Scandalous Asylum Internments and Familial Conflict in Nineteenth-Century France

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM
Chicago Ballroom VI (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Jessie Hewitt, University of California, Davis

A series of cases concerning unjust asylum sequestration grabbed the attention of the Parisian press during the late nineteenth century.  At this time, French family law served to create and enforce indissoluble bonds between family members, particularly through the abolition of divorce and the introduction of compulsory equitable inheritance among legitimate children.  Most cases of unwilling asylum commitment were rooted in conflicts over the inheritance of family fortunes, the marriage or career choices of children, or profound incompatibility between spouses.  Certain unscrupulous families capitalized upon the widely held belief that those considered insane should be isolated from the rest of society in order to rid themselves of inconvenient relations.  However, in using legislation related to the commitment process as an alternative form of family law, families also brought private disputes into the public sphere. 

Government officials and doctors were accomplices in the enactment of this particular family strategy and, as such, faced a great deal of criticism when other members of the community considered the commitment process unjust.  The publicity surrounding these cases drew attention to the deplorable conditions within many institutions as well as the existence of a mutually reinforcing relationship between familial and medical authority.  Through the publication of first-person narratives and appeals to the Senate, the victims of involuntary institutionalization argued for both the elimination of the asylum system and the reformation of hierarchical family and gender dynamics.

These cases underscore the interconnected nature of various communities in nineteenth-century France—the family, the psychiatric establishment, the press, and numerous other stakeholders.  Furthermore, the controversies that emerged over scandalous internments indicate both the importance of the category disability to familial interactions and the role of the family in the construction of disability.

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