Emilie Autumn is a musical artist I listened to when I was in high school. Today, I still enjoy her music in small doses, and I love her fashion and general aesthetic. She has also written a semi-autobiographical book about her experience with bipolar disorder,and being hospitalized after a suicide attempt.
This post contains spoilers for “The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls” by Emilie Autumn.
“Emilie Autumn, a young musician on the verge of a bright career, attempts suicide by overdosing on the antipsychotics prescribed to treat her bipolar disorder. Upon being discovered, Emilie is revived and immediately incarcerated in a maximum-security psych ward, despite her protestations that she is not crazy, and can provide valid reasons for her actions if someone would only listen.
Treated as a criminal, heavily medicated, and stripped of all freedoms, Emilie is denied communication with the outside world, and falls prey to the unwelcome attentions of Dr. Sharp, head of the hospital’s psychiatry department. As Dr. Sharp grows more predatory by the day, Emilie begins a secret diary to document her terrifying experience, and to maintain her sanity in this environment that could surely drive anyone mad. But when Emilie opens her notebook to find a desperate letter from a young woman imprisoned within an insane asylum in Victorian England, and bearing her own name and description, a portal to another world is blasted wide open.
As these letters from the past continue to appear, Emilie escapes further into this mysterious alternate reality where sisterhoods are formed, romance between female inmates blossoms, striped wallpaper writhes with ghosts, and highly intellectual rats speak the Queen’s English.
But is it real? Or is Emilie truly as mad as she is constantly told she is?
The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls blurs harsh reality and magical historical fantasy whilst issuing a scathing critique of society’s treatment of women and the mental health care industry’s treatment of its patients, showing in the process that little has changed throughout the ages.”
Content warning for suicide, gratuitous descriptions of self-injury, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, eating disorders, body shaming, medical trauma, gore, violence.
The Book Itself
When “The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls” was first published in 2008, I wondered how the author, and possibly her publicist, got off charging so much for a book. According to her website FAQ, the book cost $75 upon release. I recall seeing it on Amazon for as much as $355. I have now come to understand the first edition of the book was expensive to make and ship, and therefore expensive to sell. Newer additions are affordable and available both in paperback and as an e-book. A complaint I heard from people who purchased the first edition is that the book contained many spelling and grammatical errors, and several pages consisted of crayon drawings or strands of hair. I would have liked to see these drawings, but they were not included in the newer editions. I doubt this is the artwork the critics referred to, but these are some of the illustrations excluded from the 2017 paperback:
On her website, Emilie Autumn notes additions to newer publications, such as new scenes and characters. She does not explain what details were omitted.
There are so many versions of this book, I can only speak to the 2017 paperback version I have read.
Psychiatry Vs. The Asylum
The book contains two stories: an account of Emilie Autumn’s inpatient stay on a psychiatric unit and the life of Emily with a Y, a young violinist in Victorian England. Emily with a Y is sold to a music conservatoire at the age of 5. When she is 17, she is sold to a nobleman, attempts suicide to escape his cruelty, and is then institutionalized in The Aslyum for Wayward Victorian Girls. Emilie finds jentries from Emily’s diary every day between the pages of her notebook. At the beginning, I was engaged with both stories. But two thirds of the way through, it became evident that Emilie’s narrative wasn’t going anywhere and I became a little less invested.
This book does not paint mental health treatment a positive light, and makes many damaging assertions. But it was not nearly as bad as I built it up to be in mind, as I’ve been reading criticisms of the book for almost a decade. Sadly, I do not feel Emilie’s experience in the hospital was anthing unusual. After reading a story like this, it’s hard to feel bad for Kesha who *almost* wasn’t allowed to write music during her stay in residential eating disorder treatment. Imagine the challenges of NON-FAMOUS people of color, transgender and non-binary people, and other marginalized groups face. And the poorer you are, the more likely you are to wind up in an overcrowded state facility with county workers experiencing compassion fatigue and burnout.
I have talked openly about my experience with mental health treatment in the past. The general psychiatric unit I was on is said to be nicer than our county mental health complex. But even so, people arrived almost hourly by ambulance, often with only the clothes on their backs, soon to be shed for blue plastic ones. Staff often had to focus on stopping physical altercations, rather than comforting clients distressed by it. Though men and women are roomed in separate hallways whenever possible, the common areas are still mixed. “Single gender” units may create problems for transgender and nonbinary clients (who should most DEFINITELY be housed on units most congruent with their identity). But housing survivors of sexual abuse and trauma on the same units as loud and violent men is not desirable. I have never been on a psychiatric unit longer than a week, and my experiences look like The Ritz-Carlton compared to Emilie’s. In my previous post about inpatient treatment, I wrote about my second stay on a general psych unit. Right before transferring to the eating disorder unit, I saw the youngest patient on the unit, a recent high school graduate, comforting and grounding a middle aged woman experiencing a PTSD episode, because none of the staff was available to do so.
Parallels are drawn between The Aslyum (and Victorian society as a whole) and today’s treatment of women and the mentally ill. But where does it cross a line? I understand The Aslyum isn’t just a metaphor for Emilie’s stay on the psychiatric unit. It’s a metaphor for abuse and trauma she’s experienced in her life, and how modern society treats both women and people with mental illness. But in essence, she is comparing her 2 week hospital stay to the 10 year imprisonment of Emily with a Y. The girls of The Asylum are starved, beaten, poisoned, chained up, drowned, forced into sex work, intentionally infected with the plague, and forced to undergo many dangerous and unnecessary medical procedures such as bloodletting via leeches, lobotomies, and hysterectomies. . Dr Sharp was a creep, and psychiatric hospitals today may be negligent, and at times unnecessarily cruel. But does her stay really warrant this comparison?
