Sunday, Apr. 12, 2009

Ten Days in a Mad-House

It was rare for a woman to hold a job in the 19th century. It was even rarer for one to work at as a newspaper reporter — and rarer still to have that paper send her undercover, to expose the brutality and neglect within a New York mental institution. But in 1887, that's exactly what Nellie Bly did.

Bly had herself involuntarily committed to the Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum for ten days. (She checked into a women's boarding facility, acted erratically, and then allowed the all-too-eager boarding house employees to call the loony bin). After gaining entrance to the facility, the 23-year-old reverted back to a normal, sane pattern of behavior and tried to get them to release her. "Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be," she wrote in her series of articles for the New York World. Bly recounted stories of spoiled food, nurses who kept patients awake all night, ice cold baths, beatings and forced feedings.

The articles aroused public outcry, brought on much needed political reform, and were so popular that Bly turned them into a book, called Ten Days in a Mad-House (which is still in print). In 2008, Norah Vincent quasi-copied Bly's stunt for her best-selling book Voluntary Madness except that her forays into three types of asylums were less an exposé on the parlous state of the U.S. mental health system and more of a narcissistic look into her own psyche. If you want to read about the mental institutions in all their harrowing glory, go with the original.

See the top 10 non-fiction books of 2008.