Woman 99 by Greer Macallister goes inside “a progressive home for the curably insane”

The madwoman character has a long literary history. Most famously, Charlotte Bronte provided readers with Jane Eyre, upon which generations of impressionable young women have been raised. In most of these stories, the madwoman is an antagonist, a monster to be disposed of. I remember the physical shock when I first encountered Jean Rhys’ feminist take on the “romantic” Mr. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea, in which the mad woman is the tormented and misunderstood protagonist.

Greer Macallister’s novel Woman 99 (Harper Collins, 2019) is set in Gilded Age San Francisco, mostly inside what was planned as a model psychiatric facility for the 1890s. Charlotte, the heroine, feigns insanity in order to enter Goldengrove Asylum for the purpose of retrieving her unjustly committed older sister, a young woman who today might be diagnosed as having a mood disorder. Charlotte immediately learns that the institution contains other unjustly committed women among the inmates. Some are old, some are indigent, some are merely “inconvenient.” Once diagnosed as insane, what may be variously illness, rebellion, or non-conformity will be handled alike with restraints, starvation, and sensory deprivation, “cures” indistinguishable from torture.

The sign over the gate of Goldengrove announces that this is “a progressive home for the curably insane.” Once inside, however, the patients must endure “treatments” that are not only ineffective but inhumane, all of which are part of the historical record. And as Nellie Bly said in her Ten Days in a Mad-House, the asylum is like a rat trap. “…easy to get into, but almost impossible to get out of.”

I’d read that Bly’s famous reportage helped to inspire Woman 99, and asked Macallister to elaborate.

“[Her] incredible undercover work for Ten Days in a Mad-House was the primary inspiration,” she said. “But because [Bly] was a reporter, naturally, her work was very well-documented, which makes it less interesting to me as a writer of fiction. So I thought about other reasons one might have to do something so extreme – pretend to be insane and get committed to an asylum on purpose – and immediately the character of Charlotte was there, with her motivation to save her beloved sister. Along with that, I believe there’s still too much stigma around mental health and mental illness, so I thought addressing how those issues were treated historically would add another dimension to the story.”

In Victorian times, in families both rich and poor, women were at the bottom of the power pyramid. They had few legal rights, and were passed as near-chattel from father to husband. The Victorian “True Womanhood” ideal—she manages her house, but is to be ruled by her husband—reigned supreme. It was easy to get in trouble by deviating from the narrow bourgeois vision of what constituted the “ideal” woman.

It was also easy to “disappear” a disobedient or rebellious woman into a madhouse, as was the case in Woman 99. She might have displeased her husband or inconvenienced her relatives, or violated one among a host of controlling social norms.

As I read Macallister’s novel, I found myself pulled into self-reference. I’ve seen some changes in the overall status of women during my lifetime, but right now I’m seeing a vigorous regrowth of old-fashioned repression. During my twenties, women in asylums were still being lobotomized, so that bad old days don’t seem so distant.

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When I mentioned this to Macallister, she said, “When people ask me why I write about the past, my answer is simple: historical fiction is never just about the past. I grew up thinking that progress moved relentlessly forward. It seemed like we as a society were becoming more welcoming, tolerant and inclusive, but then – I think we’ve all seen in the past couple of years that that isn’t really the case. Rights that are granted can be taken away. People who are welcomed with open arms in some segments of society are feared, persecuted and harmed by others. So I think it’s always relevant to look at how women were treated in the past and ask – have far have we come, really?”

In her author’s note, Macallister referenced Women of the Asylum, Voices from behind the walls, 1840-1945 by Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris as a research source. This is a collection of stories written by victims of injustice, who hoped to raise public awareness of their plight.

“In that book . . . each of the narratives included  . . . was from a woman writing about her own personal experience being institutionalized, which I found powerful,” Macallister said. “Each made a decision to tell her story, many of them publicly, putting their words out into a world that was even more hostile to women with mental health issues than today’s. That takes incredible bravery. These women who went through institutionalization, through barbaric “treatments”, and … deserve to have their stories told, whether that takes the form of fiction or nonfiction.”

 

About the contributor: Juliet Waldron has written thirteen historical novels, from semi-biographical to fantasy. Her most recent book, Fly Away Snow Goose, written with John Wisdomkeeper, is set in a Canadian Indian Residential School.


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