When The Asylum narrative ends (I won’t spoil how), it culminates with Emilie having a breakdown. After discovering both the entries from Emily Y’s journal are “missing”, and that the staff have been reading her journal entries, she lashes out and is then, sedated and moved into isolation. When she wakes up, she is able to slip her hands out of the restraints to reach a crack in the wall. She tears away the plaster and reveals the moving, black and white striped wallpaper of The Asylum of Wayward Victorian Girls. This is where I can no longer suspend my disbelief. We don’t find out how or when Emilie gets out of the hospital, or if she ever receives the help she needs. The remainder of the book is entries from her journal that were, allegedly, confiscated by the hospital during her stay. Even if I am operating under the assumption that everything leading up to these events were true, I do not believe the doctor’s notes on the entries to be authentic. Within them, Emilie is referred to as W14A (Emily with a Y’s cell number in The Aslyum).
A major difference between Emilie Autumn, and Emily With a Y, is how they treat their fellow patients. In the Asylum, Emily with a Y, allies herself with the girls of The Striped Stocking Society. Near the end, even adversarial figures (like Silent Sarah) join forces against the primary antagonists. Emilie shares a few meaningful exchanges with other women in the psychiatric unit, but otherwise avoid other patients, and expresses disdain for the majority of them.
I also cannot ignore how much Emilie Autumn apparently dislikes fat people.
Apparently, being mistaken for someone with an eating disorder is worse than the discrimination, shaming, and dehumanization people in larger bodies experience. And apparently, it’s unreasonable to monitor someone on a psychiatric unit who is both underweight by medical standards and is eating very little during their stay. I guess I learn something new every day!
Vovatio‘s review of the book sums up my thoughts well:
“The thing is, in the allegedly autobiographical segments, Emilie comes across as rather entitled and unlikable, fat-shaming and making disparaging comments about other patients. If we just take these as reflective of her state of mind at the time, it’s understandable; but it’s complicated somewhat by how the book ends with some fairly lucid, astute observations on mental illness. If she was able to think more rationally about her experience later on, would it have been all that difficult to apologize for some of her meaner moments? While I’m sure mental institutions really are uncomfortable, non-forthcoming about treatment, and prone to drive someone mad even if they weren’t when they were committed, we have to remember that: 1) they’re underfunded, and 2) there’s a lot we don’t know about the workings of the brain…To imply things haven’t changed much since the Victorian era is…well, not something I’ve studied, but likely not entirely fair, even if there still is a lot of stigma attached to mental conditions. I know Emilie mixes fact and fiction when giving information about herself to the point that we don’t entirely know what’s true, and that’s fine in and of itself; I appreciate artists who can craft far-fetched biographies and absurd images. What’s less fine is when someone uses this to address an actual social issue like the treatment of mental patients, when there’s no way of knowing how much of the story is even true. The blurb for the book claims that it ” has been cited in text-books used as part of the psychology curriculum at Oxford University in London,” which I’m pretty sure is completely false.”
While I don’t want to accuse Emilie of fabricating her own memoir, this disclaimer from her website seem like a way to skirt around the issue of authenticity:
“The Asylum book is my story, in every sense. The words you read in this book are copied directly from the pages of my journal kept whilst I happened to be incarcerated in a high-security psych ward. That said, I categorize the book as fiction (as all memoires ultimately end up being) because I enjoy the freedom it gives me to change names and add characters and storylines at a whim with each new edition.
Besides this, I find people’s eyebrows raise a bit when they get to the talking rats, and I prefer being able to say “it’s only a story” rather than fail gracelessly at explaining how very real those talking rats are to me.
In the end, though I categorize the book as fiction for practical reasons, there is no one reading the story who doesn’t come away with the distinct sense that all of this really happened, and that is just as it should be.
There is an additional disclaimer about seeking treatment for mental health issues.
Emilie does not seem to have a very high opinion of doctors. What would she recommend a person do who is in need of mental help?
“While it is true that my own lived experience within the mental health care industry has not been even remotely positive, I firmly believe in the benefits of psychiatric medication when absolutely needed, and, first and foremost, in the life-saving act of talking, because if you are still talking, you are still breathing, and someday, you will be able to sing again.”
If you read this book, and enjoyed the passages about Emily with a Y, I recommend the Gemma Doyle Trilogy by Libba Bray (“A Great and Terrible Beauty”, “Rebel Angels”, and “The Sweet Far Thing”), The School for Dangerous Girls by Eliot Schrefer, the movie Suckerpunch, and perhaps the Bard Academy novels by Cara Lockwood (“Wuthering High”, “The Scarlett Letterman”, although admittedly, I never read “Moby Clique.”) If you liked the parts about Emilie’s hospital stay, perhaps you could read “Girl Interrupted” or “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?” (Please bear in mind, while I’ve seen Suckerpunch within the last few years, I haven’t ready of the aforementioned books since high school. They are all family friendly when compared to “The Asylum”.) I have ready many memoirs about people with mental illness, several of which had at least a few chapters taking place in an inpatient or residential treatment setting, and the majority were more satisfying than Emilie’s account.
I also find myself rolling my eyes at the sheer amount of merchandise centering on The Asylum theme. I am intrigued about her the musical adaptation of the book that is in production. Emilie has already released an album of the songs. I understand the “lifestyle” Emilie is selling isn’t that of The Asylum run by the cruel doctors. It’s the utopia Emily and the Striped Stocking Society created after taking it back from their captors. But even so…
Here just a few of the items available on Amazon and/or in The Asylum Emporium.