Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Disability and Life Writing: Reports from the Nineteenth-Century Asylum

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Disability and Life Writing: Reports from the Nineteenth-Century Asylum

Article excerpt

Historically, especially before the twentieth century, issues of access to accommodation and education have constrained all individuals with disabilities, preventing most from acquiring the means to self-express and thus to present a public voice. Nonetheless, individuals with disabilities in past centuries have found ways to present their own perspectives on creativity, difference, identity, politics, and other issues. The forms these earlier statements have taken, the individuals who succeeded in speaking, and the stories thereby told offer significant insights into lives otherwise lost. The article recovers the life writing of mid-to-late nineteenth-century individuals with mental and physical differences who were classed as insane and institutionalized on that basis. In their narratives, these individuals write about the misperceptions they face and advocate for themselves and others. In particular, the authors characterize their institutionalization in terms of medical and legal abuses, abuses manifested on social, emotional, and physical levels. By writing in these terms, these life writers turn the tables on their oppressors and portray the system as the cause of their legal, medical, and personal misfortune. Recovering these voices as life writing forms an initial corpus of pre-twentieth-century materials for further study and locates the genre within a long tradition that involves identifying assumptions and advocating for the disenfranchised.

It is now twenty-one years since people found out that I was crazy, and all because I could not fall in with every vulgar belief that was fashionable. I never could be led by everything and everybody, simply because they all told me their arguments were right, and at the same time they were all in direct opposition to each other, and I knew that all truths harmonized. Phebe Davis (1855, 9)

The legalized usurpation of human rights is the great evil underlying our social fabric. From this corrupt center spring the evils of our social system. This corruption has culminated in the Insane Asylums of the nineteenth century. Let the Government but remove the cause of this insanity, and the need of such Institutions would be greatly lessened. Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard (1871, iii)

Introduction and Approach

Life writing is an increasingly popular form of narrative non-fiction, both generally and within the context of writing about disabilities. Its popularity is due, in part, to an increasingly globalized world, one in which individuals connect and communicate by means of multiple media. Its popularity is also due, in equal measure, to growing interest in, awareness of, and openness to human difference (Couser, Recovering Bodies, 4; Hawkins 3). Because life writing in particular allows authors to represent their own experiences, the genre is a favorable medium for disability writing both for personal representation and for educating the broader public about lives not often spoken about by others (if at all).1

Until recently, disabled individuals have typically been denied education and accommodations; thus marginalized from media of expression and interactions with the rest of society, they were also prevented from voicing their experiences publicly. Accordingly, the tacit assumption has been that life writing about disability did not exist until the early twentieth century, with the publication of such classic texts as Helen Keller's The Story of My Life (1903). Nonetheless, and against many obstacles, individuals with disabilities in past centuries found ways to record their thoughts and experiences (see Husson, for example); in these works, the authors present their own perspectives on creativity, difference, identity, politics, and other issues that await further study. In fact, the forms these earlier statements have taken, the individuals who succeeded in speaking, and the stories thereby told offer significant insights into lives otherwise lost. …

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