Reade Archive Visit – Wolf Thoughts

Editorial Note: I actually prepared the following write-up during the archive visit, and never found time to post it.  I have chosen not to edit it, instead electing to leave my thoughts as they were at the time.

A surprising amount of Reade’s material seems to come from public sources.  Rather than investigating mental institutions in person, he seems to have accumulated much of his information indirectly.

One phrase in the “Horrible Story” articles struck me.  It mentioned that abuses in asylums were known of–but that such things were relics of a deplorable past.  It is possible–and not at all difficult to imagine–that any reports of such behavior would be categorized thus.

I am reminded of a phenomena that long plagued–and may still plague–fields such as history.  There was or is a tendency to assume that things had been much as they were at the time.  Thus, Shakespeare’s plays depict a Rome that is (presumably) inaccurately similar to the England of his day.  Other examples include the romanticization of the Arthurian mythos and projections of chivalry into the past.

The point that I am driving at with this reminiscence is the possibility that, in looking at the past as being linked to the present, there might be a corollary assumption that wrongdoings are rooted in the past.  After all, if the present is more advanced than the past–and most claim that it is–then something must have changed.  If the good elements of the present were also in the past–as some erroneously assumed–then the only possible “advancement” would be the shedding of the past’s negative elements.  An institution that abused its patients, then, would be a sign of individual regression, rather than systematic failure.

Unfortunately, the case was one of systematic failure.

Contributing to this, of course, was the system’s motivation to fail.  The doctors were well-paid for their work, and could eke out more profit by allowing abuses.  Mind you, modern studies exonerate them to some slight extent: the notorious Prison Experiment demonstrated that certain power dynamics will result in abuse, no matter the initial attitudes of those involved.  Being well-paid and falling into a dynamic that lends itself to guiltless abuse, those in charge of asylums had no reason to change.  They did, of course, have reason to conceal.

When a “madman” reported mistreatment in an asylum, he would face an uphill battle.  The doctors and staff would, of course, deny the charges, creating the first hurdle: why would the common folk, with no other information, choose to believe a “dangerous” “lunatic” over an established medical professional?  Moreover, even if an individual asylum was shown to be abusive, the system could survive: the other doctors could shake their heads at the barbaric methods of the colleague they had once thought so much of.  Their asylums, of course, would permit no such behavior.  Regularly-scheduled inspections by commissioners, who were of course very vigilant and thorough, demonstrated that–and of course the asylum staff wasn’t informed of the inspection dates, and they certainly did not clean the place up in preparation.

Most men were not Charles Reade.  They did not accumulate information as he did, and did not have such a stunning repertoire that they could cite.  Thus, they might fall into the trap of listening to such claims.  After all, so long as most institutions have not suffered such revelation, the offending ones were in the minority.  Moreover, the pill would be made easier to swallow by the subject matter: even today, the idea of mental illness is frightening and disturbing to those who are not familiar with it.  In the public conception, madmen are dangerous–no matter why they are branded madmen.  When one group is held incapable of reason, the other group’s arguments must, by necessity, be considered to be more reasonable.

Originally, as mentioned, I assumed that Reade had gone out of his way to research madness and asylums.  The notecards I have seen, however, do not imply any investigation.  There are accounts of events and incidents, and clips from newspapers.  Yet Reade reached a conclusion that was so against the grain that serious men who took the name “Doctor” felt comfortable arguing the exact opposite in the public forum.

The theory I now formulate is that Reade arrived at his knowledge simply as a result of his obsessive approach to information.  Reading account after account of lunacy and asylums, he would notice things.  Similarities in reports from victims, inconsistencies in answers from doctors.  The information he gained was available to all, but not in a distilled form.  Most would see only give the matter a cursory glance, but I feel comfortable in assuming that Reade never gave anything a cursory glance.  He looked past the claims of “past transgressions” and saw that they were merely “transgressions,” both past and present.

In the prefatory material of my copy of Hard Cash, a doctor writes a letter to a paper complaining about Reade’s “false” and “inaccurate” depiction of existence within an asylum.  He cites his own experiences and accuses Reade of sensationalism.  Reade responded with his own letter, citing past stories, the doctor’s own statements on previous occasions, and various other snippets of information.  The doctor did not write another letter to that paper, but Reade was later referred to a small, local paper, where the doctor had chosen to continue the debate without the inconvenience of an informed adversary.  This immediate retreat implies that, while the system had certain developed its formulae for dealing with inconvenience, it was not at all prepared for one who actually paid attention to it.  And, if nothing else, Reade was a man who paid attention.

At the beginning of “The Horrible Story,” the writer notes that “although the sympathy of many was aroused, no one deemed it his duty to inquire into the circumstances of the case”.  This, unfortunately, may have been the norm, but–whether from duty or from obsession–Reade deemed inquiry to be his only possible course.