The Fasting Girl: A True Victorian Medical Mystery
by Michelle Stacey
A review by Kate Bolick
Every so often in the history of mental health a disease rears up, wreaks havoc and then disappears altogether, only rarely to afflict anyone again. Specific to a certain place and time, these flash-in-the-pan illnesses are by definition unique, and always deeply unusual. Indeed, from the whirlwind suicide trend among teenage boys in Micronesia, to a propensity for self-cutting among American girls, they are diseases that seem sprung from the tabloids.
The "mad travelers" are a classic example. In 1886, young French men began falling into fugue states and roaming the countryside for months on end, until like so many peripatetic Rip Van Winkles they finally returned to consciousness thousands of miles from home, having no idea how they'd arrived there. Not long after the century turned, the phenomenon had disappeared. How to explain it? Was it a verifiable illness? Or some bizarre and deeply unconscious fad?
Around the same time, and on a much grander scale, Victorian women on both sides of the Atlantic were suffering from hysteria in epidemic proportions. Hysterics suffered from a litany of symptoms, starting with paleness and weight loss, and devolving into strange pains, fits, spasms, trances, partial paralysis and sensory deprivation. Conveniently, hysterics tended to be almost exclusively middle- to upper-class women who could spring for the standard treatment continual confinement, sometimes lasting an entire lifetime. The Fasting Girl is journalist Michelle Stacey's portrait of one of these women, Mollie Fancher the posthumously anointed poster girl, if you will, of the Victorian era's most popular malady.
Actually, that's not quite right. Mollie was a regular cause célèbre back in her day, known alternately as the Brooklyn Enigma or the Brooklyn Fasting Girl. But when her once widespread ailment went the way of the hoop skirt, her story was lost to the annals of medical history and tabloid news. Which, it turns out, was a lucky stroke. Stacey's lively, thorough and nuanced examination of the medical and social ramifications of Mollie's unusual yet emblematic medical condition couldn't have been written without a century's worth of hindsight.
Mollie's story went like this: In 1864, the once bright and spirited 17-year-old was pulled from Brooklyn's reputable all-girls school, Brooklyn Heights Seminary, and diagnosed with dyspepsia "a kind of glorified indigestion" that many girls her age seemed to be suffering from. When a "rest cure" didn't do the trick, her doctor recommended, fatefully, that she get some exercise. She did, and in 1865 was thrown from a horse, striking her head on the cobblestones and breaking two ribs. Over the next few months she convalesced, accepted a young man's marriage proposal and then, just as everything was looking up, fell out of a horse-drawn streetcar and was dragged behind it for nearly a block until she lost consciousness. Her friends carried her battered body back to her house. The date was June 8, 1865. She never left home again.
For the first year of her confinement, Mollie suffering from mysterious swellings, hemorrhagings and coughing fits was subjected to a battery of arcane treatments. Among other things, The Fasting Girl is a veritable catalog of Victorian ailments and remedies: alcohol rubs; "blisterings"; electric shocks from a battery; alignment with the earth's electromagnetic currents; "hydrotherapy" in the form of sitz baths, dry alcohol steam baths and "dousings"; an ice jacket; beef tea baths; and enemas of beef tea, brandy and "milk punch." None of them did any good.
At the end of that grueling year, Mollie fell into a trance (an elaborate escape, perhaps, from her physician's ineptitude?) that lasted for nine years. But she was hardly comatose. Indeed, she was a regular Martha Stewart. While in her altered state she "wrote more than six thousand five hundred letters, worked up one hundred thousand ounces of worsted, did a vast amount of fine embroidery, and constructed a great number of decorative wax-work flowers and leaves." Meanwhile, she started communing with the dead, having out-of-body experiences, "seeing" with her forehead and her fingertips rather than with her eyes and channeling five "other Mollies" named Sunbeam, Idol, Rosebud, Pearl and Ruby. But Mollie's real claim to fame was her astonishingly meager diet. To the end, Mollie and her caretakers maintained that for 12 years she ate nothing more than four teaspoons of milk, two teaspoons of wine, one small banana and one cracker. The very picture of Victorian refinement, she "lived on air."
