In her youth, Mary Lincoln was considered intelligent, witty, and gregarious. Unfortunately, life would rob her of her happiness, and she became known for her obsessive behaviors such as overeating and extravagant spending, violent outbursts, paranoia, long periods of depression, and multiple suicide attempts. For women of her era, this was more than enough to get her locked up in an asylum. Driven partly by concern for his mother’s well-being (Robert Lincoln was a politically ambitious man, and his mother’s behavior was a liability), her only surviving son committed her to a madhouse. Fortunately for Mary, she had connections and was willing to make a stink. She was ultimately released into her sister’s custody to avoid national embarrassment.
As if Mary Todd Lincoln hadn’t been through enough—two of her four sons died in childhood before her husband’s assassination, and another son died at age 18—she spent much of her post-White House years defending her sanity, even as she was valiantly trying to hold on to it.
Mary Lincoln wasn’t the only woman diagnosed insane due to grief; history reveals that the cries of bereaved women echoed throughout Victorian era asylums. Women were routinely locked away by men for behaviors deemed unsuitable to their gender: using foul language, moodiness associated with PMS, menopause, or postpartum depression, being too interested in sex, and even for disagreeing with a husband’s religious beliefs. “One symptom was depression after the death of a loved one. For women, if the depression continued to last longer than the woman’s family deemed an acceptable period of grieving, the depression became grounds for admittance to the asylum” (full article).
Surely had I lived during this time, I would have been committed to an insane asylum by now:
- Violent outbursts/foul language
- Prolonged periods of depression
- Overeating / under-eating
Fortunately, I do not live in a world where women are locked away against their will for these afflictions. Still, my grief over the loss of my son has had a fallout effect not unlike what Mary Lincoln experienced.
We are far from our best selves when we experience loss and grief. Our culture does not address death in any meaningful way. We glorify it in the media, but when it comes to the real deal, many around the bereaved just can’t or don’t want to get it. It’s too painful, especially when we’re talking about the death of children. This societal discomfort often leaves grieving mothers alone in the silence because people “don’t know what to say.” They don’t realize how brutal silence can be.
Mary’s friends and family grew tired of hearing about her grief and didn’t understand her erratic behaviors, and so they distanced themselves from her, and she was very much alone in her final years. This shrinking of one’s intimate circle has happened to me. I have lost many of my most treasured friendships since my son died two years ago. I know why. Some things are just too hideous to look at. I’m one of them. Unlike Mary, however, I have access to support groups, psychiatry, and medication, which I avail myself of regularly in order to function in the outside world.
Inside, she and I are the same, though. We would do anything to ease our suffering, to be understood, to make sense of the senseless. She even consulted spiritualists to connect her to her dead husband and children and was taken advantage of by these charlatans. It’s not so hard to understand, as we look for signs everywhere that our loved ones are not really, entirely, all-the-way gone. But whatever momentary solace or distraction we find in anger or shopping or the bottle, nothing ever restores us. We walk around like amputees, making the rest of the world uncomfortable. That’s why she was locked away. That’s why my friends have ditched me; it’s why so many people sublimate their grief. Not for themselves, necessarily, but for the comfort of others. Those who refuse to acknowledge or deal with their grief will continue to suffer, perhaps silently, but suffer nonetheless. Mary wasn’t capable of silence, and she paid the price. She is regarded by history as one of the most reviled first ladies in our country’s history. Honestly, I’m not capable of stuffing my grief either. It is not how I’m made. It isn’t that I spend my days bleeding all over others, but I do not deny who I am or what I have been through, and I won’t stop talking about my beautiful son—ever. It is why Timaree and I write this blog. It is a natural impulse given our reverence for the written word. But over time, I have found it to be even more significant than my own healing. The writing here has given others the chance to process their own grief, to muster the herculean strength it takes to bring it into the daylight and let it breathe. I can’t say it is always comfortable having my pain and shame on such public display, but if I don’t acknowledge my grief and the fallout from my son’s death, I will certainly die miserable and alone, like Mary.
Once in a while I entertain the what-if fantasy that Mary Lincoln lives in modern America, and I imagine her walking around in a “Fuck Consumption” t-shirt. Maybe instead of being committed to a loony bin, she would check in to a boutique recovery center for a long rest, daily massages and mud baths. At least she would have choices. That’s what I regularly have to remind myself; I have choices that she didn’t, and I need to make better ones, not for the comfort of others, but for me, and in some ways, for Mary too.