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The Snake Pit

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2.5 that I'm rounding up. This is because 1. I'm sick and think that it's hard to follow this storyline style when I'm not feeling 100% and 2. at times, it's a bit of 'stream of consciousness' type writing that I personally don't like reading.

But somehow, this one still worked, in places, for me. I was drawn to Virginia's story. The beginning was offsetting - as she's listening to some voice ask her if she hears voices. But soon I found the writing rhythm and didn't mind the jumps or odd perspective switches (from name to I to she). It's jarring but I think that was the point of the changes and the stream and I appreciated it for what it was showing.

I was surprised to find my copy had a huge informational section at the end that even responded and noted reviews of the story. I loved all the insight, especially as I hadn't seen the movie or heard of this book before I started it, and I appreciated the additional information (it probably helped me like it even more). All in all, I can see the importance of this story even if it wasn't 100% my cup of tea.

A huge thank you to the author and publisher for providing an e-ARC via Netgalley. This does not affect my opinion regarding the book.
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I loved this book! It brings up extremely important points about mental health and how we treat people living with mental disorders or other mental health issues. This book also calls back to a time when a man could lock a women up simply for being hysterical.
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How has it been 75 years since this first came out!? I, of course, wasn't around then but it is so famous. I'm glad they decided to rerelease it. It's a semi-autobiographical novel based on Ward's experiences in the mental sanitariums of the Fifties. I don't envy her one bit but it gives us a great peek into what it was like to be grappling with mental illness at that time.
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A classic for good reason, this is a terrifying read in the Yellow Wallpaper tradition. Short, memorable, still very relevant.
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Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. 

I almost never give five stars. When I do, it means that I think the book is good, and that everyone needs to experience it. I don't know anyone who shouldn't read The Snake Pit. It's such a clear look into an unclear mind. It allowed me to feel the confusing horror of someone in the worst state of a mental illness. I know that no one person's viewpoint is universal, but the way Ward opened up the MC's mind for us let me learn from the MC. 

Mental health is at a crisis in our nation and probably our world. The personal look into one form of mental illness can show those who've never experienced anything like that how horrible it can be. We all need to build on our ability to empathize. 

Apart from being a great character-builiding book, Virginia is just a great MC. She's interesting, a little unpredictable, and unlike what I expected. I thought I'd get a compliant, meek housewife character who would go along with all the crap being done to her without complaint or comment. I was thankfully wrong. 

I would recommend this to everyone. This could be a great book for discussion in classroom settings, too. I will warn that it could be hard to read for someone with similar experiences to those of the MC.
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The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward is a semi-autobiographical fiction book based on Ward’s experiences in the mental sanitariums of the Fifties following the first of a number of nervous breakdowns. Best known as the vehicle for a Hollywood movie of the same title starring Olivia de Haviland, The Snake Pit was groundbreaking on a number of levels.

First, it shined a light on the experiences in a sanitarium away from public eye, the abuses committed in secret, and the strange-sounding practices of electro-shock therapy and tubbing locked into continuously flowing tubs. Ward caught national attention as she revealed what went on to bring changes to the practices in these institutions, changes that award herself could see as she returned time and time again.

Just as significantly was Ward’s prose where she told in often comedic episodes what the experience was like from the point of view of someone losing their grip on reality. Much of the narrative is a sort of stream of consciousness where the reader follows along with the main character, Virginia Cunningham, as she finds herself first on a park bench in Manhattan and can’t remember how to get home or how she got there. The reader follows along as Virginia is herded into a dining hall where she first thinks she’s at a charity ball only to find the women she’s seated with are quite odd. It takes quite a while for her to finally realize where she is.

On the journey, the reader follows along with Virginia’s confusion, paranoia, and meandering mind. You get a real authentic sense of what the experience of losing your grip on sanity is like and how little the methods at use in the sanitarium had to do with actually curing her ailments. You really get a feel for the poor lost soils you see arguing with themselves on street corners throughout cities.

