Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks – one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, were innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more.
Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created “Q & Abe” – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. Come on down the rabbit hole with us as we seek the answers – we always start with Lincoln and the Cottage, but we often end up in unexpected places.
In this episode, we’re digging into a question we often get from visitors about Mary Lincoln and her mental health. Along the way we stop off at the orbitofrontal cortex, what it’s like to lose an election, the physiology of grief, and the connection between spiritualism and the telegraph. Come along with us!
In addition to the embedded media player below, you can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Stitcher / Google Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. You also can read below for a transcript of the episode (coming soon!)
Transcript of 3.2 “Wasn’t she crazy?”
Joan Cummins: Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, connect with us from next door and from around the globe.
Callie Hawkins: And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks, one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, seem innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here.
JC: At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth seekers, so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions.
CH: I’m Callie Hawkins.
JC: And I’m Joan Cummins. This is Q&Abe. Come on down the rabbit hole with us
CH: Let’s take that half hour now.
JC: For this episode, we’re working on the question: “Wasn’t she crazy?”
CH: This is a question I have heard variations of many, many times in the 12 years I’ve worked at President Lincoln’s Cottage. When discussing Mrs. Lincoln, it’s often one of the main things visitors are curious about, and it’s usually their first retort – like an explanation of why she might have reacted this way or that, depending on the story. It’s rarely (if ever) malicious, it’s usually more like a declaration of knowledge. And, while these comments don’t seem malicious, I also worry that they’re not always shared with the empathy or compassion they deserve.
JC: Before I knew much about her, I, like most people, had a vague impression that Mrs. Lincoln was unstable. But, how come that’s the idea that’s stuck in the general consciousness? Where did that come from? While there are some parts of her lived experience that it’s connected to, including the death of her son and her husband’s murder – and we’ll talk a lot more about those facets later in the episode – one of the things that’s fascinating to me about this question is that much of her lasting reputation was shaped by people with an agenda regarding her husband, and his reputation. Even as early as the 1870s, biographers like William Herndon were choosing to emphasize stories that reflected Mrs. Lincoln in a more negative light in order to make themselves look closer to President Lincoln.
CH: So, what kind of truth might there be to that impression? Was she crazy?
JC: One of the possible reasons floated for Mrs. Lincoln’s “craziness” was that she was very ambitious and wanted to be involved in politics, but when she arrived in Washington she found her ambitions thwarted and then acted out, out of frustration.
CH: We checked in with Dr. Catherine Clinton, a biographer of Mrs. Lincoln and a member of our Scholarly Advisory Group, for more information. What were Mrs. Lincoln’s political ambitions like when she arrived in Washington?
Catherine Clinton: Well, it was not her first rodeo. Mary Lincoln had been with her husband before as an obscure Congressman’s wife, but Mary did have great ambitions. She came out of the bluegrass of Kentucky where her father was a great politician, that she might ride horseback down the road to Henry Clay’s house, and she knew about presidential politics, she in 1860 was personally acquainted with three of the four candidates running for president, married to one of them. So we know that she did have quite a political ambition which was quite unusual… But First Lady was a role that Mary took very much to heart, and perhaps excessively, to some people. When she was throwing a party, she was refused by a politician who said: perhaps Mrs. Lincoln – Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln aren’t aware that we’re at war and we’re in dire times, and she felt severely criticized for trying to carry on the role of mistress of the White House during a time of such tragedy and sorrow. She felt the- her husband needed to have a home life that would take him away from those cares. It was an extremely challenging set of circumstances for Mary Lincoln to accompany her husband eastward and into the White House. What lay ahead for him as president was unprecedented. What role she might play as First Lady, the first spouse of a president to take on this role, was quite enormous. So, we can see the way in which it was an unprecedented time.
JC: In some ways, it was hard for Mrs. Lincoln to get a win under these circumstances. If she spent a lot of money to refurbish the White House – which she did – she’d be criticized, and if she left it shabby, she would have been criticized as well.
CH: Catherine told us more about the high level of public attention Mrs. Lincoln faced while living in the White House.
