The Madwomen of Paris
I didn’t see her the day she came to the asylum.
Looking back, this sometimes strikes me as unlikely. Impossible, even, given how utterly her arrival would upend the already chaotic order of things at the Salpêtrière—not to mention change the course of my own life there. At times I even forget I wasn’t
present at that pivotal moment, for I can see it so clearly in my mind’s eye: The blood-streaked clothing and skin. The wild eyes and unkempt hair. The slim legs, bare of stockings, covered with bruises and mud. That single bare foot—for she’d lost her boot at some point—as white and fragile as an unshelled egg. My mind replays her screams as the orderlies drag her from the ambulance, an otherworldly mix of falcon and banshee interspersed with strangled pleas: Nonono 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 marvel at the sheer physical strength I saw—or think I saw—her displaying, at the way she fought so viciously against the men attempting to drag her into the admissions building that they had to briefly lay her down to attend to a wrist she’d bitten, a cheek she’d scratched, a kick she’d successfully landed to a loathsome man’s privates. . . . It’s all etched into my head with such clarity that, more than once, I’ve consulted the journal I kept at the time, scanning through its scribbled pages to affirm that these “memories” are, in fact, not memories at all. That rather, they are imaginative reconstructions, woven together from various medical reports and doctors’ musings, and from snippets gleaned from those who did witness her arrival—or else were party to it, and bore the injuries to prove it.
Given my own history with mental disorders, I should perhaps find such self-deception troubling. And yet the truth is, I value these false reminiscences far more than I do my “valid” memories from that period, which to this day remain the bleakest of my life. Indeed, I sometimes suspect my mind of re-creating her spectacular arrival as a kind of defense against those same drab realities, to remind me that something better was coming. And, perhaps, to give me that much more of her to hold on to.
I’d been at the Salpêtrière—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, having been pronounced cured of the illness that had kept me sealed in its infamous hysteria ward for virtually all my nineteenth year of life. The verdict had come as little relief, for beyond the asylum I had nowhere to go, having lost both my parents, my home to my father’s creditors, and—as I’d only recently learned—my beloved sister, Amélie, to France’s byzantine foster care system. In desperation, I’d done what many penniless Salpêtrière “graduates” did to keep a roof over their heads: accepted a job as an asylum fille de service,
or attendant, in the same gloomy and malodorous ward from which I’d just been discharged. It was thankless, menial work, my supervisor despised me, and the weekly wage was just a little under two francs—half of what male attendants were paid. That day, however, I had reason to believe I might be on the verge of escaping these miserable circumstances—and, hopefully, of finding my sister, about whom I was desperately worried. For Babette—Hysteria’s hatchet-faced head nurse—had handed me a letter that afternoon.
“From a notaire,
” she’d noted cryptically. “Have you gotten yourself into trouble, Bissonnet?”
Though she’d clearly expected alarm on my part, I felt my heart leap with excitement. It was all I could do not to snatch the missive right out of her arthritic hand.
“No, Madame,” I said as levelly as I could, and dropped the envelope into my apron pocket until she’d hurried off to check on one of the ward’s epileptics. Only when she’d fully disappeared from view did I pull the letter out again, checking its sender’s address to confirm that it matched that of my late father’s notary, to whom I’d written several weeks earlier, and from whom I’d almost given up on hearing back. And—yes!—there it was: Étude de M. François LaBarge, Notaire,
scripted in an even and methodical hand.
My heart beating slightly faster, I turned the envelope back over, inspecting the equally neatly printed mailing address: Laure Bissonnet La Salpêtrière Hospice de la Vieillesse (Femmes) Boulevard de l’Hôpital, 47 Paris Laure Bissonnet/La Salpêtrière.
It still seemed strange to me that this was how the world now knew me, where it thought I really belonged. That it knew nothing of the modest flat in Chaussée d’Antin where Amélie and I were born and our parents both died; the apartment from which—barely a year earlier—I’d been dragged, trembling and jerking and biting my tongue hard enough that to this day, it bears a deep groove near its tip. Some other family lived there now, propping the balcony door open in the summer, kindling flames in the parlor fireplace in the winter. I, of course, knew this to be true. Yet trying to imagine it felt oddly disorienting, like tumbling through space with nothing to grasp on to, no way to ground myself.
I’d had the same unsettling response to the one other letter addressed to me at the Salpêtrière by that point. This one had been from the Paris Hospice des Enfants, where my sister had been taken by the city right after I’d fallen ill. Shortly before my discharge I’d written the orphanage’s director, requesting he pass along a note I’d enclosed for Amélie: I’m sorry, so very sorry for leaving you. I am well again now, and I think they’ll let me leave soon. I’ll come for you. Please wait a little longer.
Unlike Maître LaBarge’s, that response had arrived promptly, and my spirits soared when I saw that it also was accompanied by an enclosed note. My elation evaporated, however, upon discovering that the note was not from Amélie after all. Instead, it was my own note to her, returned unopened. Even worse, the brief letter from the orphanage informed me that Amélie was no longer at the orphanage; that in fact, no one actually knew where
she was. Upon becoming a ward of France she’d been sent to a foster home in the Morvan region, in those days a full day’s train ride from Paris or more. Our records show,
the orphanage’s director informed me brusquely, that she was then removed from the original home some months after her placement. There is no indication of her current location.
In other words, my sister had disappeared.
I’d stared down at this hastily scrawled note in disbelief, struggling to process what I’d just read. How could the state, having made itself Amélie’s legal guardian, have then lost
her in Burgundy a few months later? And yet according to Bernadette, a dark-eyed hysteric who swung wildly between pious mania and sensual excess, and who’d been raised in a convent orphanage herself, Parisian orphans were often quietly placed with farming families in those regions.
“They say it’s to keep them from the sinful temptations of the city,” she noted, her needle darting above and below the wooden frame of her tambour. “But it’s really to keep all those farms in business. With so many leaving the countryside for Paris these days, there’s more need for meat, cheese, wheat, and wine here than ever—but no one left on the farms to help provide it. They fill the gap by shipping in all those little orphaned Parisians and putting them to work.”
Orphan labor, she explained, could be a double windfall; not only did it mean more working bodies for the farms, but foster parents were paid an annual bonus for the care and feeding of les petits de Paris
. Once those orphans turned twelve, though, both the bonuses and the annual check-ins from L’Assistance Publique stopped—and some families washed their hands of their young wards altogether.