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Author explains how she came to tell Elizabeth Packard's story

Copyright Duncan Moore

Kate Moore’s book The Woman They Could Not Silence details Elizabeth Packard’s 1860 involuntary commitment and abuse at an Illinois asylum and her advocacy.

The book stirred a petition to rename a state mental health center in Springfield for Packard, replacing that of Andrew McFarland, a doctor who participated in her wrongful insanity diagnosis. Earlier this month, the facility was renamed for Packard.

The following is a transcript of reporter Maureen McKinney’s discussion with Moore about that and how a British author came to tell Packard’s story.

What did you think about the renaming of a state mental health center for Packard?

I am so thrilled that that injustice has been overturned. And I'm so proud of Elizabeth that her incredible achievements have been recognized. And this is a woman who was
remarkable in her lifetime and achieved success. She was always belittled by people. You know, that accusation of madness, that stay in an asylum, was always leveled against her, as she continued to try to provoke change in the world.

And it just feels so fitting that finally, 160 years later, we are saying, ‘No, he was wrong. She was right.’ And we recognize and celebrate Elizabeth Packard as the pioneering activist, and a woman who could not be silenced, and hear her voice things loud and proud at last.

I wanted to ask how you came to write about Elizabeth Packard.

So, it was a bit of a topsy-turvy genesis of the book, The Woman They Could Not Silence. It's really because I decided on the theme I wanted to write about before I had heard the name Elizabeth Packard. I was inspired to write about the way that women for centuries have been silenced and undermined by this false claim that we're crazy when we're not.

And so, what I did was, I went looking for a woman in history who was sane but simply for using her voice had been accused of being mad. And I found Elizabeth Packard in this random University of Wisconsin essay about lunacy in the 19th century. And the moment I read her name, I Googled her to see what her story was about. And I could not believe this heroine.

Basically, the reason I wanted to write about Elizabeth Packard is because firstly, she's the most phenomenal woman. She's strong; she's resilient. She is empowering, inspiring,and a complete force of nature, who actually gets things done. And secondly, her story itself is gripping, shocking, enraging, and yet also has a happy ending.

The story of Elizabeth Packard starts on the cusp of the American Civil War in June 1860. And it starts with a simple question, what would happen if your husband could commit you to an insane asylum just because you disagreed with him? And that's how Elizabeth Packard's story starts.

Tell me a little bit more about what made her such a trailblazer.

This story starts with she was a housewife in 1860s Illinois, and she is sent to this insane asylum, where she is under the care of Dr. Andrew McFarland. And she is stunned firstly, that this is allowed when she is a sane woman. And all she has done is, she has been assertive.

She's been someone who has not been cowed by her husband's threats. But it's entirely legal to send your wife to an asylum in Illinois in the 1860s. It was actually in black and white husbands could send their wives to asylums by request, and specifically without evidence of insanity. That was actually what was on the statute books. And the reason Elizabeth's personality is so compelling, and the reason I've written about her in The Woman They Could Not Silence is because she doesn't take this lying down. And she determines not only will she fight for her own freedom, but she will fight for all the other women that she finds in the asylum.

That includes other sane women who've been put there because they're problematic, or they're difficult for their families. But it also includes people who are genuinely mentally ill, and who are being controlled and abused and are not receiving the care that we would all want to give people who struggle with mental health. Elizabeth Packard was ahead of her time, in being compassionate, and in striving for compassion nationwide for those with mental illnesses.

Was it commonplace in that time period law like that?

Yeah. It's shock. As shocking as it is today. It absolutely was, as I say, it was actually on the statute books that … husbands could send their wives to an asylum by request. And the received medical wisdom of the age, basically said that any woman who kind of pushed the boundaries socially. So that could be, she might be ambitious, she might want to study or even simply read novels, and that she might want to use her voice, she might want to, as I say, you know, rebel against her husband.

These women were seen as unnatural, because they weren't performing in the way that society said, are normal, in inverted commas, healthy women should behave. So they were seen as unnatural, therefore, diseased in some ways, and therefore mentally ill. But it actually went beyond this sort of, you know, societal perception of an assertive woman is a mad woman, actually, any woman, we're seeing at risk of going mad because they thought that women's, female bodies, were actually the root cause of a mental illness.

So, actually, a woman could do anything and she might find herself locked up in an asylum because of this false claim of craziness that would be held against her.

