The more I learn about the history of psychology, the more I realize how very dangerous a thing it was for women and marginalized people for many years. Like anything that’s meant to help people, psychology can be turned into an oppressive force—especially in the hands of unscrupulous people who want to make troublesome people disappear. This is exactly what Charlotte Smith discovers in Greer Macallister’s sinister novel, Woman 99, set circa 1890. Charlotte’s older sister, Phoebe, suffers from what sounds a lot like bipolar disorder. After an incident with Phoebe’s now ex-fiancé, she was incarcerated at Goldengrove, an asylum for women. Charlotte is determined to get her sister back.
Nelly Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House was not supposed to be a how-to book, but Charlotte uses it as her guide to get herself committed to Goldengrove. The asylum takes in society women whose families pay for their keep as well as indigent women who might need some kind of psychiatric help. At least, that’s what Goldengrove does on paper. In practice, it also takes in women whose families are trying to get them out of the way. After a spectacular faux-suicide attempt, Charlotte gets into Goldengrove and discovers that women are there because they wanted an education instead of marriage, were too sexual or not sexual enough, who spoke up too much, have a seizure disorder, or possibly because they don’t speak English. There are plenty of women at the asylum who really do need psychiatric care—women who suffer mood disorders like Phoebe or who have unhealthy obsessions. Unfortunately for all of these women, in 1890, psychology was in its infancy and asylums were used as places to experiment with treatments as much as they were used to warehouse people who were cast out of society.
Charlotte has to get past those “treatments” and all the employees to find out where her sister is being kept. She manages to avoid the dreaded water cures by luck, but has to sit on benches for hours (“still body means a still mind”) and forced marches (exercise therapy). Her only allies are the other inmates. Some of these inmates are sane; all of them have their own agendas. While Charlotte investigates and wonders how she will get herself and her sister out of Goldengrove, we see flashbacks to the events that led to Phoebe’s incarceration. It’s clear that her sister is suffering from a mental illness, though Charlotte doesn’t want to admit that in so many words. Though Charlotte doesn’t think about much beyond getting out, we have to wonder what she plans to do when Phoebe’s moods inevitably begin to cycle. The doctors might not be much better than Charlotte herself in caring for Phoebe, but at least they can provide round-the-clock care during Phoebe’s depressed and manic states.
I enjoyed Woman 99 a lot, mostly because of its approach to this dark chapter in psychiatric history. Macallister could have made this book a lot more shocking. Goldengrove is not a nice place, but Macallister could have thrown in worse details and practices from actual history to make Charlotte and Phoebe’s stories more harrowing. There are villains aplenty in Woman 99, but there are enough good-hearted, well-meaning people to complicate the story. These kinds of complications make us readers really think about the ethical dilemmas and challenges of psychiatric care at the dawn of the field. (To be honest, I still don’t think we’ve really figured out the best way to help people with mental illnesses. Everyone’s case is so unique it’s like we have to reinvent the wheel for everyone.) Above all, the situations Macallister sets up for her characters makes us really think about what would be best for another person. Simple rescue might not be enough.