The City of Incurable Women, by Maud Casey

Maud Casey’s The City of Incurable Women brings me back to an old fascination of mine: the women incarcerated at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital after being diagnosed with hysteria and other related maladies. Casey’s unusual book blends contemporary photos and doctors’ notes with fictional passages that give voice to women who bore their society’s expectations of their gender and their projected fears of women who broke those expectations. This is not an easy book to read—due to the subject matter and the experimental writing style—but I found it fascinating.

Most of the book (outside of the parts excerpted from actual historical documents) is narrated by a collective “I,” made up of real and imagined inmates of the Salpêtrière. Sometimes an “I” will separate from the pack to tell her story; one of these “I”s is the famous Louise Augustine Gleizes. These stories are sometimes tales of child labor and sexual abuse that end with the Salpêtrière when the “I” can’t take it anymore and she snaps. Others are stories of women who suffer from genuine mental illness. These stories were even more heartbreaking to me, since the late 1800s offered very little hope of relief, much less a cure.

Jean-Martin Charcot and other doctors make brief appearances. Their paternalistic writings—when seen in contrast with the words of their patients—are show up for the hyper-rational nonsense they are. It seems like these men only diagnosed based on physical symptoms and the words of whoever brought the women to the Salpêtrière in the first place. Charcot pre-dated Freud somewhat, but it appears that it never occurred to anyone to actually ask these women about their thoughts and feelings. It’s astounding how Charcot and his colleagues wildly theorized about the causes of symptoms like catalepsy, impressive feats of sleeping, strange facial expressions, or acts of destruction without any repeatable kind of evidence. It’s also astounding to me that it never occurred to these geniuses that some of their patients might have been playing up to the doctors’ expectations for the perks.

Reading a fictional account of the women of the Salpêtrière (in The Mad Women’s Ball) and this semi-fictional account make me want to read a fully non-fictional version, but preferably one that focuses on women like Gleizes. But given the fact that so many of the women only appear in the historical record in Charcot and the other doctors’ (and possibly some police reports), books like Casey’s might be the best way to try and understand what their lives might have been like.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

A Salpêtrière diagnosed with “hysterical yawning,” c. 1890 (Image via Wikicommons)

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