CC: While the press was busy – there were paid agents, people trying to infiltrate the White House to write stories about her, there were, every time she left the White House, there was commentary. It was said that the telegraph lines would trill with her every move, so she was really, I think, one of the first members of the White House to be put under that glass and given such intense scrutiny. There were women reporters who wanted to have interviews with Mary, and she did meet with some of them. There were people who wanted to shadow her, what were her activities? We’re all very familiar with that today. But, you know, the mail was censored. Mary couldn’t write something out without anyone reading it, nothing came into the White House – although I will credit her that she was often given the opportunity to speak out, to make statements, and she didn’t, she felt it would be unworthy to her husband. She very carefully thought about the cultural influence that she would have during that period and I think this was again unprecedented. But I do think that- that again, sexism plays a very strong role.
CH: It really does seem like Mrs. Lincoln’s time in DC turned out considerably different than she might have imagined it while living in Springfield. She faced a lot of obstacles performing her role as First Lady in wartime Washington. And all of the things that made her husband’s presidency a difficult one made her work as the First Lady difficult as well.
JC: We wanted to know more about what kinds of obstacles women face trying to access political power, and how they go about handling them. We spoke with Emily Cain, the CEO of EMILY’s List, which helps women run for office, to find out more.
Emily Cain: When a woman thinks she might want to run for office…and actually, I should go back from that. Because we are a country where, for a long time, women just didn’t even think about themselves as being in that process, and there was a study done once that said you had to ask a woman seven times before she would say “yes” to running for office… So, the very first barrier to run is sometimes yourself, right? You don’t believe you belong in the process. And for most women, I’d say more than not believing they don’t belong in the process, it’s actually more that they don’t necessarily see the process as the best way to address the problems they care about. Overwhelmingly the women who run for office, didn’t always dream of being in politics. Right? They, they more dreamed of fixing a problem in their community. So, there’s…that’s one whole category of challenges that, I think, women face. But then we can’t not talk about things like sexism. Can’t talk about things like – can’t not talk about things like the fact that state legislatures, town councils, Congress, have been dominated by white men for…ever. And they’re built around the lifestyles of white men from generations ago, right? And you know, women are still judged by the way they look more aggressively than men, by the tone of their voice, you know, “was she too shrill?” is still something we hear. “Was her dress too tight?” Right? The fact that we’re still in a time period where – it wasn’t that long ago that, you know, it was in my lifetime, that women weren’t allowed to wear pants on the floor of the US Senate, until the pantsuit rebellion in the early ‘90s, lead by Barbara Mikulski and the women who were elected after ‘92. I mean, that’s not that long ago, so, you know, we’re basically talking about women entering a structure in government that was not designed by them or for them.
CH: We also asked Emily about what advice she might give to a woman entering politics about how to handle the type of intense press scrutiny that Catherine described Mrs. Lincoln facing – especially when it’s intertwined with sexism. How do you prepare for that kind of thing?
EC: We are, again, we have very frank conversations... But ultimately, I think I believe – I don’t have research to back this up – but I believe most people are not viciously sexist. I think most people have been taught that these are not things women do. So it’s our job to help un–teach them, and show them. And, so when we – a great example, and I know I’ve mentioned her name a few times but I’ll do it again, because she’s amazing – Gretchen Whitmire, the governor of Michigan. When she was running for governor, she would tell a story – I’ve heard her tell it a bunch of times, where she would say – she was at, I think, a public meeting or something, and a man asked her, um, “Gretchen, are you going to run as a woman, for governor?” And…I mean, I’ll let you think about that for a second. And I’ll tell you, she’s so gracious, that she knew that he wasn’t asking “are you really going to, like, tell people you’re a woman?” I mean, you can’t really avoid that. But what he was really asking was “Are you just going to run on women’s issues?” Right? Because people still think all women are the same, and that women only run for women’s issues. Which is not true. Gretchen Whitmire ran for governor on a slogan of “fix the damn roads.” That was her slogan for running for governor: “fix the damn roads.” And she said it just like that, from one end of Michigan to the other. And there’s an opportunity to be had – obviously if someone’s being awful or mean or aggressive or hateful, you should not deal with them. That is…do not engage, right? Move on. But if someone’s asking a question, who is not being hateful, there’s an opportunity in there to have a teachable moment. And it is an unfair burden that women face, there’s no question. But it is also something that we have to reckon with, that’s part of it. And – someday it won’t be. Someday people will stop asking women why they don’t have children if they’re in their thirties. Right? Someday. But not today. So in the meantime, we, you know, we educate women on how to answer those questions, we talk about those answers, and we also help those women connect to one another. I’ll give you a great example, the women who are – many of whom are elected, some of whom will soon be elected, who were all veterans, or in national security, last cycle. Elissa Slotkin, from Michigan, Elaine Luria from Virginia, Mikie Sherrill from New Jersey, there’s a group of women, and they were on a text chain together, for the whole election in 2018. And trying to support one another – about: “oh I’ve got this question,” or “how did you handle this?” or, “what are you doing for this?” You’ve got to have each other’s back, and I think as women, I think that’s how we make a lot of positive change.
