City of Incurable Women

Written by Maud Casey
Review by Bethany Latham

Paris’s Salpêtrière Hospital began as a gunpowder factory; by the 1600s, it had been repurposed into a care/work facility for beggar children and disabled women, as well as a prison for prostitutes. After the Revolution, it morphed into a hospital for female “hysterics.” By the late 1800s, it was touted as the cutting edge of neuropsychiatric learning under Jean-Martin Charcot, a pioneer in the burgeoning field of neuropathology. Charcot was lauded for his humane (though this is a relative term) treatment, and his patients have seen a recent rise in interest (e.g., 2021’s The Madwomen’s Ball by Victoria Mas and Amazon’s filmic adaptation). City of Incurable Women is a literary, impressionistic take from the perspective of the women who were inmates of the Salpêtrière. They include Avril Jane, a dancer from the Moulin Rouge, as well as various women who became short-lived “favorites” of Charcot for exhibition in his medical theatre during their “hysterical epilepsies.” These women were hypnotized and exhibited not only as medical specimens, but the wealthy of Paris could even pay to mingle with them at an annual ball.

The prose is stream-of-consciousness, and the brief chapters (most of which have been previously published as short stories in other venues) are interspersed with artifacts of a sort—case notes, photographs of the denizens of the Salpêtrière, catalog cards for the photographs. Casey has pulled some information verbatim from actual artifacts (each new admission was photographed and described); others she embellishes or creates entirely based on information from contemporary sources. The resulting episodic, indistinct sketches of these women occasionally coalesce into moments of devastating clarity that illustrate suffering, past trauma, paralysis, loneliness—and how it might feel to be poked and peered at like an interesting insect under glass, rather than treated as a human being.