The Woman They Could Not Silence; an interview with Kate Moore

I will be recommending The Woman They Could Not Silence for a long time to come. Not only is the writing flawless, but the tale itself is riveting. Thanks to Kate Moore’s impeccable research, the reader is immediately caught up in this historical account of Elizabeth Packard’s journey from her home with lovely green shutters to an asylum of grated windows.

For committing the offense of thinking.

In the United States in the 19th century, a married woman had no legal rights to property – including her own body which was the property of her husband. When Elizabeth Packard’s intellect put her at odds with her husband’s views he threatened to have her put in an asylum for the insane. Only an insane woman would contradict her husband, after all. It was not an unusual occurrence; many husbands and fathers all across the country were committing their wives and daughters for offenses such as “domestic trouble, religious excitement, puerperal (postpartum), spiritualism, hard study, even novel reading,” and more.

As terrifying as the situation was, once Elizabeth got a handle on the reality – she was not the only sane woman in the asylum – she began to fight back. She fought for her freedom, she fought for her friends’ freedom, she fought for the freedom of women everywhere. Moore’s book takes us along on that triumphant and harrowing journey in vivid detail.

Recently, Ms. Moore has been kind enough to answer some questions I’d emailed her. I was so intrigued by The Woman They Could Not Silence, so impressed with her accomplishment in not only gathering so much information from across the pond (she lives in the U.K.), but also in her flawless presentation, her ability to keep the story flowing and interesting… I’d formed so many questions!

I am bowled over at her generosity in not only answering my questions, but in allowing me to post our electronic conversation on my blog.

Following is a copy of our correspondence:

The date was June 18th 1860. The place was Manteno, Illionois, United States. Theophilus Packard claimed his forty-three year old wife, Elizabeth, to be insane. On his word alone, Elizabeth was swiftly committed to an asylum. Even while she was forcefully carted away from her home and family, instinctively cool and rational, not a man in town publicly disputed Theophilus’ actions.

How is it possible to have spent years beside their neighbor, conversing at Sunday socials and town meetings and perhaps at the table as invited guests, then turn their backs on Elizabeth based upon the word of Theophilus?

KM: To answer this, I think it best to turn to the evidence of Sybil Dole, Elizabeth’s sister-in-law, who had known Elizabeth for two decades as a model wife and mother, yet supported Theophilus in his plan. Sybil said: “Mr. Packard was the first to ever suggest that she was insane. After that, I would more carefully watch her actions to find out if she was insane.” (my emphasis) Sadly, yet predictably, once assertive Elizabeth was under such unfair, biased scrutiny, her behavior was found to be wanting. As Dr. Andrew McFarland himself wrote: “As soon as [the allegation of insanity] has been whispered abroad, its subject finds himself often at arm’s length with the rest of the world, viewed with distrust, gazed on as an anomaly, and given to understand…that [he is] a social exile…There still lingers something of the same mysterious dread which, in early times, gave him the attributes of the supernatural.”

After all, it was not so many years since the whisper would not have been “insanity,” but “witch”…

Elizabeth herself appreciated what was happening. “The least mistake, a slip of the tongue, a look, a gesture, are all liable to be interpreted as insanity,” she remarked anxiously, “[while] the least difference of opinion, however reasonable or plausible, is liable to share the same reproach.”

Nothing she did could negate the rumors her husband had started. “Whatever I say or do,” she wrote in despair, “[they] weave into capital to carry on [the] persecution.” Should she rail against being called insane, or narrow her eyes and speak sharply to those who whispered it of her, her unfeminine anger was perceived as madness. Even simply gardening in her day-dress, hot and sweaty in the midday sun, was cited as insane behavior. She was a woman who could not win.

It is worth adding, however, that it wasn’t all the townspeople who thought this way – largely, it was her husband’s parishioners – and Elizabeth did have some defenders among her neighbors. They didn’t act to protect her at the time of the “kidnap” because they were threatened with arrest should they intervene. As it was legal for Theophilus to commit his sane wife to a mental hospital, it was illegal for the defenders to try to thwart his will.

Because Elizabeth became more and more outspoken about her right to have her own opinion; affronting her husband who decreed she must say and do as he instructed, Theophilus could have been motivated to commit her to the asylum as an attempt to lash out at the women’s rights movement.

To what extend was the women’s rights movement influencing public thought at this time?

KM:Since 1848, when the first Woman’s Rights convention had been held, the movement had achieved some incredible successes and was really making things happen at this time. In some states, laws were being changed to treat women as people, for example by acknowledging that mothers were officially joint guardians of their children and also allowing women to transact business. In religion, spiritualism was adding millions of new members across the U.S. and this was a religion that put women front and center and gave them a voice. So the status quo was being shaken up across the board and many men hated every bit of it.

Elizabeth Packard was a strong, tenacious woman. No other perfectly sane women who suffered the same misfortune was nearly as successful as Packard at fighting back against the misogynist practice of automatically accepting a man’s word over a woman’s.

What was so different about Elizabeth Packard that, eventually, she would become a major influencer in rewriting the laws for women and the insane toward equality and justice?

