Friday, 11 September 2015

The Snake Pit - Mary Jane Ward

     "Long ago they lowered insane persons into snake pits; they thought that an experience that might drive a sane person out of his wits might send an insane person back into sanity"

Let me introduce you to Virginia Cunningham, patient at a New York State mental institution in the 1940s.  Following a complete breakdown, she is at the stage where she remembers some things - like her husband Robert's name, her own first name, and the fact that the food is awful, but "the bread is good" (that last statement having become part the vocabulary between my sister and myself when things are not so good anywhere, cafe, bank, housekeeping, life in general etc.).

Very much like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the regime described for those suffering from mental illness was unlike the way it is dealt with today (thank goodness).  It was written in 1946, so a few years before Cuckoo's Nest.  It was the time of electric shock treatment; ice cold baths; complete wraps in wet sheets and tied down for the night; the wearing of the same "uniform" every day with only a shower twice a week and lucky if there was soap; the total lack of privacy and in the place that Virginia  describes, the time when the nursing staff were sometimes as odd, eccentric and indeed, using her own word,  as crazy as she was.

This is a short and intense novel.  The copy I read was only 192 pages, and every page worried me for Virginia's sake, for it was clear that at the beginning she hardly knew who she was, let alone where she was.  And all the way through, as she gets transferred backwards and forwards between different wards, meeting people who might be friends; people who cannot be trusted and therefore can never be friends; and every so often, mention of a doctor of some kind;  I worried that another setback would mean she would not be leaving soon.

My own parents both worked in a mental hospital (as it was referred to in the UK then) in the 1950s and 60s.  I heard many stories that as an adult would have horrified me, but as a child it was all part of what happened where they worked.  At that time there were still women who had been locked up in their teens for becoming pregnant - not from ordinary working families, but from upper classes who didn't want the scandal.  Some of those became totally institutionalised and would never have coped with the real world.  Mental health begins to be better understood at around that time.  We certainly don't lower people into snake pits, and whilst we still don't understand everything, we can help more with all kinds of mental illness now in the new century than only 50-60 years ago.

This is a book I urge you to find and read if you can.  If for no other reason than to give you some idea what it is like to be mentally ill (in any way).  It is a glimpse into a nightmare - I cannot imagine how she must have felt.  But feel it she did, because although a novel, this is based on the experiences of the author who did have a total breakdown in the 1940s.