Ten Days In A Madhouse by Nellie Bly – A Review

What shocks one generation can seem so tame  to another, or in those shifting ironies of time what seemed natural is now the shocker. Over the last 100 years in the United States that shifting shock has most often come with the changes in race  and gender relations. But the shifts have also come in the way mental health is approached and some 120 years since its publication Ten Days in a Madhouse is a reflection of those changes and while some part of the writing may seem dated or at best a piece of history much like Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, Ten Days is not that distant from our time and its subject and the manner of its writing are worth a look.

Briefly, Ten Days in a Madhouse is Nellie Bly’s (Elizabeth Jane Cochrane Seaman) account of her ten days in a madhouse in New York in 1887. Bly, in an act of stunt journalism that wold make her famous, pretended to be mildly insane so she would be sent to an asylum to see first hand what one was like. To begin the process she goes to a rooming house and one night she stays up all night staring at the wall. The stare fest alerts her roommate and scares the homeowner and the next day she fixates on her lost trunk and insists on finding it. At the same time she continually talks about too many foreigners and never having worked, which both seem strange to the working class people she is rooming with. These three things are sufficient for her to land before a judge and eventually in the madhouse where she endures the arbitrary and vindictive rule of the nurses who are little better than street toughs. At the end of ten days a lawyer from her paper the World secures her release.

What strikes a modern reader are two things. The first is the obvious arbitrariness of the commitment and cruelty of the nurses. For the women who are trapped in the asylum there seems to be no way to escape. They have no way to demonstrate their sanity and some are quite sane, only having suffered what might now be diagnosed as a bout of depression after a traumatic experience or a nervous breakdown. To say one was sane was to say one was insane. Many of the women Bly encounters should not be in the asylum by modern standards and it easy to see the asylum as yet another version of Kafka’s Trial or Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But one should not let the smugness of a century’s worth of experience suggest that what she was writing about is no longer a problem. Instead, the arbitrariness and, more importantly, what constitutes madness is at the same time silly yet as strange as what could be called mad now. Saying one would not work or that there are many foreigners are quite observational, yet said amongst the working class of New York it seemed a form of obstinance. And in the obstinance you really see the shifting notions of what is strange.

The second area of discord is what Bly takes as normal. She continually winks at the reader, which is mostly stylistic, but then throws in comments that say she is worried about her hair. In a piece of serious journalism it seems a little strange. Yet her preoccupations tell as much about what is normal as is strange. And the reversal comes in how she characterizes women. In the world these events take place women are delicate and there is a continual paternalism.

Given these discords the book can seem at once a Guild Age curiosity and an annoying reflection of time thankfully past. What makes the book valuable is not so much what Bly was reporting, but what she thought of it. There is an earnestness that is not jaded, even though she is doing a stunt, and her solutions for fixing the asylums are hopeful if vague. In her conclusions you sense a belief that these problems are easily fixable if they are just addressed. Though her language is a bit more cluttered, she writes clearly and it serves well to show those shifts in attitude of the last 120 years. In those shifts, too, you can see how arbitrary the care of the mentally ill can be. In reading the book, one should not come away smug, but reminded.

To Live or Perish Forever – Stunt Journalism and Reporting – A Review

The term stunt journalism first came into usage after 1887 when Nellie Bly wrote Ten Days in a Madhouse where she had impersonated a mad woman to get a patient’s view of a madhouse. The stunt made her famous and did bring the story to a public that didn’t know how bad the madhouses were. Since then journalists have occasionally used stunt journalism as a means to get at a story they might not otherwise get. However, the stunts have also become a end in themselves, as in the work of Hunter S. Thompson who reveled in becoming the story. The stunt journalist, though, always has something over the journalist who just sends in the 500 to 1500 word story. They have the adventure of the story and it is that adventure, whether real or manufactured by inserting one’s self into the story, that can make a stunt journalist’s work exciting and often compelling.

The risks to this kind of journalism range from distorting the story to weak prose and they are something that Nicholas Schmidle in his new book To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan manages to avoid. Yet as I read the book I couldn’t help but think I’m not reading about the ethnic tensions in Pakistan, but the adventure of placing one’s self with in those tensions. The adventure is never so clear as when he returns from southwestern Pakistan, Balochistan, and he us traveling along a dirt road at night worried about bandits and realizing the police escort he had started with has dwindled to one truck with police officers armed with sticks. Schmidle is in great danger, a danger that highlights the problems of Pakistan and yet what is the story? Is it Pakistan or is it him? Is it the thrill of the car through the Pakistani night or is it the depressing ethnic strife that is always threatening to destroy Pakistan?

If you answer both then you have the book, because it is both and that is its strength. Part history, part journalism, part danger tourism To Live will depress with its endless problems, some known, others seldom reported. Of particular note is the ethnic tensions between the Punjabis, Pushtus, Balochis, and Sinds. Lost in the reports of the Taliban in the Swatt Valley are the constant tensions that have racked the country and which the government seems to have little interest in stopping when riots flare up. From what Schmidle says it is a wonder that Pakistan still exists. Add in the Taliban and the ever present state security services who seem obsessed with looking good and thwarting India, and you have the most dysfunctional state. What you hear in the news is even worse on the ground.

Schmidle offers some interesting reporting on the Taliban and the collapse of the traditional power structures in the tribal areas, noting that the Taliban are not a new form of the old tribal system, but a replacement that exterminates any opposition, including the tribal leaders. Yet despite the danger and the brutality, Schmidle meets with fundamentalist leaders and brings a humanizing face to them. He doesn’t do it because he believes in them nor trusts them, but to show how they could gain so many followers despite their positions that are so inimical in the west.

The friendships, too, are part of the adventure. He is honest in describing his feelings and in this sense the book is very good. But the question about what is a stunt and what is reporting still remains. Any act of reporting puts oneself if the story, even if peripherally, but does the story behind the story over take the story? In To Live occasionally it does, but in the I centric world of media it certainly is a light touch and no where near as purple as Dexter Firkins Forever War. Schmidle has managed to write a solid account of his time in Pakistan and if the story is subsumed in his story it is only because those are the demands of the solitary journalist.