"High strung / They called her / Unsettled” (22). Today these labels are often thrown around in jest, but they can trigger more pain than comedy. It’s important to remember the true, dark history behind these words when associated with mental health—that saying them one hundred years ago could have been a death sentence for an obstinate woman.
Tina Parker’s third book of poetry, Lock Her Up, reconstructs the voices of three women of the not-so-distant past who were sent to the Southwestern Lunatic Asylum in Virginia. Drawing on official documents dating between the late 1800s and mid-1900s, Parker’s poetic accounts remind readers that, historically, women were locked away for reasons ranging from “eat[ing] too much and ch[ewing] tobacco,” being “wild, incoherent frolicsome, and restless,” or “lazy, obstinate, indisposed, and tak[ing] no interest in her home” (5). Parker’s book, composed in three sections, shares accounts of three different women: a “mother,” “daughter,” and “wife” (5). Within each section, lyric poems are interspersed with official documents gathered from the real-life cases of these women. This book is a necessary read because even though Parker did not actually interview these women for their stories, their pain, longing, and experiences were real—as were the unjust psychological treatments imposed upon female mental institution patients of the time by a patriarchal system concerned more with experimentation and pleasing the men who committed the women rather than offering those women compassionate, humane, and sustainable care.
Although readers are informed from the first poem, “Pleas for Admission,” that the three subjects of the book are the mother, daughter, and wife, not all of the remaining poems disclose the speaker’s identity. Further, the poems’ subjects are not always limited to the three main women of the book. In “Doctor Visits,” Parker writes:
One of us fussed
He shushed us with cotton
Tampons saturated in glycerin
One of us sang a right pretty tune
Another bickered with her tubes
One clamped down on his fingers
Another sputtered blood in his face
He swore he’d cure us all with a daily salt douche
One tilted, tried to hide
Another shed her skin each time he went in
Some had long been empty
Most were full full of jewels
Full of pins
One held the watch and chain
He lost back in 1910 (31).
With “one” as the only signifier, readers understand the women’s pain as interchangeable—that they all are experiencing similar narratives of having no voice or agency, no name or identity other than their patient numbers and admittance records. Through this format, readers realize this atrocity as institutional—that countless women were reduced to the label of “insane,” locked away, and forgotten by the world until Parker gives their pain a translatable language again.
In “Part One: Admission,” readers learn the names of the three female patients featured in the book: “Mattie M. Roberts, age 19 years,” “Rachel Wells, age 32 years,” and “Emma Darby, age 55 years” (19). These are the “daughter,” “wife,” and “mother,” respectively, who are committed by men in their families. While the women are named in this first section, for the rest of the book they are only identified by their given names on interspersed, official transcripts. Within the poems, it is up to readers to discern who is speaking, and they can often determine that based on what the speaker is lamenting or longing for. A deceased child is rendered through the haunting images of children’s toys such as “doll heads dangling” (17); tools for crafting and artistic expression appear in images such as “hoops,” “needles,” or “[t]apestry and chenille” (18); and the objects listed in “What I Left Behind,” include “1 scrubbing brush / 1 kettle / 3 dishcloths [. . .] 2 packets of ammonia / 1 broom / 1 husband / 3 sons /
1 daughter” (20).
During this first section, the women still have hope for freedom, as seen in “Pleas for Release” where they provide justifications for their behavior, whether from being “widowed at 40 and los[ing] everything,” “betrayed by one who ought to have protected me,” or “overcome with grief” (21). However, these sources of trauma were not regarded as valid enough to warrant proper care, respectful treatment, or release.
Parker shows that the evils of this asylum cannot be attributed to the patients as the doctors and nurses may say; instead, these evils reside within the staff and building itself. How could this place be one for true healing?
Lacy Snapp is pursuing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her debut chapbook, Shadows on Wood, will be published by Finishing Line Press at the end of 2021. She graduated with her BA in Creative Writing from University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and her MA in English from East Tennessee State University where she now teaches as an adjunct professor of American Literature and Composition. She also works as a carpenter for her self-run business, Luna’s Woodcraft. Currently, she serves as a board member for the Johnson City Poets Collective. Her poetry appears in Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing, Women of Appalachia Project’s Women Speak Volume Six, The Mockingbird, and is forthcoming in The Mildred Haun Review.