JC: That’s certainly been my experience, that having peers to call on for advice can help you get through something difficult. It made me think about Mrs. Lincoln in the White House, who had a friend or two – including Mrs. Keckley, who we discussed last episode – but didn’t have access to a support network of former First Ladies, for example.
CH: Since it seemed like Mrs. Lincoln may have felt disappointed in her expectations for life in DC, we asked Emily to speak to her experience – what’s it like to lose an election?
EC: That’s a great question. So, I’ve lost two elections. I lost my race for Congress in 2014, and again in 2016. I ran again in 2016 cause I knew I could do it better, and I did, just Donald Trump happened and he won my district, so it didn’t really go my way. But, the first time I ever lost an election was in 2014, and for me, it was… I did not have a plan for that, I was predicted to win, right? By everybody. And I had worked hard enough that I thought I would. And – so I woke up the next day, I didn’t have a plan for that. They had called my race in the middle of the night, so there was no big concession speech, right? I called the guy, congratulated him, of course I did. But the next day, there wasn’t really a plan for that, and it is, for me, it was a moment sort of, laying there in bed with my eyes closed, saying to myself “I don’t know what this is going to feel like when I open my eyes.” But ultimately, opening my eyes, looking in the mirror, and saying, “oh, I look like myself. Huh. That’s funny.” And then having breakfast with family and friends and saying “oh, oh, they all still love me, that’s good.” And honestly, sort of this process of, over the course of that day and the weeks that followed of realizing that I was a completely intact human being still, because I had run as my whole self. Cause I had done everything I could. I didn’t take any, you know, I didn’t cut any corners, I didn’t not meet any goals, I did all the things, I lost fair and square. And for me, I’ll never forget the day after the election, I came down out of the hotel we were at, and there were reporters in the lobby waiting for me, something I had not planned for. And I was wearing a sweater and I think I had my hair in a ponytail, and was wearing jeans, and we’d had a blizzard the night – the day before, because it’s Maine. And they put these microphones in my face and were like “Emily, what are you going to do next?” And I – I didn’t have a prepared answer, so I just said the truth, I said “Well I woke up yesterday caring about the future of the state of Maine, and I woke up today caring about the same thing. So, I’m going to do something that has to do with that. Have a great day.” And I left. And – and I realized I was okay. Right? And I think that’s sort of the, the thing, is people are so afraid of losing, but if you’ve done all the work, if you’ve told the truth, if you’ve been true to who you are and why you do this work, losing is just a step in the process. I mean, there are countless women, most – I’d actually say – a lot of women who are in office who lost a couple of elections first. Right? I won five before I lost two but, who knows, I might go back at it another time. I’m only forty years old. I, you know, I’ve got plenty of time. So, I think the lessons in losing are – are really about remembering why you did this in the first place. Because, if you were doing it for the title, you’re going to be devastated. If you’re doing it for the fame and fortune and glamour, you’re going to be real disappointed because also there is no fame, fortune, and glamour, even if you did win. But, if you did it because you care about your neighbors, you just go back to work and try to find another way to take care of your neighbors.
JC: This answer was very surprising for me, and honestly inspiring – I had thought that kind of disappointment might affect a person in a deeper and more lasting way. I admire Emily’s fortitude in handling it. This insight also solidified for us that the difficulties of her political experience in Washington aren’t a compelling reason to call Mrs. Lincoln “crazy.” We can appreciate the pressure on her in the White House and the sexism she was experiencing, but anybody who was harboring thoughts of a woman driven mad by thwarted ambition will have to leave them behind.
CH: Another component that sometimes comes up in the conversation around Mrs. Lincoln’s mental health is the head injury she suffered in a carriage accident on her way to the Cottage in 1863. The carriage had been sabotaged, and Mrs. Lincoln threw herself from the crashing vehicle and hit her head. Her injury was serious enough that there were worries it would be fatal, but she ultimately survived. We went to talk to Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, about how head injuries can affect a person.
