Madness in Nineteenth-Century Literature Autobiography

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mary Elene Wood (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Elizabeth Packard and Versions of Sanity," in The Writing on the Wall: Women's Autobiography and the Asylum, University of Illinois Press, 1994, pp. 25-47.

[In the following essay, Wood examines Elizabeth Packard's account of her experience in an insane asylum. In particular, Wood studies the parallels between Packard's story and both slave narratives and sentimental novels.]

In 1860, Theophilus Packard forced his wife Elizabeth from their home and committed her to the state insane asylum at Jacksonville, Illinois. According to her own account, she had long been battling with Theophilus, a Presbyterian minister, over the validity of what she considered the outdated and repressive concept of innate depravity. Elizabeth held her own Bible discussion groups, where she encouraged church members, mostly women, to question the traditional Calvinist doctrine and develop personal interpretations of biblical passages. Her husband and certain church elders considered her preaching subversive and indicative of an unbalanced mind. With the signature of a doctor and the corroboration of Andrew McFarland, the asylum superintendent, Elizabeth Packard was separated from her four sons and her daughter and made a prisoner of the institution. She would not be released until 1863, after which she would become an active and successful lobbyer for the rights of married women and the mentally ill. To raise money to support herself and her campaign, she published several pamphlets and books, the first of which was her autobiography, originally published in 1867, then reissued a year later as The Prisoner's Hidden Life; or, Insane Asylums Unveiled.1

She based her autobiography largely on writings she kept hidden in the backing of her mirror in the asylum, out of the sight of asylum authorities, who would examine and confiscate any writing materials they found in inmates' quarters. As Packard introduces her book: "the working of this Institution is so carefully covered up, and so artfully concealed from the public eye, that the external world knows nothing of the 'hidden life of the prisoner,' within. Therefore the journal of an eye witness taken on the spot, is now presented to the public, as the mirror in which to behold its actual operations" (p. 125). Packard does not fail to note the significance of the place in which she chooses to hide her asylum writings; the mirror that she brings with her from home and preserves throughout her imprisonment comes to represent her maintenance of a sense of sanity and selfhood. She can look into it and see the person she has always known, maintaining her need to look as well as be looked at, resisting the attempts of asylum authorities to deny her position as subject and identify her as an insane woman and an object of study.

As her asylum stay lengthens and she begins to record her experiences in journal entries and letters, she comes to identify her writing with the mirror; her journal reflects the "actual operations" of the asylum. By presenting her journal as a record of fact, she tries to separate her work from the "insane" woman whose credibility as a witness would be questioned by her mid-nineteenth-century audience. She hopes that if, by holding up her mirror, she can convince her readers that her experience is objective fact, they will see not only the asylum world but also their own image superimposed on her portrayal of the asylum. She seeks to establish her own sanity as a woman labeled insane and to show that an asylum community of insane women can reflect a world that smugly considers itself sane.

In trying to discover how a woman incarcerated as insane can speak her own experience, Elizabeth Packard engages in the nineteenth-century debate in the United States over what constitutes valid evidence and authority and to what extent women could be considered rational beings. Packard's text questions the growing scientific monopoly on knowledge and cultivates the idea...

(The entire section is 11,153 words.)