Book Review: The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore

Today’s review is about THE WOMAN THEY COULD NOT SILENCE by Kate Moore. This is a nonfiction account of Elizabeth Packard’s committal to an insane asylum against her will in 1860. Her experience drove her to devote her life to reforming the laws governing psychiatric hospitals and patient treatment.

Author: Kate Moore
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Publish Date: June 22, 2021
Audio Length: 14 hours, 36 minutes
Narrator: Kate Moore

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Official Synopsis

From the New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Radium Girls comes another dark and dramatic but ultimately uplifting tale of a forgotten woman whose inspirational journey sparked lasting change for women’s rights and exposed injustices that still resonate today.

1860: As the clash between the states rolls slowly to a boil, Elizabeth Packard, housewife and mother of six, is facing her own battle. The enemy sits across the table and sleeps in the next room. Her husband of twenty-one years is plotting against her because he feels increasingly threatened–by Elizabeth’s intellect, independence, and unwillingness to stifle her own thoughts. So Theophilus makes a plan to put his wife back in her place. One summer morning, he has her committed to an insane asylum.

The horrific conditions inside the Illinois State Hospital in Jacksonville, Illinois, are overseen by Dr. Andrew McFarland, a man who will prove to be even more dangerous to Elizabeth than her traitorous husband. But most disturbing is that Elizabeth is not the only sane woman confined to the institution. There are many rational women on her ward who tell the same story: they’ve been committed not because they need medical treatment, but to keep them in line–conveniently labeled crazy so their voices are ignored.

No one is willing to fight for their freedom and, disenfranchised both by gender and the stigma of their supposed madness, they cannot possibly fight for themselves. But Elizabeth is about to discover that the merit of losing everything is that you then have nothing to lose…

Bestselling author Kate Moore brings her sparkling narrative voice to The Woman They Could Not Silence, an unputdownable story of the forgotten woman who courageously fought for her own freedom–and in so doing freed millions more. Elizabeth’s refusal to be silenced and her ceaseless quest for justice not only challenged the medical science of the day, and led to a giant leap forward in human rights, it also showcased the most salutary lesson: sometimes, the greatest heroes we have are those inside ourselves.

My Review

Leave it to Kate Moore to tell yet another true tale of women on the wrong side of history. The author of RADIUM GIRLS returns with THE WOMAN WHO THEY COULD NOT SILENCE. This book brings to the forefront of our collective memories the story of Elizabeth Packard. Her husband committed her to an insane asylum around 1860 in Illinois. She was a perfectly sane woman, but her husband did not appreciate her independent thinking. So to rid himself of this perceived inconvenience, he sent her to an asylum without her consent.

One of the most unbelievable parts of this story is that Elizabeth’s husband had the right to do this. Unfortunately, at this time in history, a woman lost her rights once she married. A woman’s rights became subsumed by her husband. They were essentially one entity, with the man at the head of the family and the woman all but erased.

Luckily, Elizabeth was a very logical, level-headed, literate, and approachable woman. And she used all of these to her advantage in the asylum to fight her way to freedom. It took a very long time and she documented as much of her experience as she could. This includes the emotional abuse she received and the physical abuse she heard or witnessed. Once she left the asylum it even took her a while to have the “right” to be around her children.

Since she recorded how people were treated in the asylum, she made it her mission to recount and publish it. She had roadblocks to accomplish this as well. But with community assistance and bolstering she made her voice and experience heard. And she literally spent the rest of her life fighting to reform the system, particularly for women and other marginalized communities disproportionately committed (e.g., Native Americans).

Though a little on the long side, I found the audiobook compelling. This is yet another part of U.S. history that I don’t recall learning about in public education–not even a little bit. It just goes to show how much one can learn when branching out to other topics to peek at the evolution of a system.

Rating: 4
Content warnings: sexism, emotional abuse, physical abuse, gaslighting
Reading format: Library audiobook

Nonfiction Reader Challenge

2023 Nonfiction Reader Challenge banner

I am including this book review as part of the Nonfiction Read Challenge to fulfill the History category.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore

    1. Given the subject matter, it wasn’t as tough to read (for me) as I thought. Though I think if a potential reader has had traumatic experiences with respect to mental health care, then it would probably be toughter to read. You should also read RADIUM GIRLS if you haven’t yet! That’s another one this author wrote.

  1. Annnnnd now I’m going to the bookstore this afternoon to check this out. This wasn’t even on my radar – the book or Elizabeth Packard’s story! Thank you so much for putting a spotlight on this. I want to learn about her story for my own edification but I should also be aware of this for work. Several of my courses revolve around the Sisters of Mercy’s Critical Concerns ( championing the fullness of life for women along with nonviolence, caring for the Earth, combating systemic racism, and creating just immigration systems) and this would be an invaluable resource and story to share with my students.

    1. You’re very welcome! I certainly wasn’t aware of Elizabeth’s story before reading this, either. I also recommend Moore’s other book that I mentioned in my review, RADIUM GIRLS. It’s about the young women, often teens and older, who found work in factories during WWII making glow-in-the-dark watches (and other devices, maybe, but it’s been a while since I read it). Anyway, radium is what makes the glow and to paint it finely onto the watches the women would lick their brushes, which meant ingesting radium, which we know is a death sentence. Horrifying stuff and clearly workplace negligence.

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