JC: What is dangerous about a head injury? I think many people have an idea that a head injury is especially dangerous from other kinds of injuries, but like why, what about it is dangerous?
Anjan Chatterjee: To some extent it depends on the severity of the head injury. So the usual things one might want to know is, did she lose consciousness at the time of the injury? Was she debilitated where she had to be say, in a hospital or some sort of care environment for several days before she went on. And part of the reason this is relevant is that head injuries vary widely in how severe they are. Right? Everybody’s bumped their head every now and then getting into a car, something like that, there’s a low hanging doorway, you know, we’ve all done that and most of us are still wandering around and under reasonably good condition. So, severity matters and it is probably the case that age matters as well. All of that matters, and then where – the location of the head injury, and if you think about the brain, the brain is housed in our skulls, and the consistency of our brain is kind of like a thick Jello, almost. So it’s not solid, in the same way that our bones are, it’s not liquid in the way that our blood is. So you have this gelatinous thing between your ears, and when you hit your head, basically it gets sloshed around in there. With respect to the bottom of the brain and the front of the brain, the temporal lobes are, sort of towards the bottom and the middle and the back. In the front part of that is where areas that are important for memory, areas that are more important for some degree of emotional regulation occur, so the hippocampus is the classic area important for short-term memory, the amygdala is the classic area that processes all kinds of, sort of, salient emotional events. And then if you look at the front of the brain, in the lower surface, there are regions that are sometimes referred to as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the orbitofrontal cortex, this area is important for rewards and how, you know, when you get pleasure from things, or how you ascribe the desirability of things, this area seems to be important. It also seems to be somewhat important in overall regulation of our behavior. And so the classic, sort of, idea is that when you have damage to some of these areas, one can sometimes see quite profound changes in personality without necessarily changes in someone’s perception or their motor coordination. And you have these more – you can have problems with regulating your emotions, with short term memory, with how your desires get expressed.
JC: Things that are really intangible but still have a big impact on the way you interact with other people.
AC: Characteristically often the thought is that a person’s personality has changed.
CH: The brain is a place where the tangible and the intangible interact, and talking with Anjan about physical injury made me really curious about emotional injury. Mrs. Lincoln experienced a great deal of loss – she lost three of her four boys, her husband was murdered in front of her, in addition to other losses throughout her lifetime. What kind of impact can emotional trauma have on the brain?
AC: I think grief certainly has profound effects on people. You know, we often ask the same kind of question, which is, what is – you know, so much of science right now is not-has moved away from thinking about nature versus nurture, and more about how these interact. Right? So you can ask the questions, why is – why is someone who has the loss of their children, and perhaps a difficult to live with partner, why do some people go in one direction? Why are the consequences of that for someone in one direction and for another person another direction? So it does appear that there are some data that suggest that people who are more predisposed to having things like PTSD or these more long term consequences of real life stressors, real life events, that there might be some genetic predispositions that push people in one direction versus the other. Many of your listeners might know that among the common anti-depressants that are used on the market right now are – work on the serotonin system. But we start out with individual differences in how that system is organized and it appears that some people are more inclined or predisposed to react in ways that pushes them further towards depression or having these grief responses that it’s difficult for them to get out of.
JC: This is really the third major reason folks might see as a reason Mrs. Lincoln was so-called “crazy:” her reaction to the depth of loss and trauma that she experienced.
CH: This fall, we’re opening a new exhibit on the Lincolns’ grief and child loss. The exhibit is the first of its kind at a historic site like President Lincoln’s Cottage, and will connect the Lincolns’ experience with modern bereaved families whose children have died as a result of illness, disease, physical and gun violence, and other tragic circumstances. It also highlights themes and ideas to bring light to the experience of child loss across time and experience. Understanding the extent of the physical, mental and emotional impact of grief and child loss was critical to this exhibit, so we reached out to Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, a research professor at Arizona State University and the founder of the MISS Foundation, which helps people who are grieving the death of a child at any age and from any cause. Joanne provided expertise and guidance on our approach to the exhibit, and when the idea for this episode came up, we reached out to Joanne again.
JC: How does a person’s experience of the world change after they have been bereaved, or lost a child in this case?
