband got her at least 90 percent of the way to being institutionalized. Like the Rosenhan Experiments, Bly’s story showed that nobody seems to have any great capacity for determining sanity from insanity, not even the people with advanced degrees and board certifications on the subject.
At first, I wasn’t sure how skewed Bly’s account would be. She does show some bias in practically deifying journalists. She was confident that no psychiatrist would be able to discover her ploy, but she seemed sure that any journalist could out her through the briefest of conversations. So, when she complained the food was “inedible,” I considered that the same has always been said about any institutional food – from military mess halls to college cafeterias, and usually it’s perfectly adequate. That said, one of the asylum staff members did acknowledge the food was pretty horrific. Ultimately, I think the story was probably accurate because, sadly, it rings true. Bly had intended to get herself put in the violent ward, but had second thoughts after hearing and seeing what she did, being concerned that she might be seriously injured by the rough treatment those patients received.
This short book is riveting. If you enjoy nonfiction, this piece is definitely worth reading.
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