Disability and Life Writing: Reports from the Nineteenth-century Asylum

Publication Title

Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Publication Date


Document Type



mental illness, psychiatric hospital, american literature, 19th century, history, criticism


English Language and Literature


Historically, especially before the twentieth century, issues of access to accommodation and education have constrained all individuals with disabilities, preventing most from acquiring the means to self-express and thus to present a public voice. Nonetheless, individuals with disabilities in past centuries have found ways to present their own perspectives on creativity, difference, identity, politics, and other issues. The forms these earlier statements have taken, the individuals who succeeded in speaking, and the stories thereby told offer significant insights into lives otherwise lost. The article recovers the life writing of mid-to-late nineteenth-century individuals with mental and physical differences who were classed as insane and institutionalized on that basis. In their narratives, these individuals write about the misperceptions they face and advocate for themselves and others. In particular, the authors characterize their institutionalization in terms of medical and legal abuses, abuses manifested on social, emotional, and physical levels. By writing in these terms, these life writers turn the tables on their oppressors and portray the system as the cause of their legal, medical, and personal misfortune. Recovering these voices as life writing forms an initial corpus of pre-twentieth-century materials for further study and locates the genre within a long tradition that involves identifying assumptions and advocating for the disenfranchised.