While the novel is loosely based on Ward’s experiences, for obvious reasons, the exact details are obscured from her memory. So it’s fictional based on real life. A truly powerful book fueled by top-notch writing.
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I’m overall a huge fan of novels about mental illness. Maybe it’s the therapist in me or just the overall intrigue about reading about someone’s life when it is transformed by mental illness. Great book! Would recommend it to others.
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This book is a wild ride!  Immediately thrust into a scene understandable in one sense and which makes no sense in another, this books starts with a bang.  It weaves and bobs and jumps and turns through some jumbled sections.  It switches between first, second and third person.  It drags you along even when you've been jumbled enough and just want a break.  It's maddening and enthralling all at once.  But don't stop!  This book does level out and meanders through a somewhat more understandable narrative to a somewhat unexpected narrative.
Don't skip the sections after the book!  The read about her life, her journey, her writing is quite interesting and helps tie some of the whole story together.  
This book deserves a re-publication.  It's amazing.  
Now I need to go find the movie!
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What a bizarre book. Written 75 years ago, this semi-autobiographical story is hard to rate. It's difficult to read, but once you know where the main character is, it kind of makes sense, and yet it doesn't. The narrator flips between first, second, and third person constantly, which kept me, as the reader, completely off-balance. Having never seen the movie that is loosely based on this novel, I had no idea what I was getting into. The Afterword brings more clarity and, having read it, made me want to reread the novel in a new light. I think this is an important work on mental health and can see why it is a classic being re-released by the Library of America.
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I remembered the movie from when I was a very young child. I watched it on TV a few years after it was released in theaters. I remember only that I was fascinated by something like a woman either in, or looking into a deep well, with other people or voices spinning around her. I may have that memory all mixed up; it was at least 60 years ago. But I never realized that The Snake Pit was also a book, and a semi-autobiographical one, at that. When I saw it offered on NetGalley, I seized the chance to read it.

The book was fascinating to me. The first few pages were a bit confusing, as I tried to understand what was happening. But within a short while, I realized that the main character was describing exactly what she was seeing in her own mind. Within a short time, I began to understand how the story was written, and I was drawn into it, and into her world in a New York psychiatric hospital in the 1940's. 

A somewhat disturbing, but highly interesting story and I thank NetGalley for the opportunity to read and shed light on a story that has fascinated me since before I could even understand it. Kudos to author Mary Jane Ward for writing about her experiences.
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Originally published in 1946, Mary Jane Ward takes us on a semi-autobiographical journey into the mind of a young woman suffering from a mental breakdown, and her subsequent stay in a mental hospital.   Some may think the writing is a bit disjointed, but I thought it was an intriguing look into the reality of mental illness, as well as a glimpse into some of the antiquated practices now considered barbaric.
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I struggled to get through the first chapter of this book — I have to admit that I wasn't sure what I was reading. However, once I read a little further, I was absolutely hooked on Virginia's story. Mary Jane Ward really allows the reader to step inside the mind of her protagonist, which really allows you to empathize with Virginia's predicament and want to learn more and more about her situation. The unreliability of the narrator only made me more curious to keep reading. Moreover, this book deals with mental illness with incredible compassion. Virginia's fellow patients are never used for comedy or derided as "crazy" — something we could all learn from this book.
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This is the 75th anniversary edition of The Snake Pit, originally published in 1946. The book is a semi-autobiographical novel based on the author's committal to New York's Rockland State Hospital in 1941. This update also includes an Afterword that discusses the 1948 movie 'The Snake Pit', starring Olivia de Haviland.


Virginia Cunningham finds herself sitting in a park, confused and hearing voices. Sitting beside her is an attractive girl in a hoover apron, which Virginia considers inappropriate attire for leaving the house. Moreover, Virginia is dismayed by her own dress, thinking she shouldn't be wearing this old rag because "you cannot go out on New York streets looking any old way."

Virginia blames the warmth of the sun for the confused thoughts and memories that meander through her head. She does know she's a novelist, and feels she should befriend 'hoover girl' who seems down on her luck.

Then Virginia's reflections are interrupted by a shrill voice saying, "All right. ladies." Hoover girl - whose name is Grace - springs up, pulls Virginia along, and hurries her to a line of women heading into a building. Virginia asks where they're going but Grace admonishes Virginia not to speak, because talking isn't allowed.

