Image is a drawing of the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane, as imagined by artist Diane Stafford (my awesome and talented younger sister).
Are we all thanking our lucky stars that we weren’t born in the 1800s? Let’s face it, we all know that under yesterday's post's criteria, most of us might have been considered insane!
Today, we’re going to tackle how understandings and misappropriation of an “insanity” diagnosis finds its way into SEEING THE ELEPHANT.
Let’s look at the character of Anabel Van Curan. Anabel arrives as a patient at the fictional Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane. Her diagnosis? “Politics,” which means she has violated the cult of True Womanhood. In the excerpt below, Anabel and Frankie exchange ideas that might strike you as restrictive and a little sad. I have included some of Frankie’s musings about Anabel’s situation, so readers might feel a bit more comfortable.
The truth is women really were expected to adhere to a code of social behavior that was much more restrictive than the one we experience today. You might say, “What code? Women have rights nowadays!” My answer to that is: “Not completely.” We’re still arguing about what constitutes proper dress, about whether a woman “asked” to be raped. about abortion and birth control, about adequate child care, about glass ceilings and equal opportunity, about inappropriate advances by males – and good golly Miss Molly, we still don’t get equal pay.
So, my cool, latte-sipping, cell-phone obsessed twenty-first-century denizens, please don’t be smug. Women still do not have equality with men. And the rights that have been won must be jealously
guarded, or we just may find that they are being taken away.
I know I might come off as a raving feminist but cut me a break. I was born in the 1950s and came of age in the late 1960s. I remember being told “girls don’t do that,” being given a toy nurse’s kit instead of the toy doctor’s kit I had asked for, and on one occasion in the mid-1970s, while I was working as a secretary at a temp agency, being told by its owner that he didn’t like hiring women who had boyfriends, because they would “just get married and have babies and quit.” So, don’t judge me. Learn history instead. (Wow, am I cheeky today!)
In this excerpt, look for the reason Anabel has been admitted, her real problem, and what she is advised to do about it. How is she being encouraged to adhere to the Cult of True Womanhood? Doe the doctor’s encouragement have an impact on Frankie? If so, what?
Anabel Van Curen was waiting outside. The twenty-six-year-old married woman had been admitted to the hospital by her husband for “politics.” There was a story behind the word. Mrs. Van Curen, who supported the Republican Party, had openly argued with her husband, who reputedly was a Democrat and a Copperhead. As a result, declared her incompetent and had her committed.
“I am sorry to disturb you so late,” Mrs. Van Curen said. “However, I am finding it difficult to sleep and was wondering if you would be available to talk and perhaps take a cup of tea.”
Frankie smiled. “Of course. I’ll fetch my dressing gown.”
A few moments later, the two women were in in the hospital’s large kitchen. Frankie stirred the ashes in the stove, fed it some wood and then went to the sink to pump water into the kettle. “What is it you wish to discuss?”
Anabel looked down at her hands as they sat folded on the kitchen table. “I expect to be released in a few weeks, Miss Blaine.”
“I know.” Frankie set the kettle on the stove. Turning to the cupboard, she fetched the teapot and two teacups with saucers. “Does it concern you?”
“Yes, I fear it does a bit.”
“Tell me about it.” Frankie set the chinaware on the table.
Anabel watched the attendant return to the counter and start spooning loose tea into the pot. “I fear my husband.”
Frowning in concern, Frankie turned.
“It is not what you think. He has never laid a hand on me. But I fear he will say something against Mr. Lincoln or against our nation’s policies that will cause me to say something in return.”
“Must you be silent about all things political?”
Anabel nodded. “He will brook no disagreement. He says women do not understand such things. I have no option but to remain silent, especially since he sent me here to be ‘cured’ of it.”
Frankie sincerely hoped that when she married Patrick he would be of a different opinion. She was apt to vocalize about all things political, particularly female suffrage. “What does he do when you speak your mind?”
The kettle began to boil.
“He tells me my views are of no consequence and becomes quite cold toward me.”
Frankie went to the big cast iron stove and poured hot water from the kettle into the teapot. It annoyed her that Anabel needed to stifle her opinions while Mr. Van Curen was free to speak his. She wondered why women were not supposed to have attitudes about politics, but said, “Well, how might you more positively channel your feelings when your husband says such things?”
“Dr. Stanley says I am to think of other things. Pleasant thoughts, like the way the trees look in spring and the smell of roses in summer.”
“Perhaps we should practice that.” Frankie thought Anabel should pack up and leave her husband, even though it was seldom done. She wondered why women were forced to suffer silently with men who possessed all manner of strange attitudes and behaviors – even violent ones.
There is more to check out from the book, which I think would make a final installment regarding women and insanity in SEEING THE ELEPHANT. I mean, you haven’t met some of the other characters yet. But I can't show you ore than the tip of the…elephant. After all, "spoilers, Sweetie," to quote River Song from Doctor Who.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder