One day in the summer of 1860, an Illinois woman named Elizabeth Packard watched an ax crash through her bedroom window.
As a wife and mother, her life was relatively calm before, focused on the house and church. But she and her husband Theophilius, a preacher, had begun theological arguments. Troubled by this and the idea that Elizabeth “went mad about women’s rights,” as he later wrote, Theophilius decided to have his wife put in an institution. Hence the group of men who climbed through the broken window and carried her immobile to the train that would take her to the Jacksonville Insane Asylum.
After three years in the asylum, she wrote bestsellers recording her experiences and successfully fought against laws that allowed husbands to detain their wives without trial. Kate Moores The woman they couldn’t silence: a woman, her incredible struggle for freedom and the men who tried to make her disappear is the story of Packard’s fascinating lifelong struggle.
In an author’s note, Moore writes that she wanted to look at the way women have been dismissed as “crazy” throughout history. But most of the stories she read were painfully dark. “‘Crazy’ was a dead end, a one-way street that always ended with only one exit,” she writes. An Illinois woman she read about was lobotomized in 1955 with no diagnosis, other than being “rude” and “dissatisfied”. But in Packard, Moore found an ideal hero, one with a “spirit as wide as your rock” who not only battled the system but won.
Packard’s generously quoted script is the best part of the book – resolute, warm, soulful, and practical at the same time. However, since it is often cited without a chronology or context, it is difficult to discern her intellectual development, the beginnings of her feminist tendencies, and the development of her relationship with her husband. Moore, the author of The Radium Girls, is a clear writer, but tends to rely too heavily on metaphors and is painfully anxious to make sure we never miss the point (“Quiet, she was moving around the house … steps as muffled as the gagged voice of a woman.”)
One particular oversight is Packard’s religious beliefs, which are never fully explained or explored, although they are the primary reasons for her imprisonment. Packard’s campaign was feminist, yes, but she also saw it as very Christian. As a kind of radiantly secure, almost anti-adherent figure, she believed she was doing God’s work.
But the strangest and greatest omission in the book is the subject of slavery. Packard’s time in the asylum coincided with the American Civil War, and she freely resorted to the struggle for emancipation in her own writings. Moore, too, often places the two sentences side by side and connects the breakthroughs in Packard’s case with certain battles or turning points in the war. But while Packard was an abolitionist, she also held deeply racist views, writing in one of her many political pamphlets: “It is my honest opinion that no southern slave has ever suffered more spiritual torment than me; my moral and spiritual nature than they are, therefore more capable of suffering. “Moore never quotes these lines or examines Packard’s belief that she was spiritually superior to the enslaved people she so often relied on as metaphors for her own condition.
The book illustrates the particularly distorted incentives of inspiring biographies – to flatter someone, smooth them out, and present them in harmony with the presumed values of their values. In her note to the author, Moore writes that she had to dig through Packard through a “century of wisdom received” before finally “the figure of the true woman stood before me.” Perhaps this was a warning sign – how is it really possible to discern the true form of a person? And perhaps more importantly, which person has only one shape? in the The woman they couldn’t silence, we meet Elizabeth Packard, the inspiration – and she is an inspiration – but we don’t quite see the radical, the believer, the racist or the thinker.