Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Cure

Let's say you're a woman at the turn of the 20th Century. Further, you've got a working brain, and you've spent the first 25 years of your life doing what everybody else wanted. Now you've been married for six years, you've had a kid, or several, and suddenly you're looking at the world going, "Is this it?"

Yes, my dear, this is it. You're going to grow old, surrounded by your children and grandchildren, caring for their needs, making your husband happy, and reading the latest issues of Godey's Ladies' Book. You're done. You have fulfilled your function. You have exhausted your creative enterprise. Now what are you going to do?

You're going to wack out, that's what. "Hysteria," which comes from the same root word that gives us "hysterectomy," was a common complaint among women around the time of the first world war. Denied any healthy outlets for their intelligence and creativity, and stuck in many-child households with little help, many women took to their beds with nervous complaints that we now recognize as depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Physicians at the time just put it down to having a uterus. If you've got one of THOSE, then you're mentally unstable, end of discussion.

In its mild form, hysteria was just Mama spending a few afternoons in bed with the blinds drawn. But in its more vicious form, Mama was completely debilitated, and her doctors would prescribe "the rest cure."

The rest cure amounted to total isolation. Women with hysteria were removed from all stimulation -- no books, no visitors, no responsibilities, no nothing -- and allowed to fester. Why this was supposed to cure them is anyone's guess, but it's not too surprising that the creator of this regimen was a man, Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, pictured at right.

The rest cure was, without a doubt, a form of torture. Some women were restrained and not even allowed to turn themselves over in bed. Mitchell himself explained it thusly, "..to lie abed half the day and sew a little, and read a little, and be interesting and excite sympathy, is all very well, but when they are bidden to stay in bed a month, and neither to read, write, nor sew, and to have one nurse—who is not a relative—then rest becomes for some women a rather bitter medicine and they are glad enough to accept the order to rise and go about when the doctor issues a mandate which has become pleasantly welcome and eagerly looked for.”

In other words, restrict all their activity, punish them for being anxious and depressed, and then they'll be happy NOT to be in bed taking the cure. No wonder they were "cured." We might note that one of the things that led to Virginia Woolfe's suicide was the thought that she might have to go through the rest cure AGAIN. Admittedly, this was not the only factor, the impending second world war being a larger one, but it underscores the brutality of ennui.

Interestingly enough, the rest cure only applied to relatively wealthy women. Poor women -- those who worked, held responsibilities, and were considered equal to their spouses -- were supposedly immune to the disease because they were tougher. In reality, they didn't have time for nervous complaints, or the money to pay for expensive restrictions on their liberty.

So why did anyone do it? Because women trusted Weir Mitchell; he got results. Dr. Mitchell and his ilk believed that women were under the total control of their reproductive organs, not their brains. Hormones drove women mad, and before you laugh and mention PMS, put yourself in that locked room with nothing to do, no music, no friends, nothing but your lonely, depressed brain, and see how you feel, hormones or no. No one was actually studying brains and how they work; all of the energy was focused on glands. At one point, glandular theory was thought to be responsible for everything from religion to criminal behavior.

Science eventually put a stop to the rest cure. Psychoanalyists like Freud and Jung began looking at brains as the root causes of anxiety and depression, and thus the isolation and torment of women fell out of favor, at least as a "cure." Doctors recognized that everyone wants to have a purpose, and wants to be self-directed. The focus of mental health shifted from something that was imposed from outside -- the cure -- to work done on the inside -- analysis.

Before that happened, though, we have Charlotte Perkins Gilman writing "The Yellow Wallpaper," about a woman driven bats by the rest cure. Gilman actually sent a copy of her story to Dr. Mitchell, who, rather typically, didn't respond to her. He DID say of himself, however, "I urged, scolded and teased and bribed and decoyed along the road to health; but this is what it means to treat hysteria.”

Trust me. I'm a doctor.


  1. Well this article doesn't drum up any urges for the good old days. It is utterly disgusting that so recently in our "advanced" and "civilized" society that woman were subjected to such degrading and cruel torture. Its bad enough that they weren't allowed to develop passed their uteral abilities, but then to be told that they were in fact weak minded, hormone controlled nusiences. The Yellow Wallpaper is brillantly written in that it shows the evolution of a perfectly sane woman falling into madness from sheer neglect. I am interested to read some of her other stories to see what other injustices she tackled.

