I will never get over Elizabeth Packards story. Terrifying, inspiring, and infuriating – her story will stay with me forever.
1860: As the clash between the states rolls slowly to a boil, Elizabeth Packard, housewife and mother of six, is facing her own battle. The enemy sits across the table and sleeps in the next room. Her husband of twenty-one years is plotting against her because he feels increasingly threatened – by Elizabeth’s intellect, independence, and unwillingness to stifle her own thoughts. So Theophilus makes a plan to put his wife back in her place. One summer morning, he has her committed to an insane asylum.
The horrific conditions inside the Illinois State Hospital in Jacksonville, Illinois, are overseen by Dr. Andrew McFarland, a man who will prove to be even more dangerous to Elizabeth than her traitorous husband. But most disturbing is that Elizabeth is not the only sane woman confined to the institution. There are many rational women on her ward who tell the same story: they’ve been committed not because they need medical treatment, but to keep them in line – conveniently labeled “crazy” so their voices are ignored.
No one is willing to fight for their freedom and, disenfranchised both by gender and the stigma of their supposed madness, they cannot possibly fight for themselves. But Elizabeth is about to discover that the merit of losing everything is that you then have nothing to lose… from Goodreads
Y’all….this book is consumptive. If you plan to pick it up, be ready to ignore social obligations, your chore chart, and your Netflix queue. I could not put this down and I cannot believe that it is nonfiction.
I wonder if this book shocked me all the more because I live in Illinois. I currently live in Chicago where Elizabeth lived in her final years and is buried. I grew up in Springfield which memorialized the despicable Dr. McFarland by naming their mental health hospital in his honor. My husband went to college in Jacksonville, Illinois where Elizabeth was sent to the asylum and I frequently visited him there. Really though, the shock came when I realized that Elizabeth’s life differs from mine because of when we were born.
After all, in the nineteenth century, a menstrual cycle made women liable to go mad. A short list of reasons a woman could be deemed insane includes:
- “Mental Labor” (learning beyond the limits of what was deemed appropriate for a woman aka reading a writing.
- Novel Reading
- Menstruating too much, too little, irregularly, breastfeeding, pregnant – basically any uterus-related malady
Elizabeth’s husband decided to institutionalize her because he could no longer control her. She made the mistake of disagreeing with him in public, complaining about him, and daring to be smarter than him. For quite some time, Elizabeth worried that her husband would commit her. She was concerned enough to talk to an attorney who assured her that no one could be committed without a six-man jury. What he neglected to tell her is that women had no legal standing – they were non-entities in the eyes of the court – and so no jury was required. An asylum could receive a woman simply “by the request of the husband.” In front of a large crowd, Elizabeth was forcible placed on a train destined for the asylum.
“Is there no man in this crowd to protect this woman? Is there no man among you? If I were a man, I would seize hold upon her!”Rebecca Blessing while watching Elizabeth Packard loaded onto a train destined for the Asylum
At the asylum, Elizabeth meets Dr. McFarland. Elizabeth, a product of her upbringing and a woman of her time, deemed that the good doctor was a gentleman and spent an uncomfortably long time holding him in high regard. She thought Dr. McFarland would be just the man to replace the protection her husband refused. Meanwhile, Dr. McFarland believed that a truly sane person would want to stay institutionalized until they were well. And, he found Elizabeth to be most certainly insane. He couldn’t see it, he couldn’t provide it, but he could sense it. You know, because he was so much smarter than everyone else. He compared insanity to gravity and argued that, simply because you couldn’t see it, didn’t mean it failed to exist.
Elizabeth’s treatment at the asylum and her experiences there were what you would expect. What makes her story so striking are two things. First, Elizabeth refused to give up and found jobs to busy her mind and body everyday. The purpose endeared her to the other women institutionalized as well as some of the staff. Second, she wrote down her experiences and hid them, creating a journal of facts that would later be used to dismantle a whole system.
I hesitate to write more of the book into this review for fear of spoiling the experience for others. I can simply say that Elizabeth Packard is a hero.
Tell me, please! What is the last Nonfiction book that you just couldn’t put down?