March 25, 2015.
Let me take you back to where I am right now. This is a sun-lit apartment in Manhattan overlooking the East River. The calm of the water delivers. I drink light, I dance on walls and shake with excitement. I can see my reflection in the passing helicopter pilot’s sunglasses. Except for a white cat from hell, there is no one here with me.
This is my desk. The cat sleeps on my keyboard. Looking up I see an island – in the middle of the blue water, like a ship in perfect stillness. Without realizing it, I am looking at Blackwell Island, once home to New York City’s mental institution, or in the fine wordings of that era: its lunatic asylum.
Now let me take you back to 1887. Nellie Bly is a 23-year-old journalist who moves from little Pittsburgh to New York City. Running out of money after four months in the city – freelancing is, has and always will be hard – she talks her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer’s sensationalist newspaper New York World. One of Nellie’s first assignments: going undercover in Blackwell’s mental institution to investigate reports of mistreatment and neglect. Nellie accepts and plots a cunning plan. For one night, until morning, she practices hysterical drama in front of the mirror in her New York apartment. September 23, 1887, she checks into a boardinghouse for women and in silence, prepares her coup de théâtre. After eight she starts screaming and refuses to go to bed – she screams hysterically, shouting at the boarding house personnel that they frighten her because they look nuts. As intended and foreseen, the boarders of course think Nellie’s the one who’s crazy and little later, she is taken into custody by the police. The next morning, Nellie is investigated by a plenitude of doctors and declared “undoubtedly insane.” She is locked up in Blackwell’s lunatic asylum.
Behind bars, buckets of ice cold water are thrown into her face. Nellie sees nurses beating patients. Food consists of rotting broth and rancid beef. Water is hardly potable. Bread as hard as wood. Rats feast on the food waste spread all over the place. Patients considered to be dangerous are tied to chairs and left sitting on hard benches with little protection from the heat for most of the day. Speaking with fellow patients, she discovers most of them are as sane as she is.
Nellie, reminiscing the first night at the asylum, writes: “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?” And further: “I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me (…) to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 am until 8 pm on straight-back benches, not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”
Nellie stays for ten days, then she finds a way – I cannot retrieve how exactly – to escape the facility. Back at the office she writes her report. The city is horrified. A jury is appointed to audit the asylum and the institution’s budget is increased by 850.000 dollars. The book about her experiences, Ten Days in a Madhouse, is published soon after. Nellie Bly is walking on air. New York City lies at her feet. Not long after this, she tries to outdo Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg – making her the first person in the world to travel across in 80 days. Nellie completes the trip in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds.
So yes, the first gonzo journalist might actually have been a woman. Soon Nellie is followed by even more audacious women. Take for instance Maryse Choisi, the French writer who – among other things – cut off her breasts to go undercover at Mount Athos, a place in Greece where up till today only men are allowed.
But again, here at my desk, staring into the water and blocked from writing by a snoring cat, I still have no idea who Nellie Bly is and what occurred there, right there before my eyes – I would only learn about this some eight months later. I watch the clock. It is almost one. I grab my red leather jacket and scarf. Today, as so many of these days, I’m going walking.
Now I can start telling the story.