Joanne Cacciatore: Well, I mean so, so traumatic grief is a bio-psycho-social-spiritual experience. So there’s no doubt, especially acute grief when it’s traumatic, you’re, you’re, you can feel it in your body. It’s cellular. I used to tell people that every cell in my body hurt from the tip of my hair to the tip of my toes. Like, I could feel it in my body and, and that’s a very hard thing to explain to someone who has never felt it. But it’s cellular. So you can have people with physical symptoms, you can have people having more headaches or digestive issues, gastro-intestinal problems, global or specific pain, back pain, or just achy all over. Certainly you can have behavioral changes like, changes in sleep, changes in eating patterns, and you can have a pendulum swing, so people who just want to sleep sleep sleep, or people who can’t, who have trouble sleeping. People who want to eat eat eat, or people who can’t get food down, down the knot in their throat. And then there’s the interpersonal experience and the familial experience that changes because, you know, the house where a child dies becomes a house of pain. It’s a house of pain for the siblings, for the parents, for the grandparents, for extended family. I mean, it’s a house of pain and so there are these interpersonal spaces that you have to renegotiate and a loss of identity and a loss of roles. Gosh, it affects you in so many ways. There are so many vast, wide, and deep effects. And this is why when our culture tends to sort of minimize the experience by, “Come on now, it’s been two months let’s, let’s go, time to, time to get back to life,” it’s a reductionistic view of what it is to really suffer a catastrophic loss. You can put on the mask and you can go through the emotional labor of pretending, you know, “Hi, how are you?” “Fine. How are you?” you can do that. But you have – but grieving people have to have some safe space to be authentically who they are or it’s soul killing. So, if it’s hard to be in your own body interacting with yourself when your child has died, can you imagine for example how Mary Lincoln tried to interact with the public? Right? I mean, she could barely hold herself up. So can you imagine then, what it’s like, to have to put on that face almost all the time cause you’re under public scrutiny. I mean, it’s hard enough when you’ve got a little bit of privacy. But when you’re in the public eye it changes everything.
CH: For the Lincolns, the White House not only held that burden of public scrutiny, but was also the house that became the “house of pain” Joanne described. This is a big part of the reason they came out to the Cottage, to seek some peace in their grief.
Joanne Cacciatore: But here’s what I can say- What most bereaved people want: what most bereaved people want is compassion, they want other people not to judge their grief or to tell them they should feel better by now, or to tell them how to express their grief or to – I call it colonizing their emotions. They don’t want other people to colonize their emotions. They do want other people to remember with them, they do want other people to come and sit with them, and pore over photographs of their child who died and videos and go to the cemetery with them, and hold space for their tears without saying let’s go have a drink, or let’s go to the movies so that you, you know, let’s make you happy, right? People want – most bereaved people, with whom I’ve worked for almost quarter of a century – most of those bereaved people, just want someone to show them love and compassion and to recognize the value and the worthiness of their child who died. And, you know, in recognizing that, then you recognize that the relationship doesn’t end with death. And that love doesn’t end with death. And in, in that way as long as they, as long as you love the child who died you’re probably gonna grieve for the child who died. So that’s a lifetime. So they also want people not to look at grief as a terminable event.
JC: Catherine told us about how Mrs. Lincoln’s grief reared its head again and again in her life, at moments that would later get her called “crazy.”
CC: One of the things that struck me in, again, my book tour and my talks, is the people who could feel they could connect to Mary’s sense of sorrow, connect to her sense of abandonment, and find some comfort in seeing her as a survivor. Callie, there’s too much, but you’re making me think of the fact that when I first was studying her and there were episodes where Mrs. Lincoln was going crazy, where Mrs. Lincoln was doing this or doing that. And I remember discovering that everyone thought of Lincoln’s death as happening on April 15th. It was actually Easter Saturday. So Mary associated his death with Easter, as did the Americans on the weekend of his death. So imagine my surprise to discover that some of these “incidents” with Mary seeming to lose touch with reality, particularly when she was in a Chicago hotel, when her son had to confine her – that was ten years after the death of her husband, and an anniversary. And some of us would celebrate anniversaries in different ways. I think she really didn’t celebrate, but the commemoration always came to her at the time of Easter, whether Easter was in April or Easter was in March. It was Easter, not the date, to which she responded.
