Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Women and Insanity, Part Two

Since it’s so close to Halloween, I thought I’d continue my thoughts on Women and Insanity. Over the weekend, I watched the movie, The Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie. I didn’t know what it was about, just that it was Angelina Jolie and she had a missing child. What I discovered was this was a true story, a story about the disappearance of Walter Collins in 1928.

Now, women in 1928 had precious little rights, and especially single mothers like Mrs. Collins, who supported herself and her son by working at the telephone company. Until her son disappeared, she was a quiet, unassuming, hard-working single mom who adored her son and was just trying to make a good life and home for them to the best of her ability in the times she lived in. She got called in to work on a Saturday when she had planned to take her son to the movies, and (although this wasn’t made clear in the movie) instead sent him to the movies alone. He never returned.

Mrs. Collins spent five frantic months looking for her son, and the Los Angeles police department, who a the time was already under fire, was looking even worse. So they concocted this scheme where another young boy would pretend to be her son, and they could announce that the case was closed.

The only problem was that Mrs. Collins knew immediately that the boy was not her son, and protested. Because by closing the case, that meant the police would stop looking for her real son. So she became a mother on a mission, desperate to find her child.

Meanwhile, the police tried to tell her she didn’t know her own son, and why couldn’t she be happy with the one she had. They tried to make her out as a loose woman, having had five months to party and live it up while he was gone, and now that he was back, she wanted to deny her son and shirk her responsibilities toward him. She finally became so outspoken that the chief of police had her committed to an insane asylum until she signed a paper that said the boy was her son and she had been mistaken. She refused.

Call me naïve, but I was shocked that this could happen less than 100 years ago. I mean, my initial post about women and insanity had to do with pioneer women in the 1800s. You’d think things would have improved in a century or so. But apparently not. Over the weekend, I found this, from a college paper on women and mental illness.

It states: "Mental illness during the Victorian era revolved around the empowerment of men. Hysteria fuelled from a fear of intellectual women. Women were denied tasks such as reading or social interaction due to a fear of becoming a hysteric. Women were further forced into the stereotypical passive housewife role. Anorexia was an attempt to fit the male standard of beauty. These women refused food in order to appear "feminine" and become a frail ornament for their husbands to show off. They also furthered the idea of the passive housewife, lacking personality or emotion. Those who took a stand for their beliefs or exercised a sexual emotion were deemed insane as they rejected the feminine ideal. Such women were forced into asylums to keep others in line; they were sacrificed to show that those who spoke up would be punished. Thus, the rest of the women remained silent. And finally, spinsters and lesbians were a major threat to male domination. These women preferred life without sexual interaction with men. They rejected the social norms of woman as passive, emotionless accessories and instead embraced personal choice. They too were deemed insane and subject to male-induced public criticism to try and reform them as well as fuel the idea that this sort of behavior was not acceptable. "

So poor Mrs. Collins never had a chance. Fortunately, however, there were enough people in the community who would stand up for her, and went looking for her (as she was whisked out the back door of the police station and off to the mental institution in the dead of night) and found her and got her released. She then was able to get released all the women in the institution classified as Code 12, which turned out to be a euphemism for someone the police wanted to get rid of.

A book on the subject I would recommend is Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945 (Paperback)

Here’s a snippet of what one reviewer had to say about it:

"This book is an interesting compilation of personal accounts of women who were imprisoned in asylums for various reasons, usually at the request of a relative. It seems throughout most of this time period, all it took to get a person imprisoned in an asylum was a statement from the doctor that the person was insane. Consequently, if a woman angered a man in her family, he could have her imprisoned by pointing out that she was not performing her duties as a woman around the house and for the community, such as at church…often, individual thinking landed a woman in the insane asylum. One of the women questioned the doctrine of her church; thus, was imprisoned for religious problems. This same woman wrote a very articulate account of her treatment and the treatment of other women in the hospital, which made me wonder exactly what it was that they saw wrong with her views on the church. The only conclusion I could draw was that it had to be her individuality that brought her into the asylum.

The most striking thing about this book is to look now onto what these women went through, and consider these were absolutely normal occurrences at the time…While these stories explain the reasons women landed in the asylums, they also told of the treatment of them and the other inmates. These stories are clear, but the authors/editors also explain what types of treatments were used at different times and how these all tied in with how the patients actually responded. While you can see their legal rights starting to improve towards the end of the time studied here, there is a definite slip in the treatment and attitude towards the inmates as these hospitals grew in size…"

The bottom line, I think, is that the times dictate what is crazy and what isn’t, and I have to wonder why it is that no matter where you look, even today, women seem to fall on the wrong side of crazy every time.


Susan Macatee said...

Great post, Liana! I know women were repressed during the Victorian era and that spurred on the drive for women's rights, but this was the 1920s!

I can't imagine being put in an asylum because the police didn't want to do their job. Thank God we have so many women on the force now!

Eva Gale said...

What an incredible post, and I think I'll have to get a copy of that book.

The thing that bothers me is that so much is still the same--except women are the ones forcing other women into those roles, esp using religious beliefs as the reason.

Kiyara said...

I recently watched a paranormal documentary about a mental asylum. The sad thing about those places a hundred years ago was that women and children were the main people locked up in them, and usually the women were there because their husbands simply did not want them anymore. If the man said she was ill or nuts, the asylum would take her in, and then the husband could marry someone else. Sad and an outrage. And you are right about these things happening only 100 years ago being so scary!

P.S. I have read Jake's Return. Nice love story!

Doralynn Kennedy said...

Good lord... that is scary. Makes me, 1) glad that I stayed single, and 2) glad that I live in modern day America... as opposed to the, say, the Middle East. Women in the Middle East still face the same challenges. Did you see the movie The Stoning of Soraya M? It's a true story. You should watch it. It's exactly what you're talking about, only it happened recently. Come to think of it, I don't know if it's on DVD yet. Doralynn

Sheryl Browne said...

"Insanity is relative. It depends on who has who locked in what cage."
Ray Bradbury

Which is why we should never allow ourselves to be labelled. How hard must it have been to be surrounded by madness--outside of the asylum.
Know your own mind, I say, whatever anyone else tries to tell you.

Great post!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Liana,
What a thought provoking blog. I am so grateful to be living in the age and the place that I am. It's heartbreaking to know a woman could be locked away just for being herself.


Andrea I said...

Thanks for your post. My daughter and I watched The Changeling together. She knew it was a true story. It was relevant and meaningful to both of us as we are bipolar. In another time, both of us would have been locked away from society.