Archive stories: Institutionalised women as lost lives?

As part of our mental health series, Catharine Coleborne considers the histories of institutionalised women and the relationship between researcher, historical subject and archive.

In recent years historians have re-imagined the archive as what I call an ‘unstable’ site for research. An archive can be considered unstable because despite its appearance of completeness, it is always the result of acts of selection and omission on the part of collectors, arrangement and design by archivists, and the interventions of researchers over time. This presents fresh challenges for many international historians of psychiatric institutions who have relied on the relatively ‘stable’ archive of patient case records – with whole sequences of inmate case files, assorted official institutional papers – and in many cases, treated these sets of cases as robust quantitative samples. Yet we are all presently writing histories inside the moment of the ‘archival turn’, as I’ve argued elsewhere.

I think that the instability and contingency of the archive offers new possibility for interpretations of women and psychiatry. What follows is part scholarly autobiography, and part reflection on the intellectual questions surrounding the psychiatric treatment of women in the past.

When I was writing my own doctorate, I was part of a dynamic group of women writing PhDs who were all engaged with feminist history, theories and methodologies. At that time, in the 1990s, we were grappling with the issues raised by two decades of women’s history and feminist history.

I had missed out on any hands-on archival experience – something of a rite of passage for historians, as Carolyn Steedman – until I made a shift from early modern British history to colonial histories.

This shift came about because I worked as a research assistant for several Australian history projects in the early 1990s. One of these roles involved researching a history of nursing in colonial Victoria, a job which took me to small hospitals all around regional parts of the state. I was often the first person for many years to request to see and read old hospital board minute books from the nineteenth century. I would be led into a cold, basement room and given the freedom to range over boxes of notes, scribbles, annual reports, photocopies and other materials. These were archives, but not always well cared for or catalogued. However, my experience of making sense of these to craft history, and to tell stories, was captivating.

One of the seventeenth-century women I’d written about in my Masters thesis, Hannah Allen, had experienced mental breakdown. Widowed at 25, Hannah plunged into a ‘deep melancholy’. Her memoir, Satan his Methods and Malice Baffled, published in 1683, was an account of her depression through stories of temptation, terrors, suicide attempts, self-starvation and finally, recovery. Satan taunted her with apparitions, strange lights, and forced her to blaspheme: ‘I would write in several places on the walls with the point of my sizer, Woe, Woe, Woe and alas to all Eternity’. She ingested opium, smoked spiders in a pipe with tobacco, and tried to bleed herself to death.

I had found my PhD topic. I would examine women’s mental breakdown, but in a new context: colonial Victoria. The archival records of institutional clinical patient cases were plentiful. In addition, nobody had made much of these records of patients— at least, not for this particular site.

One of the things I recall most about that period of my academic life is that I was now facing a range of new intellectual challenges. One person remarked, ‘Congratulations on finding your archive!’ I will always remember this comment.

The casebook entry for a female patient confined in Yarra Bend Hospital for the Insane, 1900. Image via the author.

Was this archive of asylum records mine? Was it therefore the case that no one else might look into this archive? I was in new territory. I also now had to navigate the issues of archival record selection. Among the specific methodological or theoretical tools at my disposal, along with social history modes, were feminist methods which at that time emphasised female visibility and new practices of reading and interpretation. Increasingly (and appropriately, like their interdisciplinary colleagues) historians had begun to assert new modes of interpreting gender as a relational category.

In addition, the feminist historical debate was shifting and now moving towards more complex accounts of the way that gender, class and ethnicity all intersect. Far from being somehow transported into a world of the past through ‘the archive’, I was forced into a difficult set of present theoretical engagements. In becoming an archival historian, I did not contract what the French philosopher Jacques Derrida termed ‘Archive fever proper’, but rather, I maintained a surly distance from the archive as I sought to make sense of how to use it.

The ‘asylum archive’

In my own field of psychiatric history, the phrase the ‘asylum archive’ was first used by my friend and research colleague Jim Mills in his powerful account of race and insanity in colonial . This term was used with some irony, since Mills found his major archival sources for a study of ‘native-only’ asylums in south India rotting in a cupboard in a disused psychiatric institution: nobody even knew they were there, yet the records contained hundreds of cases of Indian people confined by British administrators.

Writing about South Africa, Sally Swartz laments the lost lives of women psychiatric patients at various institutions in the Cape. These lives are lost, writes Swartz, despite the vast amount of record-keeping about them.