When did that start to change? Do you know? And how much influence did Elizabeth have on that change?

Well, I think a couple of things that are true. And one thing I would say is since The Woman They Could Not Silence came out, which was a couple of years ago, in June 2021, I have been shocked by the number of readers who contact me to say, I had experienced a similar thing. And in fact, one of the reasons I wanted to write about this historical silencing of women through the false claim that we're crazy is because I can see that that still happens today.

It is not usually as extreme as someone's sending you to an insane asylum. But we see it in our public discourse, the way that madness and insanity is held about as a way to undermine and dismiss people's views, perhaps because they're being political or because they're making an allegation of abuse or rape. This still happens today. So, there have obviously been changes to some degree. And Elizabeth Packard, was a big part of that in terms of she was successful in protecting patients, getting inspectors into asylums to oversee them.

She was successful at protecting patients’ rights, so that there wasn't censorship. She was successful, as well, in fighting for equality for women gaining small steps on that long road that we're all still walking. Women having the right, for example, to retain their own earnings. So. Elizabeth achieved an awful lot in her own lifetime. But I'm sure that even he would agree, there is still a lot more that there is to be done.

This is an unfair question being that you're from Great Britain. But do you see parallels in the commitment of Mary Lincoln?

Yes, there definitely are parallels. And I think what's interesting about the case of Mary Todd Lincoln is that it happened a couple of decades after Elizabeth was institutionalized. And it was thanks to Elizabeth campaigning for her insistence, for example, that if you were accused of insanity, and there was a threat to lock you up in an insane asylum, you should have the right, even if you were a married woman, to have a jury trial. That's how they used to decide it in those days.

Men, when Elizabeth was institutionalized, could have a jury trial, but she was denied one because she was a married woman. But thanks to the campaigning she did, she got that law changed. And so when Mary Todd Lincoln is under threat of being institutionalized, and interestingly enough, Elizabeth's own doctor, Dr. McFarland, was one of the psychiatrists who was saying that Mary Todd Lincoln was insane, and should be locked up in an asylum for life.

Because of Elizabeth campaigning, Mary Todd Lincoln got that jury trial. And there were other safeguards. Thanks to Elizabeth that ultimately meant Mary Todd Lincoln was able to live the rest of her life as a free woman.

You seem to know a lot about it. Can you tell the listeners a little bit about how Mary Lincoln came to be committed?

And well, to be honest, it's a long time since I've looked at my notes on Mary Todd Lincoln. My memory off the top of my head is that people were worried about how she was behaving, which is to say behavior was often a sort of starting point for a woman's institutionalization and and her family tried to get her committed, I think, in particular, her son was behind it, and he did seek other opinions and as I say, Dr. McFarland was one of those that said, Mary Todd Lincoln should have been institutionalized. But ultimately it was overturned.

 And I'm really interested in how you came to bring Illinois related history to light.

It’s one of those sort of serendipitous journeys, to be honest, I mean, Illinois is like my adopted home state now. I first wrote an Illinois history book with The Radium Girls back in 2017. And that came about because I directed a play about them in London, and realized, through my research for my production, that there was no book that existed that told the story of the radium girls, these amazing American women who were poisoned by the radium paint they worked with, and then courageously fought for justice, even though they were dying, even though the odds were stacked against them.

And, I felt so moved by their powerful story that I thought these women deserve a book. And, yes, I'm based in London, and I'm British, but I want to give them a voice. I want to write a book about them that celebrates their personal triumphs and tragedies. I want their story to be known.

And, so I wrote that book as a complete passion project, and was amazed when it became a New York Times bestseller and people took it to their hearts. I'm so grateful for everybody listening who read that book, The Radium Girls, because my mission was to celebrate these women and make sure that they were remembered, and people reading makes that happen, which just seems so special to me.

And then having written that book, as I say, I was then thinking, what do I want to write about next as inspired to write about this undermining of women through the false claim of madness. And it was just sort of serendipitous that the woman I found, her story was set in Illinois, and the filing that she was sent to was Jacksonville, Illinois.

And once again, I find myself, you know, giving voice to these incredible women from Illinois who modern readers, I hope, will be moved by and inspired by and will let their stories into their own lives and, you know, be lit from within by these incredible women. You know, just as I felt that power, all the way across an ocean.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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