Elizabeth Packard is the subject of Kate Moore’s new book, The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear. But I’ll venture to guess you’ve never heard of Mrs. Packard. Although her story is quite dramatic, you won’t find her in history books. And, if her husband Theophilus had anything to say about it, she would have lived out her days in an asylum for the insane. Yet, she was quite sane.
The Packards lived in 19th century midwestern America, and the events of Moore’s book begin just as rumblings of the Civil War start. Their home is also a civil war of sorts, with Elizabeth supporting abolition and her pastor husband opposing. Mrs. Packard spent most of her life birthing and raising six children, keeping house, and being the dutiful pastor’s wife. Then Theophilus moved his church from one doctrine to another, more conservative one. And Mrs. Packard objected. Publicly. Mr. Packard reacted by packing her off to the asylum. He needed just two amenable doctors to “certify” his wife as insane.
And off she goes to Jacksonville, Illinois’ State Hospital, run by Dr. Andrew McFarland. Calling him a misogynistic enabler of vindictive husbands is an understatement. So, Elizabeth fights while stuck in her corner of this triangle. As best she can, she creates a place for herself in the asylum. Initially, she makes some friends among both patients and staff. She even connects with McFarland.
And then things go south, and she ups her game and fights even harder to get out of the hospital. Because it’s not just her life, but the lives of the many other unjustly incarcerated wives that depend on her ability to escape with her mind intact.
Moore tells readers right up front that she chose Mrs. Packard’s story because she gets out from under this unjust commitment. So, there’s no spoiler in saying that here. And it takes hundreds of pages with extensive details to explain how she breaks these bonds. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just complicated.
Moore combines social history with biography. This is much more than just Elizabeth’s story. It’s the story of all women in that male-centric society. And it’s about a politically divided country, which only adds to the divisions in place between men and women. Moore connects these various stories well and uses events of the day as a foil for Packard’s complex journey to freedom.
But at the heart of the story is one strong woman who took stock of her own situation. Then she determined to help all the other female patients in asylums across the country. She could’ve just taken the abuse from her husband, McFarland, and the staff. Instead, she fought back with her words, both verbal and written. She found a way when the situation seemed hopeless.
As inspiring as this is, there are places in the book where the story drags a bit. The machinations of the legal and mental health system in that era move slowly. Still, it’s worth persisting because Elizabeth Packard is remarkable. And Kate Moore does a stellar job telling her story.
Pair this with a feminist book set in current day. Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger from Rebecca Traister came to mind many times as I was reading. Or my perennial recommendation of either of Kate Manne’s two excellent books, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny or Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women.
Many thanks to NetGalley, Sourcebooks, and the author for a digital advanced reader’s copy in exchange for this honest review.