One day in the summer of 1860, an Illinois woman named Elizabeth Packard watched as an ax crashed through her bedroom window.
A wife and mother, her life had previously been relatively quiet, centered on home and church. But she and her husband Theophilius, a preacher, had begun having theological arguments. Disturbed by these, and the idea that Elizabeth was “becoming insane on the subject of women’s rights,” as he later wrote, Theophilius decided to have his wife committed to an asylum. Hence the group of men climbing through the broken window, and carrying her, immobile, to the train that would take her on to the Jacksonville Insane Asylum.
Incarcerated in the asylum for three years, she would go on to write bestselling books chronicling her experience and would campaign successfully against laws that allowed husbands to lock up their wives without trial. Kate Moore’s The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear is the story of Packard’s fascinating lifelong fight.
In an author’s note, Moore writes that she wanted to look at the ways that women have been dismissed as “crazy” throughout history. But most of the stories she read were painfully bleak. “‘Crazy’ was a cul-de-sac, a one-way street that only ever ended with one outcome,” she writes. One Illinois woman she read about was lobotomized in 1955 without any diagnosis aside from being “unfriendly” and “disagreeable.” But in Packard, Moore found an ideal hero, one with a “spirit as wide as her skirt” who not only fought the system but won.
Packard’s writing, quoted generously, is the best part of the book — resolute, warm, both soulful and practical. But because it is quoted often without chronology or context, it is hard to see her intellectual development, the beginnings of her feminist stirrings, and the evolution of her relationship with her husband. Moore, the author of The Radium Girls, is a clear writer but prone to overreliance on metaphor, and painfully eager to make sure we never miss the point (“Quietly, she moved about the house…footsteps as muffled as a woman’s gagged voice.”)
A particular oversight is Packard’s religious views, which are never fully explained or explored, despite being the primary justification for her incarceration. Packard’s campaign was a feminist one, yes, but she also saw it as very much a Christian one. A kind of radiantly certain, almost Antigone-like figure, she thought she was doing God’s work.
But the book’s strangest and biggest omission is the subject of slavery. Packard’s time in the asylum overlapped with the American Civil War, and she drew freely on the struggle for emancipation in her own writings. Moore, too, often juxtaposes the two movements, tying breakthroughs in Packard’s case with particular battles or turning points in the war. But while Packard was an abolitionist, she also held deeply racist views, writing in one of her many political pamphlets, “It is my candid opinion, that no Southern slave ever suffered more spiritual agony than I have suffered; as I am more developed in my moral and spiritual nature than they are, therefore more capable of suffering.” Moore never quotes these lines, or explores Packard’s belief that she was more spiritually elevated than the enslaved people she relied on so often as metaphors for her own condition.
The book illustrates the particularly skewed incentives of inspirational biographies — to flatter, flatten, and portray someone in line with the presumed values of its values. In her author’s note, Moore writes that she had to dig through a “century of received wisdom” about Packard before finally “the shape of the true woman stood before me.” Perhaps this was a warning sign — how possible is it really to see someone’s true shape? And perhaps more importantly, what person only has one shape? In The Woman They Could Not Silence, we meet Elizabeth Packard the inspiration — and she is an inspiration — but we don’t quite see the radical, the believer, the racist, or the thinker.