CH: Joanne was very clear with us that when people are referred to her for being “stuck” in their grief, the problem is consistently with society and not the griever. She encounters most problems as a lack of support for the grieving person, rather than that person having an “unreasonable” response to the loss of their child. For example:
Joanne Cacciatore: Well, no one from the church came around, or our pastor came around and told us that you know, we have to give this to God because God will turn all things for the good, and that hurt me and so I can’t go back to church. Or the people at work or my, or – this happened – or my boss at work came by my desk and told me I had to take my child’s picture down because it made other people uncomfortable so I don’t have good support at work. I mean, these are the things that grieving people face and then and then and then they’re blamed for it. [laughs] Right, I mean look, when society doesn’t let us feel what we feel and we start to mistrust ourselves, and we start to feel like we’re being pushed to the margins, there’s a sense of loneliness that comes with that and we know that loneliness, extreme loneliness, affects our physical health, our emotional health, our social health, and our cognitive health. But yet we still continue to blame the person – well, the problem isn’t you. The problem is that you live in a world that wants you to be and feel something other than what you legitimately are and feel.
JC: Some of that lack of support, she says, is because many, many people are terrified of talking about loss, particularly child loss. They are afraid of death, and the presence of a grieving parent means they have to contemplate the possibility that it might happen to them, too. Only half-joking, Joanne told us she can clear out a party in half a minute.
CH: As a bereaved mother myself, what Joanne said earlier, about love not ending with death, really resonated with me. I can remember one afternoon not long after my son died, sitting on the couch, and just, it dawning on me that this was forever. This feeling I had was gonna be with me forever. And it’s been a profound experience since then for me to acknowledge that my grief is my love for my child who died, and that as long as I love him, which will be forever, I will grieve the loss of him. It’s been very important to me to find other ways and places to celebrate my relationship with him, and to connect with him. And I can totally understand why Mary Lincoln was seeking that too.
JC: Many folks may have heard that Mary Lincoln was interested in spiritualism and conducted séances in her home, including at the Cottage. It’s sometimes one of the things that is used to argue that she was a little out there and not quite grounded. Catherine told us about why that practice was a source of solace for so many people during this period:
CC: It’s quite clear that both of them took solace not just in one another but perhaps in the idea that their son’s spirit was still a part of their ongoing lives. And indeed we I don’t think fully appreciate what the spirit world was like for people, the fact that séances were quite common during this period. So certainly in the 19th century many women, not just Mary Lincoln, sought solace in imagining that their loved ones could be in another world, in another place, and they might be able to communicate. And it’s quite interesting, I think, that the telegraph came along just at the time the popularity of spiritualism and séances and communicating with the dead and I sort of writing about this was so taken with it. I mean, here I am, sitting here in San Antonio, Texas, and there you are. Where are you? I know you’re in that box I’m looking at, I know we’re communicating, and I think what it must have been like in the 19th century when so many families were separated, where westward migration, you might never be connected again except by these fragile letters. And here – here was this amazing, new technology that allowed you to communicate directly. So there was hope in the hearts of many women that they were able to directly communicate to another world and it was not just women but men.
JC: It had never occurred to me, this connection between the telegraph and spiritualism. From that point of view, it doesn’t seem far-fetched that you could communicate with your loved ones during a séance by tapping on a table, when that was exactly how you were getting news from the battlefield.
CH: You know, Joan, one of the stories I keep coming back to when thinking about Mrs. Lincoln and the harsh treatment of her is actually a quote from John Hay, one of Lincoln’s advisors who spent a lot of time out at the Cottage and really saw them at their, at their deepest, darkest moments. And in April of 1862, just a few, a few weeks after Willie Lincoln had died, when someone asked John Hay how Mrs. Lincoln was doing, he responded with “The hellcat is getting more hellcattical day-by-day.” And the just the depth of the lack of empathy there is really astounding. And it’s something that hasn’t left me since I, since I first heard that.
JC: I hear a fair amount of unkindness in that remark. We asked Joanne: if you had been able to say something to Mrs. Lincoln, what would you have wanted to say to her?
Joanne Cacciatore: Oh, that’s gonna make me cry. [laughs] I’m ok crying, I’m ok. I mean I think I would have told her from one mother to another mother, just a mother not a First Lady, I think I would have just said how sorry I was. You know, it’s hard enough to lose one child. I don’t- I can’t imagine losing three children, right? I mean, and I would’ve asked her to tell me about her children. So I would’ve sat and looked at pictures with her and gone through their things and gone into their rooms and gone for walks with her and you know, I would’ve – I wouldn’t – I don’t think I would’ve said anything other than how deeply sorry I was, and then I would’ve just listened.
