Nellie Bly (Group 1)

Nellie Bly was a nineteen-year-old reporter trying to make her way in an overwhelmingly male profession when her editor at the New York World sent her undercover to NYC’s asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). The assignment made her career. Her account, picked up by other papers, was a national sensation. Bly would go on to perform and report on a variety of other stunts and become among the more widely known journalists of her period.

When I try to figure out the most salient criticism(s) Bly offers of the asylum, those that would have played most powerfully to her audience, I keep coming back to two in particular. First, she suggests that commitment hearings are based on little more than hunches and prejudices. Anyone with a foreign, regional, or even working-class accent or manner of speech would stand a grave chance of commitment to the asylum. We see no rational or scientific basis for diagnosis. Second, there is the sheer brutality of the place, particularly as it threatens to afflict a spunky, decent, young white woman like Nelly.

Would this piece read the same way if Bly were a recent immigrant? The paper made a point of publishing her photo with her work, showing her to be conventionally attractive. To put this in a way that borrows language from our own moment, Bly’s exposé comes from a position of threatened privilege, and that sense of possible loss and vulnerability gives the story a kind of horror to readers that it might otherwise lack. Ten Days is at once sympathetic to the victims of institutional cruelty, but always implicitly places Bly at a social remove from them. I wonder what questions come to the minds of others if they think about what would have made Bly’s account of playing “insane” and “inmate” so uniquely compelling in its moment.

2 thoughts on “Nellie Bly (Group 1)

  1. Madison Brito

    The narrator says how, “in spite of the knowledge of [her] sanity and the assurance that [she] would be released in a few days, [her] heart gave a sharp twinge. Pronounced insane by four expert doctors and shut up behind the unmerciful bolts and bars of a madhouse! Not to be confined alone, but to be a companion, day and night, of senseless, chattering lunatics; to sleep with them, to eat with them, to be considered one of them, was an uncomfortable position.” I think it would appeal to people that look like her and have similar backgrounds because they would think of themselves, not the Other they think of when they consider ‘insane’ people, foreign people, people that look different. You’d consider how scared you yourself would feel to be wrongly labeled as one of them. Throughout her account, you are given these twinges of fear and timidity. It sometimes feels like she is not a grown woman and reporter doing this intentionally, by choice, for a job, but rather a small child that you want to take care of and help, especially as she experiences such fundamental human things like hunger and longing for something you miss – it is hard not to think of her as something you want tend to. It is often not as if she is feigning a person that wants to escape, but rather actually a damsel in distress crying out for our readerly empathies; it is real discomfort and fear you sense, all the more heightened if you relate to her. And on the flip side of this is the way the narrator is characterized as a woman full of empathetic, almost maternal instincts. She describes being discharged “sooner than [she] had hoped” because she wanted to continue speaking to a “poor woman who had fainted.” She is constantly telling of the pity, sadness, and helplessness she feels seeing the way these people are treated, making the story not just about the way she is treated but the way these potentially actually ‘insane’ people. On the one hand, of course she feels this way (how inhumane would you have to be to not), but she did not need to tell the story this way, inserting her own emotions implicitly or not so often. Though the story would not have been as effective without it, the reader still would have sensed how horrible this place was if it were less personal. But giving her such an empathetic quality as a narrator really adds something. I wonder if she is also appealing to white mothers, fathers, families by telling it in such a way that implies she wants to take care of these people. Perhaps this is all a stretch (you definitely don’t need to be a parent yourself to have these instincts), but I think her age, race, and gender (the fact that she would be both a young, still adolescent woman but also one approaching ‘typical’ motherhood age) influences how it’s read and the reactions it invites.

  2. Karianne Laird

    It seems evident to me that Bly’s piece would read very differently had she been an immigrant. The fact that she is attractive and upper class makes this an exciting story, rather than a common reality. If Bly actually had been a poor immigrant – she might be seen by the readers as deserving of the asylum and merely complaining. Instead, the upper-class readers are now able to relate – her story could be any of them. No one could be too sure they wouldn’t be seen as mentally ill if they had been mistakenly sent to an asylum. The brutality of the place is portrayed in a new light when it is threatens a noble lady like Bly. Moreover, the fact that she is a white, upper class, attractive woman gives her authority and makes her trustworthy to the readers.

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