By: Angie Haddock
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.
This was both a fascinating and frustrating read! It tells the true story of Elizabeth Packard, and most of the story takes place in the 1860s.
When we first meet Packard, she is already at odds with her husband of 20-some years, Theophilus. (Even his name is perfect for him, as he’s a preacher.) They share five children, the youngest of whom is just barely out of infancy.
Elizabeth Packard is fairly educated, and she’s been reading. But more than that, she’s been thinking on her own. Specifically, her husband had been affiliated with a more liberal/modern branch of Presbyterianism, but had recently switched to a more conservative branch. Elizabeth didn’t love the “fire and brimstone” lectures, and was disillusioned with this branch because they were against the abolition of slavery. So, she had begun speaking up in some of the church groups that she belonged to. Her husband was the minister, so her disagreeing openly with his views was just not acceptable.
So Theophilus sends Elizabeth to the state’s insane asylum. This facility had patients of both genders, but Elizabeth really only sees the women’s side of things. The man in charge is Dr. Andrew McFarland, who is well respected in his field. (Of course, the idea of treating mental health issues was very much in its infancy, and there were many differing views on it at the time.)
At first, McFarland is friendy toward Elizabeth. She is put in a decent room, and allowed special privileges like walking the grounds unaccompanied. She feels sure the doctor will see that she is obviously sane, and will allow her to leave in mere months. He does encourage this belief at first. But when Elizabeth does not leave, she starts using her privilege to speak up about things she witnesses, and is eventually put into a different ward… where she witnesses even worse things.
She ends up being there for several years, and her status there goes back and forth. She often has friends on the inside – disgruntled staff, usually – who are willing to help her get letters out and such. But she also finds that McFarland intercepts any incoming letters, so she never knows if her friends on the outside are willing to help. She also knows that she can only be let go into the care of her husband, while still married. But if she asks for a divorce, Theophilus would get custody of the children. There is no easy wins in her forseeable future, because she is, in essence, her husband’s property.
Even when Elizabeth does get released from the asylum – by a board of trustees, not McFarland – we know her fight is far from over (mostly because there’s still a lot of book left!). She initially gets free from Theophilus, only to go back by her own volition because she wants to see her children. She ends up locked up again, but is eventually able to stand trial to determine if she is actually insane or not.
She also starts self-publishing her writings on her time in the asylum. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, she starts making her own money, so she can be financially self-reliant. Secondly, she brings light to the issues in the asylum there, and in asylums in general, which starts getting the public interested in the matter. This leads to her eventually touring across the country advocating for both patient’s rights and women’s rights, mostly in state legislatures.
This is an incredible, infuriating, and ultimately redeeming read. I was able to read it for free through Sourcebooks Early Reads, but it’s available everywhere.
(Don’t forget, I keep a bookshelf of books I’ve reviewed here on Bookshop.org, too, if you’re looking for your own copy!)