Bly’s strategy was simple, yet anything but easy: She’d “assume the characteristics of insanity to such a degree [as to fool] the doctors,” and then proceed to write “a plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of the patients therein and the methods of management” — a mission she knew would be at once delicate and difficult. What she witnessed there — cold baths, forced starvation, beatings, the hovering threat of sexual assault, and a general atmosphere more akin to a concentration camp than to a healthcare establishment — is a timelessly tragic parable for what happens when largely arbitrary circumstances render one group of people helpless and another in power, a heartbreaking real-life enactment of the Stanford Prison Study revealing just how much cruelty humans are capable of when they assume positions of authority, however minuscule, over those less fortunate. Above all, it’s a sobering reminder that the true measure of power is not how deftly we can assert our authority but how much kindness and compassion we can show others in their greatest moments of vulnerability.
Introduction: SINCE my experiences in Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum were published in the World I have received hundreds of letters in regard to it. The edition containing my story long since ran out, and I have been prevailed upon to allow it to be published in book form, to satisfy the hundreds who are yet asking for copies.
I am happy to be able to state as a result of my visit to the asylum and the exposures consequent thereon, that the City of New York has appropriated $1,000,000 more per annum than ever before for the care of the insane. So I have at least the satisfaction of knowing that the poor unfortunates will be the better cared for because of my work.
Opening: ON the 22d of September I was asked by the World if I could have myself committed to one of the asylums for the insane in New York, with a view to writing a plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of the patients therein and the methods of management, etc. Did I think I had the courage to go through such an ordeal as the mission would demand? Could I assume the characteristics of insanity to such a degree that I could pass the doctors, live for a week among the insane without the authorities there finding out that I was only a “chiel amang ’em takin’ notes?” I said I believed I could. I had some faith in my own ability as an actress and thought I could assume insanity long enough to accomplish any mission intrusted to me. Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did.
The Mad Woman by Chaim Soutine