Archive for the ‘Ward, Mary Jane’ Category

The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward ~ 1946. This edition: Random House, 1946. Hardcover. 278 pages.

“Do you hear voices?” he asked.

You think I am deaf? “Of course,” she said. “I hear yours.” It was hard to keep on being civil. She was tired and he had been asking questions for such a long time, days and days of incredibly naive questions.

Now he was explaining that she misunderstood; he did not mean real voices. Fantastic. He was speaking, he said, of voices that were not real and yet they were voices he expected her to hear. He seemed determined that she should hear them. He was something of a pest, this man, but she could think of no decent way to get rid of him. You could tell he meant well and so you tried to play the game with him, as if with a fanciful child.

Virginia Cunningham, young writer, cherished wife of a loving husband, has had a terrible breakdown. Overwhelmed with what she feels are unfulfilled family and societal expectations, desperately worried about money and her husband’s apparently casual attitude to a dwindling bank account, Virginia is getting so very tired – she cannot sleep – and she crashes hard: “Robert,” I said, “I think there is something the matter with my head.”

Now Virginia is in a mental hospital – not an insane asylum, as she and the more lucid of her fellow patients assure themselves – they will be getting better, they will be going home – but as the days-weeks-months-years slip by, home seems an ever more elusive concept, and the institution (prison? are we really in a prison? are the nurses wardresses?) becomes the whole world.

As Virginia slips in and out of the fluctuating stages of her mental breakdown, she experiences all of the attempted treatments which mid-20th century medicine has to offer: psychoanalysis, work therapy, regular doses of the hypnotic sedative paraldehyde, electric shock therapy and eventually a course of the dreaded “baths” – a medievalesque program of lukewarm and ice cold baths, with the patient completely immobilized by mummy-like canvas wrappings and subjected to hours and hours of immersion in baths supplied with continuously running water.

Virginia has times of recovery and progresses through the different wards of the institution she is being treated at; she gains ground but slips back frequently into states of deep confusion and memory loss, but then she has something of an epiphany.

She should have, she knew, been frightened and depressed by the newest transfer. She was in a much worse building now and none of the patients she had seen so far struck her as being good risks. And yet the hopelessness that had been hounding her had lessened and for the first time she dared to believe that she might get well…when you realize you aren’t the sickest in your ward, it does something for you…I know where I am and I know I am sick…Shock treatments. Why bother with insulin, metrazol or electricity? Long ago they lowered insane persons into snake pits; they thought than an experience that might drive a sane person out of his wits might send an insane person back into sanity. By design or by accident…a more modern “they” had given V. Cunningham a far more dramatic shock treatment now than Dr.Kik had been able to manage with his clamps and wedges and assistants. They had thrown her into a snake pit and she had been shocked into knowing that she should get well.

We leave Virginia on the verge of stepping back into the world of the sane; she has had a long and terrible journey, and she might not be able to carry things off as a “normal” person without any hitches, but she has achieved a psychological mastery of her own fate, and she is going to try.

The real life version of Virginia, Mary Jane Ward, who wrote this heart-rending yet sometimes funny and optimistic semi-autobiographical novel, did make a successful transition back into “normalcy”, though she did have future episodes of psychiatric illness in later years.

The Snake Pit was an immediate bestseller upon its release in 1946, and it sparked a wider conversation about the institutionalization and treatment of the mentally ill. It was made into an Oscar-awarded film starring Olivia de Havilland. The book remains in print today.

My rating: 9.5/10

A rather disturbing and frequently uncomfortable read in a “They did what?! And why?!” sort of way, but engrossing and engaging.

It struck home in a personal way as well. A beloved elderly aunt of my husband suffered psychiatric episodes from the 1950s into the 1970s and she did undergo an array of the  same treatments as Mary Jane Ward reports, including sessions of shock therapy. By the 1980s, advances in pharmaceutical treatments allowed her a much higher quality of life, and she “functioned” with apparently absolute normalcy, though she was always free and open in referring to “my medications” and also in referencing some of her previous experiences as a “mental” patient.

 

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