Virginia speculates she's in a zoo, because of the smell and odd-looking residents. When Virginia doesn't see cages, she decides it's not a zoo but an institution she's researching for her next novel - either a training school for underprivileged and delinquent girls or a prison.

Afterwards, going to the community washroom with a group of inmates, Virginia knows. She knows the prison idea is nonsense. She had invented a fantasy setting. Because around her in the washroom are women who are shut up with her, women who are far more wretched than criminals. Women who are "crazy."

Virginia knows she's been institutionalized at Juniper Hill Hospital for some time. She's also aware she has a husband named Robert, and a psychiatrist called Dr. Kik. Virginia is in Ward 3, which is less restrictive than higher number wards but more repressive than Ward 1, from which most patients go home.

Virginia doesn't relish mealtime because she can't remember where to sit and the other women take all the food, which she doesn't like anyway. Virginia also has problems with work therapy: on floor cleaning duty she confuses the wet mop and dry mop; on floor polishing detail, the polisher is too heavy to push; in the sewing room, she can't work the machine; when bed-making is required, she can't make a hospital corner; when folding and stacking laundry, Virginia confuses the sheets, pillowcases, and slips, etc.

Virginia thinks there's something wrong with her head. Virginia is even suspicious of visits from her beloved husband Robert. She's certain the hospital substitutes a realistic imposter, and frequently feels the need to test his authenticity.

In the institute, Virginia's 'progress' is often one step forward, two steps back. After a series of electroshock treatments, Virginia goes to 'Staff' (a group of doctors who assess a patient's readiness to go home) to be evaluated for release. Virginia gets confused and upset, and bites a psychiatrist's finger. Instead of being released, Virginia is sent back for further treatment.

During Virginia's stay at Juniper Hill she's moved back and forth from one ward to another, and - in addition to shock therapy - Virginia is (at one time or another) heavily medicated; wrapped in cold wet packs that inhibit movement; placed in restrictive lukewarm tubs; put into straitjackets; force fed with a tube; and more.

None of this is meant to be abusive, and indeed some of it may aid Virginia's recovery. Nevertheless this therapy is reminiscent of horror movies about insane asylums. Also as in films, some nurses are kind and friendly while others are sharp and harsh.

Sanitary conditions in Juniper Hill are less than ideal. Showers are restricted to a couple of minutes twice a week; clothing is rarely washed; and toilet paper - dispensed by a nurse as needed - sometimes runs out. Grooming is also sparse: an inmate's hair is combed once a week by a nurse and 'nice clothes' are restricted to visiting day and going to Staff.

On the upside, the patients bond with each other, and share cigarettes, chocolates, and gifts from home. Virginia describes some of the women incarcerated with her, including a woman who dances all day; a woman who has conversations with her invisible brother; a woman who sings all the time; a woman who thinks she's an aristocrat; a woman who doesn't speak a word; a woman who does the Charleston and sings Sweet Georgia Brown; and more. Though the women's' illnesses are sad, there's a humorous vibe to this.There are also aggressive and violent women, and Virginia learns to avoid them.

Through it all Virginia and her husband Robert rely on Dr. Kik to help Virginia get better. Dr. Kik and other doctors at the institute apparently succeed, because Virginia is released. However Virginia's illness, supposedly caused by financial problems and stress, is never affirmatively diagnosed. (In real life, the author - Mary Jane Ward - was committed three more times during her life, in 1957, 1969 and 1976).

The narrative, mostly told in the first person, shows that Virginia is intelligent, articulate, and has a good sense of humor. Virginia sometimes jokes with the doctors, and when one nurse tells another that Virginia "itesbay, ickskay, and is utsnay", Virginia thinks of things that prove she's not utsnay (nuts).

The original book published in 1946 ends with Virginia's release from Juniper Hill. This revised edition goes on to discuss he 1948 movie, The Snake Pit. I watched the film (which is available on YouTube) to compare book and movie. The movie is good but should be thought of as a separate entity from the book.

Some scenes in the movie closely follow the novel, and some parts are made up out of whole cloth. For example, the filmmakers felt compelled to explain Virginia's illness. Thus Dr. Kik psychoanalyzes Virginia and uncover the childhood traumas that led to her illness. This is straight out of a Freud handbook and there's nothing about it in the novel.