Yet it is something of a paradox that we know such a large amount about institutionalised people when they were hidden from public view in their own lifetimes. Archival records of insanity contain histories of people who would otherwise have remained virtually invisible, though those lives were heavily circumscribed.

Women as institutional subjects

My book Madness in the Family examined the stories of women whose families engaged in different ways with psychiatric institutions.

Elizabeth Johnson was confined, not for the first time, at the Yarra Bend Hospital for the Insane, in September 1900. Suffering from melancholia, and brought by police to Melbourne from Gippsland, more than a two-hour trip in those days, 38-year old Elizabeth was viewed as ‘excited, violent. Impulsive, noisy, and dirty’. There is not much here to suggest that, as earlier readings of female madness would suggest, Elizabeth was unfairly imprisoned or locked away. There is nothing sensational about this record.

Coleborne’s book, Madness in the Family, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2010.

The notes follow a script; many patients were similarly described. A farmer’s wife, Elizabeth had been under the impression that she was being persecuted by her neighbours. Very little information exists about Elizabeth. Her husband was in contact with the institution, via the Morwell Post Office, and we know that Elizabeth was able to go home for periods of probation or leave. But we know little about her. This is a sad case, mostly because she is contained and confined inside these pages, inside the physical object of the casebook pictured here. Were there letters, in her case? How can we find out about the impact of her hospitalisation?

In other cases, we have more archival material, more to go on. A man wrote this letter asking the authorities at the Yarra Bend to release his wife so that his family could be ‘made whole’ again. Asylum committal impacted strongly on the lives of families. Ada’s husband was required to sign a note stating that his wife needed extra care for her epilepsy when he took her out of the Yarra Bend in 1899. This was something of a victory, since he had written a lengthy letter pleading ‘earnestly’ with the medical superintendent Watkins to allow her to come home. He was only ‘a poor man … yet … able to take care of her’, and he ‘beg[ged] most earnestly that you will allow me to take her home as soon as possible’. He explained in a postscript: ‘I will guarantee to look after her well. I don’t wish [to] break up my home if I thought you would allow me [to] take her away.’ If there was any chance of her release, he would grasp it, like others in the same position.

Without fully knowing or appreciating the past decisions of archivists who have worked hard to preserve historical materials, or understanding the daily work of institutional administrators themselves, these two stories illustrate how historians are left with a sense of partiality about past institutions and their record-keeping. The fractured accounts and sometimes only fragmentary narratives of some past actors also serve to remind us of our own reactions and experiences with archival research.

Yet for the researcher, despite these absences, silences, and gaps, finding archival remains can still evoke an excited sense of ‘completeness’, even while the material only reveals a little more about an individual’s history. Historians try to make sense of the sources in the archive, patching together these shards to tell stories in a narrative fashion. In my own field, for the histories of psychiatry and insanity, the voices of the subjects are both already highly mediated by virtue of their status as patients in a clinical setting, but they also hold remarkable detail, some of it physical, and some it emotional. In this way, asylum archival sources – insanity’s archive – are rich with possibility in the telling of history.

So, although I acknowledge the power of the archive to control their representation to some extent, I do not believe these are ‘lost lives’. By asking new questions about the contents of the archive – as well as about the space of the archive – we can begin to tell new stories.

I have commented here on the politics of the archive of madness and gender. Western European scholars and cultural institutions have been preoccupied with the discovery, rescue and preservation of past documents and manuscripts; these have been matters of national prestige. While national, government-funded archives and their contents were once regarded as sound bodies of historical fact, this view shifted over time. Despite the multiple meanings now accorded to the archive, our profession (history) still has a vested interest in protecting its function of ‘national governance’. Increasingly, archival collections are found online, with digital preservation one of the biggest issues facing archivists of all kinds. Debates about digital archiving suggest that this is a process of the democratisation of history.

Archives are political, and their uses are contested; they might enable researchers, or be difficult to access. Finally, the private histories of those peoples found ‘dwelling’ in the archives, to use Antoinette Burton’s phrase, matter. Historians have a duty of care towards these people, their words, and their lives, in our use of these.

Professor Catharine Coleborne studied at the University of Melbourne and at La Trobe University. Trained as a feminist historian, her work has taken questions about gender, class and ethnicity, lived in categories of analysis, and positioned these as ways to understand institutional confinement and its meanings and effects. Her book Insanity, Identity and Empire (Manchester University Press) appeared in 2015. Currently the Head of School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle (Australia), Catharine is a Professor of History and is involved in a range of research projects, supervisions and research groups. Her next book will be Narrating Madness in the Twentieth Century.

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