Nellie Bly (Group 4)

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.

4 thoughts on “Nellie Bly (Group 4)

  1. Jacob Morton

    It is interesting to see how madness was assessed in that context–up close and firsthand. While it comes as no surprise, particularly after the prior readings, that these bygone handlings of mental health were crude–not just by the nurses but the doctors as well–reading a nonfictional/journalistic account definitely adds a weight of legitimacy. One moment that stuck out to me was when, after examining Nellie, a doctor announces that she does not have the “pulse” or “eyes” of “an insane girl.” This diagnosis–particularly the portion about the eyes–embodies a pseudoscientific connection between mental illness and physical health. What is the pulse of an insane person? What is it about their eyes that screams insanity? The fact that doctors convinced themselves they could judge sanity based on looks makes racial dynamics all the more interesting. How much of Nellie not looking like an insane person could be chalked up to her whiteness–and whatever innocuousness it evoked. On a separate note, her constant insistence on her Cuban heritage makes the question even more interesting– as she was attempting to appropriate this foreignness as a persuading factor. She used the backstory to make herself seem even madder. Is this because it “exoticized” her? How much of an awareness did she have of the disproportionate number of immigrants committed? Could this be what prompted her to make such a choice?

  2. Alexander Merrill

    As Gordon and Henry have pointed out as well, it seems obvious to me that Bly’s piece would read very differently had she been a recent immigrant. Through her conversations with the doctors and nurses at the asylum, her privilege is clear. For example when talking to Dr. Ingram in chapter 6, the doctor converses with Nellie as though she is an equal, honestly answering her questions and even asking her opinion for how to change the cell locking system to prevent disaster in the case of a fire. I would imagine that she would not be given the same respect and authority if she was a recent immigrant, especially if she wasn’t able to speak English well.

    I think another interesting example of Bly’s privilege is the nurses/doctors coaxing her to play the piano. Her ability to play the piano seems to give her a sort of power. She is immediately the center of attention in the asylum, with nurses, doctors, and patients alike watching in silence. When she then refuses to play more, she is aggressively removed from the piano. I think this is an interesting display of the power dynamic at play between Bly and the nurses. She holds some inherent power due to her learned skill of piano playing (a privileged skill to have), made apparent at the insistence of her playing by the nurses and subsequently her removal from the piano at the hands of the nurses when she refuses to play more. Bly is allowed to express her skill and knowledge to some extent, although it is ultimately controlled by the nurses. I read this as her privilege giving her the opportunity to express herself in a way other patients may not be allowed, as her expression might be deemed “high brow” or “productive” as defined by the culture at the time, whereas another patient’s interest or skill may not be seen in the same way, especially so if that interest or skill is culturally foreign.

  3. Henry Mooers

    I think when looking at this question from multiple different angles, the answer to the question of “Would ten days read the same way if Nellie were an immigrant.” seems to me to be obvious.
    First of all, from a practical standpoint, Bly is undercover. She knows she will be leaving the asylum. Her situation is not permanent, and I feel as though this factors into the tone of the piece. Bly is immensely critical, and horrified by what she sees. But the one thing that I do not get from her tonality while reading is a sense of desperation. She does not feel trapped in any meaningful or permanent way; she is a white woman who is merely undercover. It is very clear that her privilege allows her to feel relief in the back of her mind that the situation at hand will not be permanent.
    Furthermore, and similar to what gordon discussed in his post, despite all of the adverse conditions in the institution that Bly discusses, the treatment she is given by the medical professionals there is anything but negative. The Judge at her commitment hearing thought she was pretty, and she was able to befriend many of the doctors. Were Bly an immigrant, I would imagine that these sympathies would not be present in her treatment, and the articles would have read very differently.

  4. Gordon Lewis

    I think it is pretty clear from Bly’s account of her stay in “Ten Days” that if she were anything but a white, conventionally attractive woman that she would not have received nearly the same treatment that she did. Were Bly a recent immigrant with little to no knowledge of English, she most likely would have suffered the same fates as the women she describes in the chapters of “Ten Days”, such as the poor German woman who was committed without being given the decency of a translator to help her. From the beginning of her assignment, she was looked upon with the utmost sympathies, from Mrs. Caine’s patience and compassion for her in the women’s house, to the judge who was sympathetic to her case because she was pretty and looked like his dead sister, it is clear that Bly is not going to experience the “typical” treatment of someone deemed insane who is committed to an asylum. Even while she is interred, her constant proddings, questioning, and defiances are generally put up with due to the fact that she has befriended some of the more handsome young doctors.

    Part of the reason I believe that Bly’s narrative is so powerful and has a great amount of impact is because she is undeniably sane from the outset of this story, and therefore the audience follows the events absolutely mortified by her treatment and the conditions in which she is confined in. Were the heroine of this tale someone like Edna, or the woman from the “Yellow Wallpaper”, though, I think the impact of the story would not be as great. As it stands, Bly’s account of life in the asylum stands as a strong rebuke of the way that these patients were treated, considering the way the doctors and nurses were all portrayed as being incompetent, careless, and indifferent towards those they were supposed to be helping.

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