KM: I think she was, simply, an extraordinary person. And her character was such that truth, integrity and justice meant everything to her. She would no longer be her if, at any stage in her journey, she accepted her husband’s lies about her. So she was driven in ensuring that the truth of her sanity was known by the world. Additionally, she was always a thoughtful, caring, altruistic person. She could never stand by to see injustice impact on anybody. So she chose to use her many talents to help others, rather than simply helping herself. The combination of all these factors – and let’s include her intelligence, insight, magnetism and command of language here – made her a historic force to be reckoned with.

If not for Elizabeth Packard’s published accounts of her experiences in the asylum and in fighting for the rights of women and the insane, we may never have known of her accomplishments. Though many good laws were brought about due to Packard’s leg work, her name is scarcely known in the realm of women’s rights compared to names such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth.

Did being labeled as “insane” follow Packard for the rest of her life and into history?

KM: Quite simply, yes. History was being rewritten even in her lifetime – recasting her villainous doctor as a respected hero, and painting her as a madwoman for pursuing her political career. That biased account of events continued easily into the twentieth century and was built upon by subsequent historians who repeated the slurs and added misinformation of their own (such as that Packard was menopausal when committed but settled down to a quiet life once her periods stopped – wrong on every level). It’s only been in the past couple of decades that we’ve started to reassess her and her legacy, and realize what an amazing person she was and how incredible she was not only to overcome what happened to her, but to turn it into political capital that resulted in law changes to enhance millions of women’s lives, and the lives of the mentally ill.

Switching gears, let’s spend a little time discussing your books and the writing aspects of The Woman They Could Not Silence. You have ghost written several books which went on to become best sellers.

What are the benefits of ghostwriting?

KM: I guess the answer depends on from whose perspective you’re looking at! For me as a writer, and as a ghostwriter of memoirs specifically, the benefits are that the story of the book is all laid out for me – I don’t have to go looking for it. Good ideas can be hard to find. Additionally, research is centered on the person for whom I’m ghosting – I spend hours interviewing them, rather than having to track down multiple sources. They can also tell me pretty much everything I need to know (the texture of the carpet, the scent of their mother…), whereas historical records can at times be scant on the details that really bring a scene to life. I also love helping people to have a voice.

The biography posted on your website reveals your love of theater.

What has your production/acting experience added to your writing career?

KM: So much. I ghostwrote before I wrote history books, and I always described being a ghost as “the ultimate acting/writing job” – because my job was to embody the person for whom I was ghosting, to write in their first person, to really put myself in their shoes and relive and restage, through the written word, whatever they had experienced. You have to take on their tics – linguistic in this case, whereas on stage it might be a mannerism – and empathize incredibly deeply. So all of that was enhanced so much by my acting experience. And those skills actually transfer to history books as well, especially when you create the intimate narratives I do. I actually think of myself as my historical subjects’ ghostwriter – they can’t sit down on the sofa with me and tell me their story, as I do with my ghosted subjects, but I can unearth their first-person accounts through memoirs, court testimonies, letters and so on, and “listen” to them with as much attention and depth and heart as I always did my living subjects.

As a final note on this, I’ll just add that it’s all about storytelling for me. When you’re on stage, you’re telling a story. A story with drama, with emotion, with meaning. And that process transfers seamlessly to the page.

I find your ability to construct such a reader-friendly historical account around so much quoted material impressive beyond measure. The quotes were nestled flawlessly into the scenes, leaving the book to be read as fluidly as a novel.

How did you learn/develop this method of history writing?

KM:Thank you for that lovely comment! I think my ghostwriting experience helped tremendously with this method, as explained above. When I’m ghosting, I always try to use my subjects’ own words as much as possible in the text. I simply did the same thing here, putting the voice of my subjects center stage. Before I became an author, too, I was a book editor for over a decade, specializing in narrative non-fiction, so all that work, both reading the words of others and helping those authors to construct reader-friendly, dramatic narrative arcs, also impacted on me. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I was also inspired by author Ben Macintyre. His gift to me was showing that you didn’t have to cite your sources in your narrative: you could weave the words in and put all the sources in endnotes. That is perhaps the number 1 revelation which helped me to find that flowing voice.

Your source notes for The Woman They Could Not Silence,” are quite well organized and extensive.

Do you have any advice for beginning writers of history concerning how to organize all the material they will collect?

KM:In all honesty, I think every writer has to find their own way and their own system, and it will probably evolve over time. All the history writers I know organize their material in different ways. For me personally, I’m incredibly methodical and painstaking in how I work, and I won’t write a word of the book until I’ve completed all my research. All my sources have a unique reference number – for example, LC101 for the first document I found at the Library of Congress. I plot all the “good stuff” – quotes, period details, facts – from each source in a chronological timeline. I do that with every source and, once complete, I open another Word document and write a detailed book plan, which is almost paragraph by paragraph in places, listing where I’m going to put each nugget of information (and, crucially, where I can find that nugget). Then, when I start to write – following the book plan but with deviation allowed! – I can find that quotation, detail, fact in a matter of seconds. I find that process works for me, but it is very laborious!

Thank you for joining this unconventional Q&A session. If you have anything you’d like to add, please do so. Have a blessed day!

KM:Thank YOU for asking me and for such great questions! I’m delighted that Elizabeth’s story resonated with you so much and I very much hope your readers may find their way to her world too.

If anyone would like to learn more about my work, they can visit me online at www.kate-moore.com, where there is also an option to sign up for my author newsletter. I’m on Twitter @katebooks. Thank you!

Kat Moore
Kate Moore, photo credit Duncan Moore

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