AGNES’S JACKET

Agnes Richter, born in 1844, came from Dresden, Germany, and worked as a seamstress. At 49, she was admitted to Dresden’s City Lunatic Asylum, having been diagnosed as suffering from a persecution complex. Though found to be mentally stable, she was institutionalized for two years, then transferred to the Hubertusberg Psychiatric Institution and put under guardianship.

Her condition then rapidly deteriorated. In Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle, Clare Hunter describes what happened next“It was there that she took up a needle and thread and began to embroider text on the grey green linen of her regulation asylum jacket, re-fashioned to her own shape. Using different coloured thread and an antiquated German cursive script, she furiously stitched outrage in overlapping words, jagged letters, repeated assertions of self, Ich (I) sewn over and over again; emphatic avowals of existence…It is not set out in neat lines but rather words, phrases, and sentences are crowded together at odd angles across the cloth.”

Agnes sewed almost exclusively on the inside of the jacket, as if to keep the words close to her skin. She died in 1918. The asylum kept the jacket with the note she’d pinned to it reading, ‘memories of her life in seams of every piece of washing and clothing.’ The text has never been de-coded but the jacket—sweat-stained, molded to the shape of Agnes’s body, and a silent, anguished cry—has though the years been exhaustively pored over, photographed, studied, and marveled at.   

Agnes’s Jacket: A Psychologist’s Search for the Meaning of Madness by Gail A. Hornstein combines investigative journalism, academic psychology, and human curiosity to explore the inner world of those who suffer from mental illness.

“What if their ‘ravings’ contain important information?” she asks. “Just because they’re difficult to decipher doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make them out.”

She’s referring to the text sewed on Agnes’s jacket, but she takes that same question into her inquiry as she sits with, speaks with, and listens to those who have been diagnosed with mental illness and are forging their own unique approach.

What she finds almost completely upends her clinical training. She finds creative, inventive individuals who are seeking their own ways of healing apart from, or in some cases in conjunction with, conventional therapy and drug treatment.

Hornstein lives in England where to date this approach is far more widespread than in the U.S. but she travels here as well as all over Europe to discover and describe similar movements.

The one-size-fits-all psychiatric diagnosis simply doesn’t make sense, she learns. Without devolving into a rant, she points out the symbiotic relationship between big pharma and the medical profession and notes that in many cases drugs have hindered rather than helped.

Hornstein finds whole worlds she barely knew existed: of those who hear voices, for example. She learns that thousands of advocates, activists, and quiet sufferers have banded together in support groups to discuss this condition, tell their stories and offer mutual support.

She notes the role trauma so often plays in mental illness. She finds people who are courageously fully functioning in the world while also managing almost unimaginably heavy psychic crosses.

And most of all, she emphasizes that for centuries those with mental illness have been silenced, ignored, abused. Over and over, she emphasizes the longing of those who suffer the daily anguish of excruciating loneliness and isolation simply to be seen, to be gazed upon, to be heard.

One female patient, quoted in The Plea for the Silent, a 1957 document put out by two members of British Parliament,observed: “Nothing has been of greater help to me than this—that there was still one person in the world to whom I could say anything that I might wish, without being made to feel that I had no real rights, little intelligence, and no finer feeling.”

Could people who have been dismissed as psychotic have stories that actually bear in a unique way on our spirits and souls?

Former patient James Melton spent ten years in Britain in a state of semi-catatonia. He’s since recovered and speaks with extraordinary insight, intelligence and poetry of that time.

At one point he heard the call of invisible birds. Hornstein asked: “Were they calling directly to you? Could you tell what they were saying?

“They seemed to come to console,” Melton replied. “There was something about them that I came to think of as good. As if one were being visited by the mercy of things…It’s as if in that last place of fragility and pain there is some answering voice from what–how do you say? From the universe, from the heart of being, from the human condition. As if there’s a mercy at the heart of our human condition that these bird calls gave a voice to.”

Perhaps Agnes Richter was trying to give voice to that mercy as well, poring mutely with needle and thread over her indecipherable jacket: a bird sheltered in the nest she made her life’s work to build.  

“Not a sparrow falls but what he knows.” And “Suffer the little children to come unto me—for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

8 Replies to “AGNES’S JACKET”

  1. “She notes the role trauma so often plays in mental illness. She finds people who are courageously fully functioning in the world while also managing almost unimaginably heavy psychic crosses.” Adoration helps me with this, if only l could get my husband to come, his cross is so heavy

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      And like Simon of Cyrene, you are helping him to carry it, Melanie…How beautiful that you know to bring it to Adoration. May we all pray for the willingness to share each other’s burdens, and special prayers for you and your husband…

  2. Tina Daoud says: Reply

    gi heather!
    i am so heartened that mental illness is coming into the open as more and as normal than what all diagnoses are saying.
    we have a much more fragile living but why should it not be possible to live a normal life amidst what sadness and hardship brings to us?
    i am so glad that there are movements out there who seek to normalize mental illness.i mean normalize as a good word,normal,good.
    i am grateful for you mentioning two books.i will check them out.
    thanks
    your friend tina

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Aw thank you, Tina–yes, we’re surrounded by people with various forms of mental illness (and I have my own forms!)–as you say, why shouldn’t those who suffer from it be encouraged to adapt or even in some way make use of the illness, for example, artistically/creatively? Another pont the book makes is that each illness is individual, unique, so why should huge groups of people be lumped together and treated with the same drugs?…I hope you enjoy the books if you end up checking them out…your friend, Heather

  3. Well… there I go but for the Grace of God! I think we all suffer some sort of “mood disorder”. It’s the human condition. Those caring for the mentally ill are challenged as well to understand… some much better than others,,, some are kind but some pass ignorant judgement on the patient as well as their family. My younger sister suffers greatly from mental illness and we her siblings suffer with her. And I also judge harshly sometimes and lack much understanding despite years of walking this road with my sister. It’s very difficult but I do believe God is in the midst of this cross our family bears together … my siblings all care deeply for my sister and I’m sure she is already a saint! Thanks be to God for everything. And how good that Agnes found something creative to do with her clothes.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Oh Gloria, yes, don’t we all have our disorders, mental and otherwise…many of those who mentally and emotionally suffer are in such pain taht they lash out at the very people who are trying their best to help, offer support, resources, or just a listening ear… Add generational trauma and alcoholism/addiction to the mix, as is so often the case, and as you say, it becomes very difficult all around…we humans tend to like fixes, solutions, cures…and to learn that the only “fix” is to keep loving and praying for the person is an ongoing lesson in humility and acceptance. That I, for one, have not nearly fully learned. Yes, these are crosses that the family bears together, consciously or unconsciously. I have no doubt your sister is already a saint, too! That’s just the attitude to take and thank you for it.

  4. What an incredible story, and that jacket! There’s some similarity to Agnes in the story of Seraphine de Senlis, who was portrayed beautifully in the 2008 movie Seraphine. Really worth seeing.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Oh Seraphine is another of my heroes, Ron!–I wrote of her in Magnificat a few years ago and the front cover of Harrowed, my garden memoir, has a detail from one of her paintings–almost all of which are in the public domain…LACMA had a couple of her paintings not long ago in an exhibit on outsider art…

I WELCOME YOUR COMMENTS!

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