Once lumped together beneath the rubric of "hysteria," these last two symptoms "multiple personality disorders (MPD)," or what the DSM-IV now calls "dissociative identity disorder (DID)," and anorexia nervosa are currently considered to be mental illnesses in their own right. MPD and anorexia were to the late 20th century what hysteria was to the late 19th, except perhaps more sinister. Indeed, more than a few people regard the MPD epidemic of late 20th century America to be a modern-day variation on the frenzy surrounding the Salem witch trials. Unfortunately, Stacey doesn't give much space to the history of MPD and its still-unresolved controversies about one paragraph.
She does spend ample time, however, on modern America's other hysteria-like menace anorexia nervosa which, in all fairness, was certainly more integral to Mollie's experience. (And also Stacey's. Not only has she reported extensively on health and beauty for national magazines, she is also the author of "Consumed: Why Americans Love, Hate and Fear Food.") In fact, Stacey argues convincingly that Mollie "was one of the first high-profile victims of the 'new' disease."
When Mollie was in her early teens, so too was anorexia nervosa as we know it today, appearing in the "American Journal of Insanity" as "sitophobia," or the "intense dread of food." By the time Mollie took to her bed, "sitophobia" had turned into "chlorosis" or the "green sickness." More or less a type of anemia, chlorosis was a result of the fashionable refusal of meat and other substantive foods in a display of feminine delicacy. As the years wore on, however, the interest in thinness increased, and this paved the way for modern anorexia. According to Stacey, Mollie embodied the crux of this transition, exhibiting all of the signs of the Victorian definition of anorexia nervosa (with its dread of food), but none of the present-day obsession with body image. (For that the world had to wait for Karen Carpenter.)
Victorian anorexics had one advantage over their modern sisters religion. In the eyes of Mollie's champions, she wasn't merely an adolescent girl with a food disorder she was a miracle. As the battle raged between spiritualism, the science of the soul, and neurology, the science of the mind, ministers, philosophers, scientists and doctors some legitimate, some crackpots turned Mollie's case to their advantage. Her ability to not eat proved what the spiritualists knew to be true: that the mind is not connected to the body, that our souls do live on after we die, that, in short, God is not dead, and Darwin is a whole lot of bunk. The neurologists, meanwhile, turned to empiricism and psychology, vainly devising tests to prove that Mollie was indeed "surviving on starvation," and seeking more complex explanations for her seemingly "magical" powers.
Mollie, of course, was eating, though to this day nobody knows what, or how. Perhaps her caretakers were colluding. Perhaps Mollie was so thoroughly devious that she pulled off lying to herself. But though other similar cases in other corners of the globe were revealed to be shams, the mystery that was Mollie was never solved.
Just as The Fasting Girl is many achievements rolled into one a compelling narrative, a vivid profile, a detailed history of manners and mores and even medical professions so Mollie was the human incarnation of many kinds of cultural changes. Mollie may have dove for refuge beneath her covers while the modern world raced on without her, but she couldn't escape its battles. Antiquity vs. modernity, faith vs. reason, biology vs. psychology, changing expectations for women, "the loss of the soul," the rise of celebrity culture ... all of these tensions and more were played out in her bedroom.
Stacey's book weaves together prodigious amounts of journalistic and archival research, and reflects an impressive understanding of medical history. Mollie presumably abhorred the unrelenting publicity her case garnered for a while she rivaled Monica Lewinsky in media coverage but her celebrity was a boon for Stacey. With the help of a variety of now-defunct New York and Brooklyn papers, as well as Mollie's biography Mollie Fancher: The Brooklyn Enigma, by Abram H. Dailey (1894) Stacey had the luxury of gilding her account with colorful, old-timey quotes and plenty of first-person accounts. Occasionally, the text suffers from a bit of source-dissonance at one point, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's wife and journalist Hope Edelman are quoted on the same page but for the most part, the variety of materials brings the story to life page after page.
"On or about December 1910, human character changed," Virginia Woolf once famously declared. By the time Mollie died in 1915, after 50 bedridden years, the world was a far different place than it was when she had entered it. Even the very illness that had made her famous was for the most part out of fashion. What an unwitting and strange piece of luck, then, that this unlikely recluse opened the door onto a new era. Even luckier was her final fall into Michelle Stacey's hands.