Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

The Reclamation of Anna Agnew: Violence, Victimhood, and the Uses of "Cure"

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

The Reclamation of Anna Agnew: Violence, Victimhood, and the Uses of "Cure"

Article excerpt

The article argues that Anna Agnew's popular 1886 autobiography worked to increase public receptivity to ideas of selective death by co-opting the discursive strategies of hereditarianism to explain her attempts at both filicide and suicide. Prevailing eugenics rationale insisted that insane individuals, like other "defectives," should either be cured or eliminated. In this threatening context, Anna evaded responsibility for her violence by emphasizing her victimization, miraculous cure, and responsible acts of citizenship. In its discursive reliance on psychiatry, evolution, and eugenics, Anna's popular narrative-as well as her attempt to eliminate her children-contributed to the interarticulation of progressive humanitarianism and selective murder. In contemporary disability studies discourse, scholars and activists alike often suggest as solution the inclusion of persons with disabilities in debates over medical and scientific policy. While such a perspective is necessary, Anna's narrative demonstrates that persons with disabilities do not stand beyond and outside of available discourse. The rhetorical tactics used to convey the perspective of members of the disability community deserve to be investigated with the same tenacity and critical eye as the rhetorical tactics used to convey those perspectives less often aligned with the disability studies project.

Anna Agnew, although relatively unknown today, so fascinated nineteenthcentury audiences that her autobiography, From under the Cloud; or, Personal Reminiscences of Insanity, was in its third edition just one year after its original publication in 1886. According to this work and to a more recent biography, Anna's husband, David Agnew, admitted her as a patient at the Indiana Hospital for the Insane in 1878 at the age of 42, where this white, middle-class Protestant received a diagnosis of acute mania. In the parlance of mid- to late-nineteenth century classification of mental diseases, this diagnosis indicated that the diagnosing physician (often an asylum doctor, the American version of an early psychiatrist) perceived incoherence, loquaciousness, and general hallucinatory excitement.1 Anna and David married in 1870. While her nickname in the domestic setting was "Dottie," visitors to the asylum, at the direction of Anna's ward attendants, referred to her simply as "the devil" (Agnew, From under the Cloud, 66, 78). This naming experience so unsettled Anna that she later wrote an open letter of protest "to the legislature for a law prohibiting the promiscuous visiting at that institution" (Agnew, From under the Cloud, 184-87). In a further show of defiance, Anna signed the letter "Non Compos Mentis" and reprinted the letter in her 1886 autobiography. Her doctors officially discharged her in March of 1884, but Anna stayed on to work in the asylum's sewing room until 1885, the year before she wrote and published her autobiography (Agnew, From under the Cloud, 162). All of this was in an attempt to support herself as she sued for divorce and for custody of her children. She published the autobiography also to expose conditions in the asylum in an effort to reform training programs for attendants of the insane. Beyond its work as advocacy, however, Anna used her autobiography to share more personal experiences and told her readers of the three years before her admission during which "the ruling passion all [the] time was to take my own life" (Agnew, From under the Cloud, 22). Her favored method for attempting suicide was poison: after marrying David and giving birth to three sons_Dadie, Willie, and Nathan_she at different times experimented with laudanum, chloral, pulverized sugar of lead, and strychnine. Anna described the next step in the disease as a desire to kill her children. She told a reporter for the New York Tribune that her "great hope was to be able to kill them and then myself." When the opportunity finally did present itself, she used laudanum to poison Dadie. …

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