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Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945 Paperback – August 1, 1995


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (August 1, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385474237
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385474238
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #941,899 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

A collaborative effort between psychiatrist Geller and Harris, a clinical psychologist, feminist, and author of Women and Madness (1972), this compilation of excerpts from 26 firsthand accounts written between 1840 and 1945 by women confined in asylums are a testament to human endurance. In the patriarchal society of 19th-and early 20th-century America, it was easy to get women out of the way by having them declared "insane." The women were confined against their will, betrayed, degraded and beaten, raped, starved, robbed, punished, force-fed, and treated as unpaid labor. These heroic accounts tell of their struggles to hold on to their sanity and dignity within a brutalizing system. The editors' introduction places the accounts within a historical context. In view of women's ongoing struggles with both the medical and psychiatric establishments, this is a timely and important book. Recommended for all collections.
--Lesley Jorbin, Cleveland State Univ. Lib., Ohio
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

In four sections corresponding to consecutive chronological periods within their 105-year overall coverage, editors Geller and Harris present excerpts from 26 accounts of asylum stays of from six weeks to 28 years. They preface each section with an explanation of the role of women and the general state of psychiatry during the period covered. They note that throughout the time their book spans, the accepted causes of and treatments for psychiatric illnesses in women were different from the male equivalents. Indeed, although many women published accounts of their asylum stays before 1908, it took a man's account published that year, A Mind That Found Itself, by Clifford Beers, to make a definite impression on the public. The 26 excerpts range from broad, altruistic views to detailed accounts of individual experiences. Some of the latter are appalling, for several of the women, obviously sane, were railroaded by husbands who had tired of them, by family or relatives who wanted their land or money, or by others with equally ulterior motives. Once freed, a few of the women devoted themselves to improving the lot of their imprisoned sisters. William Beatty --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By ilary on October 12, 2005
Format: Paperback
The accounts treated in this study of interned women are a chilling assortment of shattered lives. Always in the periphery of each story is the question of how mental illness is defined and used by society as an instrument of exclusion or social conditioning. This historical and anecdotal aspect of this book is nonetheless relevant as the horrors and indignities (degradation and abuse, rape, etc.) have continued on into our times, though with albeit increased scrutiny. The 'use' of psychiatry for nontherapeutic ends is as horrifying as it commonplace; a variety of hair-raising studies (such as Dangerous Minds by Robin Munro) have examined its political use. I prefer individual narratives to surveys of cases--autobiographies or diaries-- in the unusual situation in which the interned woman was sufficiently lucid to be able to recount her experience. There is admittedly almost always an element of sexual oppression and domination to these stories, as the Institution or its principals proceed to impose their agenda or themselves on the helpless victims. Narratives such as Running with the Devil by Margot Zimmermann or Writing on the Wall by Mary Elene Wood, like Geller's Women of the Asylum, are rife with material for a prurient film.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Heather Rainey on July 14, 2008
Format: Paperback
I bought this book but haven't finished reading it completely yet. I find the material very interesting and I love that the book also includes the historical background and framework of the excerpts inside. The entries for each woman are rather short, though. I was hoping for longer pieces by the women who were imprisoned. Though I feel that the work is overedited, I have still been enjoying the reading.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By R. Poole-Carter on August 12, 2007
Format: Paperback
In collecting and commenting upon the first-hand accounts of women held in U.S. asylums from 1840 - 1945, Geller and Harris shed light on the changing treatment of women by the medical profession and by society at large. Who decides who is mad? What constitutes madness? This book offers haunting accounts from the inmates and provocative commentary from the editors. I read it for research, and it helped inspire a play and a novel. For anyone interested in issues of mental health and misogyny.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By R. M. Steele on August 8, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I bought this book to do research about asylum life and it does an excellent job with that by telling real stories that are gripping and compelling. But what has fascinated me even more is that the book puts the stories into context of the time period. There are 4 time periods 1840-1865, 1866-1890, 1891 - 1920 and 1921 - 1945. Jeffrey Geller put together a concise yet rich historical context of each time period to set the stage for the personal stories that are to come. From a sociological and woman's studies perspective, these overviews of the time periods are fascinating. I read the first one a couple times. They are incredibly well researched with references cited. I was in the middle of reading this book and even took it on the airplane with me to finish where I might ordinarily take a compelling fiction book. Well done. This book is a great investment and I would recommend it to my girlfriends to make them appreciate how far women have come.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By J. Peterson on January 22, 2009
Format: Paperback
This work provides a much needed collective human voice on the lack of dignity, physical violence and other horrors of women undergoing "treatment" in Insane Asylums from the 1840's to WWII. The reader learns that it is very easy for a husband to discard his wife - commit her to an asylum - and that it is correspondingly difficult for her to get out. If you didn't know how force feeding, cold packs, and early shock therapy were done, this set of clear voices will tell you. Much of the writing belies some literary talent among the inmates/patients, and I wonder what sort of writings these women would have produced without being shut in.

The period covered here corresponds to a time in our society where women had made some strides towards improvement in their collective lot. This book shows the flip side of such progress, with married women still in the grip of their husband's will and his willingness to use it for ill.

I read this book a month ago and I can still call up, in vivid fashion, horrors described by these Women of the Asylum. It is a good thing that so many are included in a book format such as this. The history of psychiatric medicine cannot be written without them.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 28, 1996
Format: Paperback
An unsettling, chronological account of women, the psychiatric community and the institutions that held them captive. Riveting first person descriptions that allow you to peer into the dark corners of our past. History, told by real people, living real lives, unfolds in front of your eyes. A fabulously rewarding read for those interested in history, women's studies or psychology. Disquieting, fascinating, and thought-provoking
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Randi A Samuelson-Brown on December 16, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a great resource compiled and explained by two knowledgeable authors.

The individual stories are accounts written by the women who spent time in asylums - each is fascinating in its own right. One of the premises of this book is to read the women's account and to ask yourself "Do these women actually sound insane?"

Against the individual accounts, the book is split into defined periods of time. While , there are general chapters which present the context of historical periods and the prevailing views of women's places in society, the prevailing medical views on insanity, and the ease in which women could be committed for a variety of reasons.

The reason for admission into these asylums is disturbing - while some admission might be sound in today's society, many of the past admissions were largely driven by unhappy marriages, failure to adhere to societal convention, jealousy, etc.

Highly recommended.
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