Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Mad Women of the Hell of La Salpêtrière

In her generous review of Spirit of Lost Angels on The Queen's Quill Review, Andrea Connell's comment on La Salpêtrière prompted me to write a short piece about this asylum for “insane and incurable women”:  To me, this was perhaps the most fascinating portion of the story - descriptions of the appalling conditions under which the women were kept, the rivalries that developed among cell mates, the rules one had to learn in order to survive this prison. The narrative was stark and believable and, believe it or not, educational. Since I finished the book, I’ve been looking up the history of the Salpêtrière Hospital, intrigued at how low mental health care and the care of women had deteriorated at that time.

As an author, I too, found the asylum parts of the story the most fascinating to write about.

Located in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, this building was named La Salpêtrière due to its origins as a producer and storage area for saltpeter (used to make gunpowder).

For many years it was then known as a cruel and harsh place to which people suffering from mental health problems were sent … as well as various other “conditions” not considered suitable for society: beggars, prostitutes, protestants, epileptics, orphans, Jews, criminals, drunks, witches, depressives, blind women, adultresses, homosexuals, thieves, magicians, idiots, suicidals, bohemians, cretins. The old, the young, the children, all imprisoned together, sent there by families, husbands, neighbours.

On Sundays, prostitutes were rounded up and carted off to La Salpêtrière

In the late 18th century, Dr. Philippe Pinel, child of 18th century enlightenment, finally did away with the women’s chains and the approach to mental disease began to change. Today, Dr. Pinel’s sculptural monument stands before the main entrance in Place Marie-Curie, Boulevard de L'Hôpital.
Dr. Pinel removing patient's chains.

In the second half of the 19th century, when Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot took over the department, La Salpêtrière became world famous as a psychiatric centre, and students came from all over the world to listen to Charcot's lectures. Among them was a young man by the name of Sigmund Freud.

Despite its modern-day state of the art facilities, the hospital is still littered with memories, some of the original structures remaining as a bleak reminder of how things use to be.

During my research into La Salpêtrière, I stumbled upon a beautifully poetic little book – Les Folles d’Enfer de la Salpêtrière (The Mad Women of La Salpêtrière Hell) written by talented French sculptress and illustrator, Mâkhi Xenakis.

Invited to exhibit at the La Salpêtrière hospital in Paris in 2004, Mâkhi Xenakis discovered in the hospital archives the hellish imprisonment there of thousands of women since the time of Louis XIV. This discovery led her to pen a heart-breaking account of the tragic inmates, in Les Folles d’Enfer de la Salpêtrière, and to install 260 amazing sculptures in the hospital chapel and the gardens:

I found this link, and video (in French) both moving and enlightening.


Anonymous said...

So interesting Liza, thank you, Marg

Liza Perrat said...

You are welcome, Marg! Thanks for your comment.

Wendy Hollands said...

This reminds me of Mary Wollstonecraft's 'The Wrongs of Woman' (and also 'Maria'), and a short story called 'The Yellow Wallpaper' about so-call hysteric women. I'm surprised any woman made it through that era without being considered depressed and worthy of institutionalisation!

Liza Perrat said...

Thanks for your comment, Wendy. I will check out that short story: The Yellow Wallpaper. Yes, surprising any of them lived to tell the tale, isn't it? Thank goodness for progress...

Ruth Skilbeck said...

Thanks, this is very informative, and the images bring it alive. I have been writing a book on writing, The Writer's Fugue, and recently finding out about the psycho-dynamic research in France in the late 19th century including by Charcot and Janet et al at the Salpetriere. The exhibition is positive, and moving. I would like to read your book.