Through the Agency of Words: Women in the American Insane Asylum, 1842–1890

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Pamela Takayoshi


Between 1842 and 1890, 23 women wrote 33 memoirs about their time spent incarcerated in American insane asylums. While a handful of these memoirs have been studied, there has not been a recognition of how many asylum mem­oirs exist and their significance as a collective body of work. Grounded in an inductive analysis of the collective 33 works, this article begins a process of recovering a mostly forgotten moment in time when former patients took agency over their experience, ethos, and rhetoricity to break down the institutional wall of silence and give the public the first patient-centered memoirs. I argue that these women rhetors did this by foregrounding their own identity as patient and by creating a rhetorical position from which their readers would feel the trauma of asylum life. Both rhetorical moves countered institutionalization’s dehumanizing effects by placing the patient experience at the center of understanding the asy­lum experience.

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