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the vice reader

How My Book Infected My Nightmares

My history of a tragic love affair in 19th-century Tennessee began to bleed into my dreams.

by Alexis Coe
Oct 29 2014, 6:00am

Illustrations by Sally Klann

The nightmares began shortly after I turned in the final draft of my book. My body was asleep in California, but the dream-me was standing inside the Western State Hospital for the Insane in Tennessee. That's where she was: my murderess.

Alice Mitchell, a young woman who was buried more than 120 years ago, only appeared to me at night. They were vivid dreams: When I looked around it was only me and the creeping vines. There were shards of white plaster and dirt scattered across the floor, slowly shifting as the wind danced across the room. There were shelves of suitcases stacked every which way against the wall, varying in size and shape. I looked at the woven wicker and worn leather canvasses, their brass locks sealed. A small valise with decorative roses caught my eye, and I reached for the manila cardstock hanging from the half-detached, broken handle.

"Patient 319" was written in plain print on the front. I knew whom that number belonged to, but I turned the tag over anyway: Alice Mitchell.

In 1892, 19-year-old Alice pilfered her father's razor and slashed the throat of her ex-fiancée, 17-year-old Frederica Ward. A sensational courtroom inquisition followed, in which Alice's left-handedness was proposed as an early sign of the violence to come, and her tendency to nosebleeds expertly diagnosed as "vicarious menstruation," a gendered symptom of madness. The presiding judge was a renowned egomaniac and a founding member of the Tennessee Ku Klux Klan.

This wasn't a murder trial. The court could not possibly impugn the honor of a well-bred young lady by branding her a criminal. The defense argued that Alice's desire to marry her same-sex lover was clearly the action of an insane person, and no medical expert in the state of Tennessee dared to disagree. "An impossible idea," they called her love for Freda, before deeming Alice incurable and remanding her to the asylum. There was no hope of getting it out. It was as good as a life sentence.

There's a dearth of information about the years Alice spent in the Western State Hospital for the Insane. Whether by her own volition or not, Alice gave few interviews, and they're wildly inconsistent. The Bolivar Bulletin, the asylum's own publication, reported that "her insanity is progressive, and it is only a question of time when this victim of erratic [sic] mania will be a driveling idiot through the decay of brain tissue." At the same time, Alice was described as a "bright, happy, laughing girl." I doubt the veracity of both claims.

By the time Alice arrived in the three-year-old asylum, it was already overcrowded, which meant multiple patients shared rooms meant to hold far fewer, and would be eventually "warehoused" in larger rooms. It also meant the staff was overworked. They were supposed to facilitate Alice's "moral treatment," which should have entailed some of kind of work to occupy the mind, regular exercise, and a healthy diet. But what "progress" could she actually make? Patients rarely "recovered" in 19th-century asylums. Many were treated no better than prisoners in medieval torture chambers.

I feared the worse for Alice. I worried that she'd been abused in every way by the staff, and that someone had justified the assaults as a kind of treatment. As a writer and historian, as the narrator of her story, I was deeply unsettled over the lack of information. I felt somehow complicit in silencing a part of this woman's history.

And there was the most vexing mystery of all: Why did Alice die at the age of 25? The 1898 patient rolls list no cause, and the previous years' records suggest she was in good health. The local papers cited consumption, but that could mean starvation as much as tuberculosis.  

As with almost everything in this heartbreaking saga, there's another layer, a twist. Thirty-two years after Alice died, an attorney named Malcolm Rice Patterson told a reporter, "Those closest to the case knew... she had taken her own life by jumping into a water tank on top of the building. But that story was never printed." Patterson, who went on to become governor of Tennessee, was, in 1892, employed at the same law firm that had represented Alice, and was often seen assisting in her defense.

I was inclined to believe the governor-but cautiously, as there wasn't much evidence. My unconscious, however, harbored no doubts. One night, I felt that terrible sensation of falling down down down, until I was met with a shattering splash. My body quickly hit the bottom of a dark container of water, but I felt no pain-only sheer panic. I began violently kicking, hoping to get to the surface, but my bed was a tank of heavy water that constrained my movements, springing my limbs back every single time. I stopped trying. My body had wearied and my heart was threatening to break through my chest. I understood that it was a lucid dream, even as I sensed Alice floating around me in the water tank. I squeezed my eyes shut, blocking out the macabre scene and willing myself to wake. Why was I trying to make myself witness that?

The next day, my shins were bruised. I began self-medicating before bed. I took valerian root and melatonin. I drank wine. I took NyQuil. It often worked, but a couple of nights a week, there I was, back in the asylum.  

By chance, I drove past the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park in Calistoga. I remembered that Stevenson had suffered from nightmares, which was how The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came to be. As a child, he was plagued by terrifying dreams that did nothing to foster creativity. It was only after he learned to exert control over the nightmare's narrative that it became an area of exploration. Similarly, Jonathan Franzen told the Paris Review, "More and more, I think of novel writing as a kind of deliberate dreaming."

But I wasn't writing fiction. Alice was a real person, and a real murderess. I couldn't make up her story as I pleased. As sympathetic as I am to her life before the murder, her cold family and Freda's many infidelities, half-hearted apologies, and broken promises, I make no excuses for her: Alice had committed an unconscionable act. She ended the life of a perfectly healthy 17-year-old. She'd confessed, and there were witnesses. She deserved to be tried for murder while Freda's family looked on.

Maybe that was it. What if I imagined that Alice had been tried before a jury of her peers, who delivered a just verdict? If I engaged in a little fiction-making-just for myself-perhaps I would find some peace.

"What if there wasn't a crime," a writer friend suggested, as we walked along Ocean Beach in July. "What if you gave Alice a happily ever after, at least for yourself?"   

Every night for the next few weeks, I got into bed a little earlier than usual. I laid in the darkness and imagined different outcomes, layering details and creating scenarios. I kept going until my vignette was complete, and Alice and Freda lived happily ever after. Or, at least, lived.

It became my bedtime story, my Goodnight Moon. I tried to open myself up, like a child, to all possibilities. I allowed myself to act infatuated, I demanded repetition. But I wasn't buying it. I'd seen Alice the night before, chained to a wall in a sunless room.  

And on it goes, though far more infrequently since the book came out. I've begun to see, quite hopefully, these harrowing dreams through the lens of one my favorite childhood books, Lois Lowry's The Giver. Jonas was burdened by the memories he received, but once he shared them with the community, there was some relief. I've been carrying Alice and Freda around with me for years, but as the hardcover makes its way in the world, I've begun meeting readers who are engaging with the story. They find moments of relief in wry humor, and when they experience the many injustices and heartbreaking moments, they do alongside other readers. Alice and Freda's story isn't mine anymore. I've done as much as I could.  

Alexis Coe's first book, Alice+Freda Forever, is a New Yorker "Books to Watch Out For" selection and an Amazon "Best Book of the Month for History."

Tagged:
crime
mental illness
cold case
Tennessee
MEMPHIS
Stranger Than Fiction
Lucid Dreaming
Nightmares
mystery
Goodnight Moonlight
Stuff
Alice Mitchell
Western State Hospital for the Insane in Tennessee
Murderess
Patient 319
Nineteenth-century murder
Insane asylum
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
moral treatment
Alice and Freda
water tank
NyQuil