Whose voices do we hear when we listen to the past?

Hearing Voices is a story of mental health in America - one told by those who lived it, and in their own words. The voices featured here belong to some of the most disempowered among us: those living with mental illness, and those denounced as mentally ill and “put out of the way” for purposes of control and coercion. These first-hand accounts, often colloquially referred to as “insanity narratives,” range from positive tales of redemption and recovery, to harrowing stories of deceit and torture. Some of these authors acknowledged their need of mental health care, and some sought it out, while others asserted that their commitment to the asylum was tantamount to kidnapping and unjust imprisonment. From their position on the margins of society, these authors struggled to have their stories heard. In some cases, the author’s goal in sharing their most painful and personal experiences was to raise funds. In many others, the objective was to raise awareness and effect change. In all cases, we are provided with an insight into the inner-workings of 19th-century asylums and the experiences of some of the most vulnerable in our society. If we listen carefully, we can hear their voices reverberating even today, as we continue to seek out and advocate for better mental health care for ourselves and for our communities.

Curated by Rachel D’Agostino and Sophia Dahab

The exhibition includes historical materials that may be considered offensive or harmful. Historical materials are evidence of the time in which they were created and can contain text and/or images that are racist, homophobic, sexist, ableist, or otherwise derogatory and insensitive. The Library Company takes its responsibility for these materials and their importance for the study of the past seriously. The Library Company does not endorse the views expressed in these materials.

Unless otherwise noted, all materials are from the collections of the Library Company.

Hearing Voices has received generous support from the PA Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, as well as the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Walter J. Miller Trust, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the Louise Lux-Sions and Harry Sions Endowment.