Casey’s unsettling book juxtaposes—and questions the nature of—fiction and fact for a moving consideration of the women inmates of the Paris Salpêtrière psychiatric hospital. The official documentation of photos, case histories, and diagnoses reduces the women to the fulfilled expectations of hysteria—contractions of the limbs, paralysis, rhythmic chorea, and “violent emotions,” while, by contrast, Casey’s invented narratives detail the experiences of individuals variously born in poverty, abandoned by fathers, given up by mothers, abused by employers, and—literally—inscribed with the name of the hospital by the doctors who exhibited as much as studied them. And who never cured or released them. Unlike Casey who, in giving them voices and endowing them with a skilled novelist’s lyrical, rhythmic language—“when I broke every plate in the furrier’s house, the sound glittered like the sea”—has arguably done both, even as she also shows that this 19th-century malady exists on a continuum with martyred saints, burned witches, and today’s chronic fatigue patients.
City of Incurable Women, by Maude Casey