Also, movieland Virginia - during her stay at Juniper Hill - is usually clean and well-dressed with her hair nicely combed. She's not the disheveled mess we read about in the novel. I understand movie license but would have liked to see a more realistic depiction of the book.

The Snake Pit was a best seller in the 1940s, and led to changes in the mental health industry. It's still worth reading and I highly recommend it.

Thanks to Netgalley, Mary Jane Ward, and Library of America for a copy of the book.
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Mary Jane Ward provided us with an unforgettable book with The Snake Pit.  Virginia is a journalist who you quickly realize is not where you think she is.  She’s a patient in an insane asylum.  What ensues, is a page-turning nightmare surrounding Virginia’s surreal spiral into mental illness.  One of those books you just must read at some point in your life.
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I first read The Snake Pit from Mary Jane Ward a long time ago, maybe early '70s, mainly because the person who owned the book heard that I had watched the film a couple of times. While I enjoyed the book, I didn't so much remember the details of the novel as I remembered the feelings I had while reading it: anxiety, confusion (both for the character I was inhabiting as well as getting used to the style of the prose itself), claustrophobic sensations, and a feeling of helplessness. Rereading this new edition brought back many of those same feelings and also, like any book, made me consider the story from a different perspective. The usual difference between reading a book in your late teens and then again in your early 60s. But both experiences were well worth my time and energy. Plus I still really like the movie.

If you're only familiar with the film, I think this book will make many of the things in the film clearer, but don't expect too many more answers or definitive closure. If you're not familiar with either the film or the book, I think you will find this to be a harrowing trip into what asylums used to be like and into the mind of someone suffering from mental illness. The essay at the end of the book is very informative and a reader may want to read it first, though it will contain some spoilers, to the extent that this book can have spoilers.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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Virginia Cunningham finds herself sitting in a garden, while a strange man asks her about voices. She doesn’t quite understand how she came to be here. Has she gone out for a walk? Why, then, isn’t she dressed more smartly? Where is her husband Robert? Presently, another stranger called Grace urges Virginia to follow her, gently rebuking her for always forgetting how things work. Gradually, Virginia begins to understand that she is in a psychiatric hospital; but how long has she been here? Why can’t she remember anything before today? And what must she do in order to be released from this place, with its arbitrary and bewildering rules? Mary Jane Ward’s novel, of which this is a 75th anniversary edition, was inspired by her own experiences of institutionalisation, and played a major role in starting conversations about the treatment of mental illness in the USA. Poignant, compassionate, and often surprisingly amusing, it offers a frank picture of a world in which patients and staff often seem equally incomprehensible and irrational.

At first, Virginia wonders if she has come to this place as an observer. She’s a novelist, after all. Perhaps she has asked for first-hand experience, to help with a book? Having no idea what to do, she simply does as she is told: sits in the day-room, or accompanies the other ladies to supper, which has its own complex rituals. There is a brief smoking period before bed. Occasionally some ladies are taken away for work or exercise. Some disappear completely, transferred to other wards or (the Holy Grail) going home. Virginia learns that she is currently in Ward Three of Juniper Hill hospital; Ward One is regarded as the last step before release. Naturally Virginia longs to be back home with Robert – she can never be quite sure that the man who sometimes comes to visit her really is Robert, rather than a very clever imposter – but at the same time she’s terrified at the thought of trying to cope again with normal life. And then she begins to realise that many of the patients and nurses seem to know her, not only on Ward Three but, as Virginia finds herself transferred to other wards, there as well. Is it conceivable that she has been here much longer than she thinks – that she has, in fact, been through all these other wards before? Is healing, perhaps, not a linear process but just the latest iteration of a struggle against illness, two steps forward and one (or two) constantly back?

