Content warning: mental illness; suicide

In 1877, Mary Huestis Pengilly and her husband, Robert, lost their home and business in the Great Fire of Saint John. They had five sons and one daughter. The couple separated soon after, and Mary moved to Lowell, Massachusetts with her daughter, Clara, who died in 1882 at the age of 12. In 1883, several of Mary’s sons had her committed to a Saint John-area psychiatric hospital.

For six months, Mary kept her Diary Written in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum (1885), recording her neglect and mistreatment at the hands of institutional doctors and staff while unwillingly inhabiting the asylum in the parish of Lancaster, now west Saint John. The diary is also a plea, in the end, to “the ladies” of New Brunswick, those who might better “understand the weakness or the misfortunes” that brought women like Mary “under the necessity of being protected by the public” (25). By capturing the attention and sympathy of her “fellow-sisters,” Mary believed she could rally enough concern to reach the Governor and to reform the asylum’s Board of Commissioners.

Image: source

It’s easy to relate to Mary’s needs for warmth, kindness, rest, and nourishing food, which are consistent across this text, reflecting the essential structural failures of a system and a society that either could not or would not provide her with the support or comfort she required in the wake of such rupture and loss. One of the primary villains of the narrative is medical superintendent James T. Steeves — who may or may not have gifted a straitjacket to Henry Houdini in 1896, providing “an essential prop in Houdini’s popular escape routines” (See Mike Wong, “Centracare: A History,” 16). From Mary’s perspective, Steeves is a jailer who assures her sons that she is “a lunatic” while quietly warning her, in other moments, that patients who leave the hospital “hang [themselves]” (12, 22).

As a reader, I can relate to Mary, but as a human being, I am related to Steeves. He is my cousin, connected to me through my father and through the family descended from Heinrich and Regina Steif, who crossed the Atlantic in the mid eighteenth-century and settled, eventually, in Sikniktuk, Mi’kma’ki. This is a useful distinction: I cannot relate to Steeves here, but I am related to him. And because of my relation to Steeves, which remains indifferent to my unwillingness or inability to relate to him, I can’t read Mary’s narrative as I might be tempted to otherwise. Certainly, it would be easier to allow my revulsion for a bad actor to isolate that figure outside of the relational framework that I construct while reading. Instead, while I relate to Mary and her suffering, I also feel a kind of responsibility for her narrative.

I am still working through my relationship to this text and to this history. But as I prepare several new classes for the fall, I am thinking about how this principle might apply in other contexts. What does it mean, for example, when a Settler reads a residential school narrative and relates only to the children and the Indigenous families? I see this kind of failure in self reflection everywhere, in and outside of academia — and so how do we want non-Indigenous students to understand their own relationship to such narratives, and how might we help lead them there? What does it mean when a white person relates to a Black man murdered by police without ever pondering their relationship to the violent act? ‘

Can we ever be changed or transformed if the bad actors that we encounter are continuously cast outside of our relational frameworks? I am not talking about finding the humanity or the complexity in history’s or society’s bad actors. We do not need to relate to their ugliness, but we need ways to understand and explore how we may be related to it.

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