‘The Opal,’ A Public Literary Voice From The Mentally Insane

‘The Opal,’ A Public Literary Voice From The Mentally Insane
© Credit: Monika Hnatyk - Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0
The literary journals produced by patients were perhaps the most public form of expression from within the asylums. Periodicals could reach a wider audience than tourism, which was a popular practice at the time. The optimism that surrounded the asylums was infectious, and public sentiment in these early years was overwhelmingly positive toward the asylum system. Many people were initially confident that the hospitals could fulfil all of the society’s religious and moral obligations to the insane, through reason, understanding and science. Periodicals and tours helped to expose the inside of the asylum to the public so that there would be no suspicion of internal corruption. Much of what was presented to the public, however, was a sanitized version of the truth.

Patient periodicals were a way for the institutionalized to express themselves and their true ideas to the outside world. However, literature from within the asylum was required to adhere to the same normative program as the rest of the treatment. The practice of official asylum literature likely originated in 1837 with the Retreat Gazette, which was written by the patients of the Hartford Retreat in Connecticut. Following this was the Asylum Journal from Vermont, which ran from 1842 to 1846. Their motto was “Semel Insanivimus Omnes,” or “We have all, at some time been mad.” The authors attempted to normalize insanity, stating that they were not raving lunatics, but people just like everyone else. These journals had a decent circulation, although the profits were collected by the institution rather than the patient-authors. While these early journals created a public interest in asylum literature, perhaps the most significant patient periodical was ‘The Opal,’ produced by the New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica.

The Utica asylum was in many ways the centre of psychiatry. The American Journal of Insanity, the first official periodical for this field of medicine, was created by the superintendent, and a print shop was established in the asylum for its publication. This print shop proved useful for the patients as well. Patients wrote literary compositions in asylum classrooms as a way to exercise their intellects for the moral treatment. In 1850, a group of female patients took their works and put them together in journal form to sell at the Asylum Fair. This was the earliest edition of ‘The Opal.’ The popularity of this work at the fair prompted more patients, both male and female, to create an official asylum journal.

From 1851 to 1860, a group of patients at the asylum wrote, edited, and printed ‘The Opal,’ the most financially successful and widespread of asylum periodicals. The motto of their journal was “Dedicated to Usefulness,” and while their stated purpose was to fund a library for the asylum, their clear goal was to change the minds of the public about the insane. Nineteenth-century literature, as Maryrose Eannace explained in her study of ‘The Opal,’ typically portrayed the mentally ill as “lazy, useless and even counterproductive, violent, and, significantly, voiceless.” Despite the enlightened changes in opinions about the insane, the idea that they were inhuman and dangerous lingered within the public for some time. The Opalians, as the writers called themselves, proclaimed their journal was for “usefulness” and aimed to counteract this false image. They also fashioned their journal after other popular “sane” periodicals of the time, with quality print, engravings, and similar features of “literary miscellany.” ‘The Opal’ contained works of short fictions, poetry, letters, editorials, and opinion pieces on current political and social subjects. The works were largely rational and thoughtful and presented the insane as having a voice that is reasonable rather than animalistic. ‘The Opalians’ were able to create a respectable literary place for themselves and a link to the outside world.

Despite its intention, ‘The Opal’ rarely presented an accurate depiction of life in the asylum. It was, as David Reiss argues, “at best an elliptical record of the lives, thoughts, and experiences of the authors.” While ‘The Opal’ was ostensibly the voice of the patients, it had to adhere to the message of the institution first. It can be seen in part as an advertisement for the asylum and for moral treatment. According to the journal, the everyday lives of the patients were filled with activities and care, and the doctors acted as loving fathers to their wards. In short, the asylum pictured within ‘The Opal’ is the Utopia that superintendents wanted to present to the public. However, this is not all that ‘The Opal’ and other such literary journals accomplished. The act of writing and publishing from within the asylum can itself be seen as transgression, a way to break free from oppression. Upon close reading, there are many works within ‘The Opal’ where the author’s true opinions can be seen, hidden beneath a number of literary conventions.

The patients who contributed to ‘The Opal’ were in some senses the elite of the asylum. Maryrose Eannace’s thorough study of patient casebooks reveals that among ‘The Opal’s contributors were lawyers, musicians, professors, teachers, and physicians. Many had received classical educations, came from prominent families, and tended to be the wealthiest patients in the hospital. Because they were well-educated, these patients were able to produce quality literary work and use advanced techniques to avoid the censors in the asylum. The Opalians did attempt to portray the reality of the asylum through coded speak, but their reality was presumably not as bad as that of the less fortunate patients. Nonetheless, their works are an invaluable record of asylum life in the mid-nineteenth-century. ‘The Opal’ is a complex and often conflicting journal. Comprised of multiple patients, the opinions presented often opposed one another. Taken as a whole, however, it is possible to understand the ordeals of the patients within the asylum.

It seems that within the asylum, or at least within ‘The Opal,’ the patients developed a kind of culture, their own literary niche in the asylum and the world. The authors referred to their fellow patients as “Brothers and Sisters of Asylumia,” demonstrating the sense of community that was built within the mental hospital. The authors often addressed statements or questions to the other patients, and sometimes even inside jokes or flirtations. Male authors would often comment on the “loveliness” of the ladies of the asylum, from whom they were separated except on special occasions. Although only a small group of patients wrote for ‘The Opal,’ many others within the asylum read it. The journal allowed patients to communicate with one another in a way that would be otherwise impossible in a large and controlling institution.

The pen names were various and sometimes strange, and also indicate a large number of women who wrote in the journal along with men. The pseudonyms not only gave the authors anonymity in the outside world but also allowed them to create distinct personas within ‘The Opal.’ Some were mainstays who wrote for many years, such as Etta Floyd and Cecilia, who were primarily poets but often wrote prose as well. These personas gave the writers a sense of stability and importance. Even though they were in the asylum, hidden away from family and society, their works in ‘The Opal’ would reach outside and even give them a kind of immortality. “To the Opal Contributors,” one short poem reads, “themselves will fade, but not their memory.” ‘The Opal’ writers gave themselves eternal identities, something of extreme importance to patients who no doubt felt their own insignificance while being shut up in the asylum.

Many works of ‘The Opal’ are dedicated to the praise of the asylum system. “Pinel,” a work from the second volume by an anonymous author, dedicates eight pages to this founder of the moral system, complete with an engraving of the man. “To no other is the present humane system of our institutions indebted,” the author wrote, for “previous to the organization of this system, the insane were treated most rudely, ruthlessly, inhumanely… Their mental condition was entirely neglected.” Attendants used to whip their “prisoners (patients they could not be called), and goad them on to madness with chains.” The benevolence of the nineteenth-century asylum is contrasted with the horrifying past, where the asylums were filled with “direful, real woe.” The author claimed that now, “cheerful eyes portentive of gay thought are ever cherished in Asylumia’s halls.” The moral work of Philippe Pinel carried out by the current doctors, turned sadness into joy for the insane.

Sarah Genner
Editor & Proofreader
This article has been edited and proofread by Sarah Genner, a successful British Direct Response Marketing Copywriter, voice actor and artist.

Would you like to discover just how her copywriting skills can get your business a higher conversion rate?

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