Virginia’s is a female world. Men appear only as visitors, like Robert, or as very occasional glimpses of patients from the men’s side of the hospital, or as doctors. On the wards, without men, women form a community of their own: one that is often abnormal by the standards of the outside world, but which has its own rules; and each ward is different. Some are ruled by terrifyingly strict nurses, who watch for any infraction of the rules; others are gentler and kinder, where rare gains of chocolate or cigarettes are shared. It is simply a matter of existing, and following the daily routines. But the male doctors are the ones who try to explain and categorise: they are the ones with the power to promote or send back a patient, often for reasons beyond her understanding. Virginia soon learns to share the general terror of ‘Staff’, an assessment by a medical team that can herald release but, just as often, presages a return to further treatment. She learns, too, to comprehend the slang for treatments – ‘tubs’ for lukewarm baths, or ‘pack’ for the tight swaddling of wet blankets. And there’s ‘shock’, too. Virginia, it soon transpires, has had a large number of ‘shocks’ – supposedly a treatment for the nervous breakdown which landed her in Juniper Hill, but which has also given her wide swathes of memory loss. Her mental wellbeing is being damaged by the very treatment meant to cure her.

The afterword suggests that Virginia’s journey is similar to that of Alice through Wonderland, with similarly bizarre rules and incomprehensible rituals. This actually offers a fascinating lens through which to view her ‘adventures’. Her fellow patients are not turned into grotesques for mockery: on the contrary, they’re presented as people for whom their own actions make perfect sense: those who dance; those who sing; those who speak to invisible companions; all of these people, in their own minds, are behaving rationally – just as Alice’s interlocutors in Wonderland believe that they, too, are completely rational. And the sense of bewilderment is increased by Ward’s brave and highly effective choice of narrative. Her viewpoint skips between first, second and third person, often in the course of a single scene, reflecting the fragmentary and confused nature of Virginia’s psychology in a highly sophisticated fashion. Some readers haven’t enjoyed that aspect; I thought it was a really powerful evocation of what mental illness feels like: the lack of agency, and the dizzying transformation of situations, without any necessary link between past, present and future.

The Snake Pit was based on Ward’s involuntary committal to Rockland State Hospital in upstate New York in 1941. She had experienced verbal incoherence, now thought to be the result of stress and financial anxiety – she and her husband were barely scraping a living in late-Depression-era New York. Her diagnosis was schizophrenia. And she would go on to be hospitalised three more times in her life, with much the same symptoms, in 1957, 1969 and 1976. For all that, the voice in this novel – which I think we can fairly call autobiographical – is that of a woman who is witty, intelligent and vibrantly articulate in her own head, even as she finds herself struggling against mental illness.

And yet Virginia accepts that she does need to become well again: she is not a well person committed by mistake, or someone who has wheedled her way into a hospital only to be trapped there (The Snake Pit was a known influence on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest). But she needs proper care and medical attention in order to recover. The novel shows the sheer scale of the battle to secure this: there are too many patients and never enough staff – let alone enough money. Far too many women in The Snake Pit have been abandoned – they don’t have Roberts to fight for them – and are now trapped in the never-ending coils of a system which they look set never to escape.

Stylistically inventive, and lucidly written, this is deservedly a modern classic – and portions of it remain dismally relevant, even today. Highly recommended.

For the review, please see my blog:
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I had wanted to read this book for a whole. It wasn’t available on Kindle, or even in the deep dark Internet Archive. There’s a few ways of course, to go on that. You could say “It’s such a cult classic it caint be found!” Or you could just say what it is. It’s a hidden gem that don’t shine at all. What a disappointment.
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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing this book in exchange for an honest review.
I had never heard of this book, written in 1946, or seen the movie. But I can see why it was so popular. I was very confused through the first part of the book but I think that actually added to the story of madness and of being in an insane asylum. 
I wouldn't call this a well written book as it does seem to wander but again, that probably adds to the mental illness view. Overall, it was pretty interesting to read.
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This is an incredible book. It was easy to put myself in her situations. Such strength is shown in such upsetting scenes.
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This was a really interesting read as it places you in the mind of an asylum patient who doesn't immediately realize that's what she is. I don't know if I would say I enjoyed this read per say....but it was super interesting and a worthwhile read for anyone who's interested in reading from  the views of a person with a non-standard mental state. I also think reading this first-person account would be valuable for authors looking to write a character with similar mental health issues.
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