Martin's Must-Reads: 'The Madwomen of Paris'
“My mind replays her screams as the orderlies drag her from the ambulance, an otherworldly mix of falcon and banshee interspersed with strangled pleas: No no no don’t touch me and I will kill myself and - most chillingly of all: They are coming! Do you hear me? They are coming! I’d been at the Salpetriere - the largest women’s asylum in France, and perhaps all Europe - for roughly a year by that point. But I’d only recently ceased being one of its patients.”
Those are some lines from the first chapter of Jennifer Cody Epstein’s novel The Madwomen of Paris. It’s based on actual events and historical figures, particularly Jean-Martin Charcot and the women who were in his care in Salpetriere. He was famous for his Friday public lectures where he would hypnotize patients and perform experiments on them to illustrate his theories on hysterics. The screaming patient in the quote is Josephine Garreau, a character based on an actual patient.
Laure, the narrator of the story lives and works at the asylum. She started out as a patient who had a breakdown when her parents died. She’s anxious to earn enough money to leave the asylum and be reunited with her younger sister. Laure is assigned to care for Josephine, comes to love her and schemes to break them both out of the asylum and start a new life together.
This is an interesting, and sometimes frightening, look at how hysteria was researched and treated in the 19th century. Hysteria diagnoses evolved into modern diagnoses of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
If you’re interested in a peek into how neurological disorders were diagnosed and treated in the 19th century, then you must read The Madwomen of Paris by Jennifer Cody Epstein.