Rewriting Elizabeth: A Life Lost (and Found) in the Annals of Bryce Mental Hospital
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Rewriting Elizabeth
A Life Lost (and Found) in the Annals of Bryce Mental Hospital
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Elizabeth Glynn Griffitts’s is the story of an inconvenient woman conveniently named insane in the 1920s Deep South, sentenced to complete her life within the walls of an insane asylum that reflected in microcosm the fears and desires of the larger culture it occupied.

Elizabeth Glynn, ca. 1905, in Cairo, Illinois, courtesy of Susan Dickson.

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For most of my youth, Elizabeth Glynn Griffitts (my paternal grandmother) was a hushed subject. I distinctly remember a gathering at my Aunt Janet’s home when I was about thirteen. It was the first time I had ever seen a photograph of Elizabeth. She was regal, dressed in turn-of-the-century finery: long lace dress and hat. She was driving a one-horse decorated carriage, whip and reins in hand. I looked at her confident face, with her proud expression, and realized a connection that speaks to me to this very day, almost a half century later.

For much of my adult life I have felt a desire—no, a compulsion—to tell Elizabeth’s story. I simply feel I owe it to her. I think about all of the women like Elizabeth who may have had unusual personalities or unresolved marital issues. Often confined in institutions against their will, taken from their children … I am so sorry for my grandmother. I wish I could go back in time and rescue her.

—Shelley Griffitts1

Her name was never to be spoken. Even upon the lips and within the hearts of her own children, remembrance was forbidden. Silence nearly erased her from history. For almost a century, Elizabeth Glynn Griffitts remained little more than a skeleton in the closet of a proud and prominent southern family, a woman, much like the “mad women” of novels and history, shut away and supposedly forgotten forever—until her granddaughters, armed with little more than a captivating photograph and whispered rumors, dedicated decades to the recovery of Elizabeth’s existence.

A woman, dragged from her home on the arms of her husband and two police officers while her five children watched on, glimpsing their mother for the final time; a woman, forcibly institutionalized at Alabama’s infamous Bryce Hospital in 1924 and abandoned there for the remaining thirty years of her life; a woman, once bright and beautiful, left to deteriorate until she possessed only one eye, five teeth, and mere rags to wear, a lonely broken shell of her former elegance; a woman, perhaps eccentric, perhaps outspoken, and likely unhappy, but nonetheless lucid and capable, sent away to disappear at the injunction of her nationally renowned physician husband: this is her story, pieced together from medical records, case histories, letters on hospital file, and long-repressed family remembrances. Unwilling or unable to perform the brand of femininity compulsory for a woman of her class and race, a northern transplant living in a region holding tenuously to social rules changing with frightening rapidity, Elizabeth’s life in Alabama offered her more restrictions than opportunities. Her story, then, proves not simply individual, nor merely personal. Instead, hers is the story of an inconvenient woman conveniently named insane in the 1920s Deep South, sentenced to complete her life within the walls of an insane asylum that reflected in microcosm the fears and desires of the larger culture it occupied.

She was not alone in this fate. [End Page 6]

Bryce Hospital

When it first opened in Tuscaloosa in 1861, Bryce Hospital—then known as Alabama State Hospital for the Insane—modeled the “moral treatment” philosophy characteristic of the era. This philosophy, championed most famously by Dorothea Dix, eschewed shackles and straightjackets in favor of therapeutically wholesome domestic environments. Built on the famous “moral architecture” plan devised by Thomas Kirkbride, the hospital, a sprawling Victorian-style estate with rolling hills outside and home-like settings within, originated as a paragon of psychiatric reform. However, by the early 1900s, moral treatment had been discredited and such vast buildings were nearly impossible to heat, cool, clean, or adequately staff. These deficiencies, paired with Bryce...