A sad legacy of treatment for mental illness

leftIt’s not often I finish a book of fiction in only two days but What She Left Behind” by Ellen Marie Wiseman is one of those books. The story ties the lives of two young women together despite the fact they lived six decades apart. Clara was the daughter of a wealthy but cold father in the banking industry in New York who, like a typical teenager in the 1930s rebels against Victorian attitudes. She meets and falls in love with a handsome Italian immigrant called Bruno at the Cotton Club. When she refuses to stop seeing Bruno, her angry father has her committed to an insane asylum, which you could do in those days. Incarceration of perfectly sane women was a common occurrence when husbands, parents or doctors deemed normal behaviours such as unlikely love affairs the result of mental instability or being delusional.

In the 1990s, Isabelle (Izzy) a young girl researching the old asylum archives with her foster mother for a local museum project, finds Clara’s diary from six decades earlier and tries to piece together what became of Clara after the diary ends following her admission to the first asylum. The horrors of life in a mental health facility in the 1930s are detailed in a way that seems barbaric by today’s standards but were considered “for the good of the patient” in the context of what they knew about mental health back then. It reminded me of a movie I watched many years ago about Hollywood actress Frances Farmer who was similarly committed by her parents in the 1940s and had no control over her own life.

This book is engrossing and educational, especially when we think that those of us who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder or even rebellious tendencies would have no control over our fate if we had been born earlier in the twentieth century. Any of us could have been committed to one of these horrible institutions by a relative who might have less than honourable motives. The book was a shocking description of early treatments for mental problems and a reminder of how limited our basic human rights were not that long ago.

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