CH: People didn’t really know what to do with Mrs. Lincoln after Willie died, and even less after her husband died. They wanted it to be “over,” and for her it wasn’t over. Catherine described it to us as Mrs. Lincoln being an “inconvenient widow.” Part of the reason her reputation is what it is today is because she’s the one who survived.
JC: And that brings us around to: what does “crazy” mean? I was wondering about this during our conversation with Anjan. What does it mean to call someone that? Are they behaving strangely? Are they feeling things you think they shouldn’t be feeling? Are they just sort of too loud in the way that they’re feeling them? And I feel like, that’s one of the things I find fascinating about approaching this question, is to say, hey, there are a lot of different ways you could have an experience of this person in the world that might be a lot more complicated than this really basic word.
AC: Yeah. And there are some conditions – disclaimer, I’m not one of these people who thinks disease is entirely a social construction. So, that is not my point. Nonetheless, there are situations where – so for example, for many years epilepsy was regarded as crazy. Right, as that, you know, these people are just kind of flailing about, losing control. This, there were mental asylums for people with epilepsy. It was considered purely crazy. On the other side of that is, we now think of Attention Deficit Disorder as a condition, whether you want to call it a disease or not. But to some extent that’s an artifact of, you know, at some point we decided that kids, and mostly boys, have to sit at a desk for x hours every day. Right? A completely unnatural thing for kids that age to be doing, and if they can’t do it we say that they have an Attention Deficit Disorder. So, I think there are also ways in which, sort of, culture frames these things, where people just vary on a spectrum on and then some of them are-are clustered and said this is a disease or this is a condition for which we have to do something.
JC: Yeah. And I think for me the demarcation on like which of those do you need to do something about is like, which of them are causing suffering?
CH: Catherine, who has a lot of practice encountering this question herself, added:
CC: When the question is posed, as it was when my book first came out, nearly every book talk I gave, during the Q & A, one of the first questions was: Was she crazy? So I did have a little bit of a, you know, can we define this? And so I would say: medically? Or mentally? Logically? Or legally? Clinically? Or culturally? At one particular point in her life? Or throughout adulthood? Was she psychologically unbalanced by, or was she actually a victim of Victorian values? That had judged female intellectuals and outspoken women as hysterical, using the very term. Was she hormonally challenged? Was she impaired by disease? Was she struck down by the side effects of menopause? Was she debilitated by late on set dementia? I actually think she was quite skilled at coping with those challenges that came her way. And in order to get Mary into a position to where we might look at her squarely and not see the imbalance of crazy Mary, Mary spending all of Lincoln’s money, Mary, Mary the wicked witch, Mary the vain. I tried to do what I could to humanize her and try to address some of these issues. Yeah, if we’d like to think of our lives and people excavating and telling our stories, would they look at all the weakest moments? Would they look at all the times when we were under such stress that we did things perhaps that we now very much regret?
JC: A lot of the time, saying someone is “crazy” just means that you don’t understand the reasons for that person’s behavior. They’re behaving in a way you can’t explain. I’m excited we got the chance to work on this question, so we can all come away with a better understanding of Mrs. Lincoln’s reasons, and better practice imagining her as human. And I think it’s an injustice, to admire her husband’s political intelligence and his fortitude in the face of great sorrow, and to ignore her own.
CH: It’s truly a disservice, to distill her very nuanced, very complicated, tragic story into a few sound bites like “oh, she was crazy.” I’m really hopeful that in the work we do here at the Cottage, we can help complicate that by sharing the breadth of Mrs. Lincoln’s lived experience. And we want to encourage you to think about: Whose experience do you want to understand better? Who around you might need help and support right now? How can you remind yourself to start with compassion?
JC: This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, and Callie Hawkins, with backup from the President Lincoln’s Cottage team. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted by, Clancy Newman.
CH: Q&Abe is possible thanks to generous supporters of President Lincoln’s Cottage, including the National Endowment for the Humanities. To find out how you can support this podcast and other programming, visit us at lincolncottage.org.
JC: To the visitors who’ve asked the question behind this episode, may we all get the chance to imagine each other with compassion. Thanks!
CH: If you’ve enjoyed the episode yourself, please leave us a review or subscribe in your podcast app. You can also write to us with comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JC: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!