  2. They also thought hysteria was a type of sexual dysfunction--so basically, every woman who was "proper" and "clean" probably suffered from it! That being said, another "cure" was to go to your physician and basically they would get to you orgasm. These poor women had absolutely NO release, not intellectually or physically. But we cannot fully blame any one doctor, they had no idea about how the human brain worked, and that they were harming these people...as a society they were still in the dark ages, they still performed bloodletting up until the late 1800's.

  3. I cannot for a minute even think about how it would be like to be one of these poor women going through one of these "treatments" except to have the horror of the possibility of going back through it again. Some say the dark ages are over and that may be the case however some of the actual medical practices are still in use today. Blood letting is still used in medicine today(excess iron-extreme)! Leech's are used in the cosmetic industry, Magots are used for used for wound care! The human mind is the least known field their is, we have probed around and tried to understand it however it has been developing for millions of years and w/ some cases even w/ the best of minds and equipment all we can do is lock them away (w/o wall paper)!

  4. Jared Porterfeild
    What's sad is that practices like this continued to be practiced by western medicine well into the twentith century and are still pacticed today in undevolped countries. My cousin was commited to a mental hospital midcentury and there she had her teeth pulled out, was locked in a bland room, and dfaced other "treatments" that seemed like they were ripped straight out Nazi ideology instead of medical knowledge. The sad truth is that rest cure is just one example of how the mentally ill, both men and women, suffered at the hands of their treatments. Hopefully rest "cure" and other such practices will go into a fitting retirement.

  5. Honestly I dont understand why you would put a woman who is staying in bed to bed. It makes no sense. You would think logicly that it would only make the condition worse. It just goes to show how far we have come with treating simple things like depression. For god sakes they used to take ice picks and scrabble your brain to make you "Calm".

  6. I can not believe that the "rest cure" was even considered to be a healthy way to treat women. The different ways that the doctors used to treat women are so degrading that its hard to even imagine. I can understand how all of those women went crazy being trapped in a room when they had depression or anxiety issues. How could Dr. Mitchell not see how it would just make it worse?

  7. The rest cure was sad excuse of a so-called cure that Dr. Mitchell came up with to help the mid class to upper class women. the lower class women doing normal household chores and work were said to be immune from the disorder and tougher than the rest of them. Dr. Mitchell thought it would cure the women's depression and anxiety by keeping them isolated from everything in the outside world. The women that were subject to this cure would say they were cured just to not have to go through it again. In some cases this cure would drive women crazy and convince them into committing suicide. This cure was a bad medical practice.

  8. Definately bad medical practice, but from reading Dr. Mitchell's work, I suspect that he was less practicing medicine and more "punishing" women for being -- at least in his mind -- lazy, attention-seeking,and neurotic.

  9. I have had the mis-fortune of being in the Doctors "Trust" alot more than the average person and I can sympathize with anyone who has to put their trust in a "medical professional". We wouldn't even think about taking our new car that cost so much money to some "fly by nite" mechanic to have it repaired however we gladly go to a M.D.(P.H.D) that has a Diploma on the wall that says they " Pratice in the Art of Medicine." Would you let someone practice repairing your car(they are named women's names also?)! Her husband was helpless due to his ethical code as he thought she was being treated to the best coarse of therapy of the "Day". "To Do No Harm" that is something that I think the "Rest Cure" and Dr.Mitchell needed to re-evaluate long before he received the slap on the face from Charlotte Perkins Gilman and "The Yellow Wallpaper."

  10. What I think is so amazing about this story and other stories of the same societal importance, is that it actually changed things. Something I'm pretty sure Confessions of an Heiress would never do.

  11. OK...so... i think when i say that this Mitchell guy was a bit odd, i speak for everyone. Although back then he thought he was doing the right thing to "cure" these ill women, i think he also knew what it REALLY did to them. He got away with it bc back in those days, people had no where else to turn and they thought he was right bc he was a "doctor". I hate that these women had to suffer through something so terrbile, that they were literally trapped in their own mind. All they had were their minds to keep them occupied and that can only last for so long without some sort of delirium setting in.

    When stories like "The Yellow Wallpaper" were brought into the public eye, it wasnt anything new to the women who had already suffered through it but it did however show a glimpse of what the "rest sure" was really like to those who hadnt experienced and to men as well.

  12. Kayla Price:

    Its so hard to imagine being a woman in this time period. Every woman has their time of the month where they go crazy, and at the time men believed that women were weaker. Therefore, they believe locking up women in a room would solve everything and it doesn't.

    I can't believe how he got away with it back then. Its just very mind blowing.