Has women’s mental health care changed since the 1800s?

Fringe Festival: Nellie/​Nellie’ and The Yellow Wallpaper’

5 minute read
Her heart gave a sharp twinge: Andalyn Young in “Nellie/Nellie” (photo by Michael T. Williams)
Her heart gave a sharp twinge: Andalyn Young in “Nellie/Nellie” (photo by Michael T. Williams)

Sometimes the Fringe Festival takes you places you’ve never been before, but sometimes it hits a little too close to home. I challenged myself to explore the latter when I booked tickets to AntiGravity Theatre Project’s Nellie/Nellie, an interdisciplinary adaptation of journalist Nellie Bly’s 1887 expose of the asylum on New York’s Blackwell's Island, and Wild Plum Productions’ Yellow Wallpaper, a two-woman stage adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story.

I pay attention to mental health topics, particularly women’s mental health, because I have the frequent dishonor of being a mental patient myself, like millions of others who struggle with depression and other mood and psychiatric disorders.

A new Nellie Bly

Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, pen name Nellie Bly, an adventurous 19th-century journalist, feigned insanity to gain a ten-day stint inside the Women’s Lunatic Asylum that she turned into a sensational story for New York World, laying bare atrocious abuses inside the facility and instigating nationwide reform of mental institutions.

The AntiGravity Theatre Project makers include poet Kyle Dacuyan, who adapts fragments of text for the performance from Bly’s own work, which are read over the extraordinary physical performances of a dance and spoken word ensemble including Alicia Crosby, Johanna Kasimow, Alex Kryger, Francesca Montanile, Megan Thibodeaux, Sara Vanasse, Andalyn Young, Ilse Torlin Zoerb, and Michael T. Williams, who also directs the piece.

When she was quickly pronounced insane by “four experts,” Bly says her “heart gave a sharp twinge.”

“Manipulative behavior”

A white-coated doctor scribbling on a clipboard looms over a frenetic sequence of anguished women sentenced to the asylum for symptoms like “facial twitch,” “sexual misconduct in public,” “hysteria,” “defensive response,” and “truncated fingernails.”

Bly, who emphasizes that she resumes acting normally as soon as she is ferried onto the island along with a few other patients, nevertheless receives a diagnosis of “manipulative behavior to achieve her own mad goals.”

The fearless dance ensemble (including several alums of the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training) rolls, leaps, collides, contorts, and slams into the walls and pillars of the Broad Street Ministry’s sanctuary. They skitter like crabs in the dark. Cellist Rachel Icenogle, pianist David Zaslav, and guitarist Michael Costagliola (who teams with Ned Riseley for atmospheric original songs and a live score) provide the music.

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’: still creepy

"The Yellow Wallpaper," a feminist classic tackling similar themes in the same era and performed in the appropriately claustrophobic Shubin Theatre, was developed exclusively from Gilman’s own text. It was performed and adapted by Christine Emmert and Katherine Mallon-Day. Emmert reads excerpts of Gilman’s story while Mallon-Day gives a simultaneous hour-long physical performance that raises more than a few goose bumps.

Gilman’s story — based in part on her own experience as the patient of S. Weir Mitchell — unfolds as the diary of a doctor’s isolated wife (his “blessed little goose”), confined to a country attic for her own health after giving birth, a common “remedy” for postpartum depression at the time. As she grows more and more isolated and deprived, the speaker becomes increasingly obsessed with her room’s ugly, fascinatingly ominous, “undulating” yellow wallpaper, which begins to take on a life of its own as the woman perceives someone trying to creep out of it.

The performance brings out a lot of the chills of Gilman’s text, like the speaker’s musings that the room must have been some kind of gymnasium for wildly active children before she was confined in it: there are “rings and things in the walls,” the bed is bolted to a floor that is splintered, gouged, and scratched, and “the bedstead’s fairly gnawed.”

The dangers of writing

But the speaker’s references to how her caretakers view her habit for writing is what really made me shiver. At the start of the performance, the protagonist has paper, pen, and ink on her desk, but these disappear in successive scenes. She’s “sly” about her writing, she says, because of everyone’s “opposition” to it.

“I think she’s thinking it is the writing that makes me sick,” the speaker muses of her disapproving sister-in-law.

Earlier this year, I wrote about my own sojourn on a psychiatric ward, when the doors were locked on me because of my depression. A doctor convinced me to sign a voluntary admission form by telling me that of course I would be allowed to keep my laptop on the ward, so I could write there. Once I was locked in, however, the nurses and attending psychiatrists reneged: I was not supposed to be writing. I needed to “relax.”

A month later, another male psychiatrist opined that my yen for writing, a “negative coping mechanism” for my problems, constituted a personality disorder.

Emotions allowed?

That may be why I was blinking back tears at the end of Nellie/Nellie, when Bly finishes the performance by writing a letter to a friend she made in the institution. I did exactly the same thing upon my release.

“It’s art. You’re allowed to have an emotional response,” a friend argued when I talked the experience over with him and admitted shame at dabbing tears in public.

Am I allowed? As Bly and Gilman point out in ways that still resonate more than a century later, an emotional response can be a dangerous thing, depending on who sees it and how that person thinks you ought to feel.

In Bly’s story, as told by Nellie/Nellie, women are incarcerated for emotions as vague as “hysteria” or a “defensive response.” Williams insists the group seized Bly’s tale because it’s “a story that could still be told of mental institutions” today.

When I was on the ward, a psychiatrist summoned me to his office to ask how I was doing, and I cried when I said that I missed my family. He nodded slowly. “So you’re still having some sad feelings,” he answered.

Does sadness because you’re separated from people you love constitute a reason to keep you locked up against your will, instead of letting you go home and find some comfort? In my case, 127 years after Nellie Bly went undercover, the answer was yes: I was trapped for two more days. Nellie/Nellie and The Yellow Wallpaper were compelling, ambitious works, and I wish they didn’t ring so true today.

What, When, Where

Nellie/Nellie. Michael T. Williams directed. AntiGravity Theatre Project production for the Fringe Festival closed September 13 at Broad Street Ministry, 315 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia.

The Yellow Wallpaper. Adapted and performed by Christine Emmert and Katherine Mallon-Day. Wild Plum Productions for the Fringe Festival closed September 18 at the Shubin Theatre, 407 Bainbridge Street, Philadelphia.

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