The Marquis, Mary, Zelda and Margaret – an insanity trial

File:Peter Weiss' Marat Sade at SUNY 2008.jpg

Marat/Sade production at the State University of New York at Fredonia, 2008 (Directed by: James Ivey) Wikipedia

According to the Associated Press, a reenactment of the trial of Mary Todd Lincoln will be sponsored by the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission in conjunction with Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.  It seems the learned gentlemen, and ladies, would like to take a fresh look at the evidence from the distance of a hundred-plus years.  They rightfully feel that the standards that were applied to the widow of 16th president of the United States would not be applicable in 2012.  Undoubtedly they will come to an entirely different conclusion than her judges did in 1875; they will most likely find she had a condition that we routinely treat today with drugs.  With drugs, I imagine they will say, Mary might have lived out her life as an active member of the social and politic world of her time, much as Nancy Reagan has done.  One could pick any person convicted of insanity in history and retire them today under today’s laws and standards and the verdict would almost always be different; no area of judgement of human behavior varies as much over the course of history as mental “diseases and crimes.”  It is a subject with which I have some familiarity as several members of my family were institutionalized for conditions that today would be treated routinely with drugs.

Normal is easy to define, despite all of the learned treatises to the contrary; normal is what I think and feel.   Every era and every society uses the same standard, they take the way they believe, feel and behave and codify it as normal.  Abnormal is just as easy, it is a deviance from normal, it is what you do that is not like what I do; every society codifies abnormal also and for those that deviate from the normal and acceptable there is some form of punishment, restriction or treatment.  Across the 150-year span between the institutionalizing of Marquis de Sade and my aunt may things had changed, but one thing had not, a person could be committed to a mental institution, an insane asylum, a nut house, by a family member; it only required a family member with access to the legal system; a person with power and another person without power, most often a woman.  Sade, although a man, was committed by his family and his wife, my aunt by her brothers and her father.   In all cases the committers thought they were doing the best for the committed.

The diagnosis and treatment of mental abnormalities has changed a great deal over the 200 years since Sade tasted French medicine. The names they routinely used in Sade’s time are almost unknown to us today; even calling someone insane today is rare except in cases of extreme criminal acts; such as those of Jeffrey Dahmer.  Sade was a blasphemer, a libertine, sodomite, revolutionary, liberal, fornicator and pornographer.  His insanity was in his deviance from polite French mores; he on the other hand found them insane for denying their own sexuality, for he judged his to be universal.  Given the popularity of his writing, one might conclude he was closer to understanding human nature than his judges.  My aunt was clearly an introvert and a paranoid-schizophrenic, all very antisocial and potentially dangerous conditions – all of the learned doctors agreed, just as they did with the Marquis de Sade.

In Sade’s time the range of treatments varied a great deal for touchy-feely humanitarian efforts to treatments that today we would call cruel, usually and abusive; Sade experienced the full range of treatments.  My aunt too was subject to treatments that today would be unlikely and themselves considered dangerous, including water and electronic shock treatments.  However, my aunt was spared the ultimate treatment of her time, surgery.  I did know one person who did get, yep, that is it, a lobotomy.  He was a marine, back from the Second World War; prior to his lobotomy  he was struggling to adjust to civilian behavior – it was easily fixed, just cut out that part of his brain that made him aggressive – the same part that had made him a hero just a few years before.

Sade was a pervert, he acted out sexual fantasies that might get him into trouble in any era, but not locked up for a greater part of his adult life. Besides being a pervert, Sade was an artist, politician, intellectual and many, many other things that helped to make France great, just as the marine helped to make our country great.  My aunt was a little less important in her era, she was simply a young woman, confused by her own sexuality and her loneliness.  Her life, except for a few years in high school and during the war when the men were off at war, was very lonely and difficult.  Her mother died when she was 8 years old, afterwards she was the only woman in a family of 5 men.  She cooked, cleaned, ironed and cared for the others as a mother, but she was not a mother or an adult woman, she was just a girl.  Eventually the men returned home and her friends went off to be mothers, her own brothers left home to be fathers and she was left alone with her father.  Over time she developed some odd, obsessive behaviors – but she was not, as they said at the time, insane; she was just lonely and confused.  Unlike Sade, my aunt only spent a few years in the state insane asylum, the rest of her life she lived in her father’s house – nearly 50 years.  My grandfather died, leaving my aunt completely alone for the last 30 years of her life; her only visitors were family members and they came infrequently.

So, to the learned gentlemen, and ladies, in Illinois, I would offer this warning – don’t judge so easily the past, rather look at your practices, your codes, your diagnosis and your treatments and realize in another time and another place they will appear just as unfair and unscientific. Mental health, normal and abnormal is a moving target.  The only absolute is the simple definition of normal, I am normal, you are not.  Marquis de Sade, Mary Lincoln, Zelda Fitzgerald and Margaret Adams you are to be set free and judged no more.



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