Teaching and doing digital history.

Experts and Deviance: Constructing Narratives of Deviant Behavior

James Trent, Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States, 1994

Trent provides an excellent synthesis and analysis of the history of mental retardation in the United States between the Revolution and 1970. He argues that depending on the time period, the construction of mental deficiency has evolved from a family problem to one requiring social and state care. In so doing, he describes three main themes: state schools became places where care became an integral part of control over the feeble minded; power and control were shaped by elites who constructed and reconstructed mental retardation around technical, psycho-medical terms; and the economic vulnerabilities of the families and patients have shaped the kinds of treatments available to them. Trent explores the evolution of the construction of mental deficiency through the lens of the various gazes surrounding it, including pity, fear, knowledge, control, science, social science, education, etc. and how these changed over time.

Lisa Duggan, Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity, 2000.

Using the 1892 trials of Alice Mitchell in Memphis as a lens, Duggan studies the cultural narrative of gender, class, race, and sexuality between the 1880s and the 1930s. She argues that “lesbian love murder,” as the phenomenon was called, portrayed love between women as dangerous, insane and violent. This construction of abnormal female sexuality as it played out in the pages of the newspapers (and in the courtroom) ultimately worked to depoliticize, trivialize and marginalize the aspirations for women on political equality, economic autonomy and alternate domesticities on a larger national scale. She explores these topics in parallel with a discussion of the rise of lynchings in the same year in Tennessee and argues that both were a response to the threats on American masculinity and the sanctity of the “white home.”  Key to her analysis is the concept of a love triangle featuring a violent third party as the apex to the “normal” white, middle-class couple, which were constructed as the ideal using real and imagined threats posed by white lesbians and black men. *It’s important to note that Alice was never tried for the murder of Freda Ward. Instead, she endured several trials to determine whether she was r insane or fit to stand trial. A key part of  Duggan’s argument is that the assumption of  her insanity based on her sexual behavior and desires is of fundamental importance to how these narratives were constructed and used during her ordeal.

A. Cheree Carlson, Crimes of Womanhood: Defining Femininity in a Court of Law, 2009.

Carlson focuses on the rhetoric and narratives used in the course of six sensational trials of women. She argues that because the legal field was inherently exclusive of women, the stories told in a trial situation had to rely on popular narratives of womanhood for effective rhetorical power.  By understanding where and when these narratives of womanhood were used, one can learn a great deal about the gendered anxieties of that particular historical context. Through the course of these six sensational trials, Carlson covers such topics as womanly virtues and insanity, loss of innocence and homicide, frail femininity, abortion and reproduction, and fraud and passing. She sets each in their own context to argue that the use of feminine stereotypes could cut women both ways.



There is a great deal to discuss from these readings. Here are some thoughts at the top of my mind:

  • Through each of these, experts and professionals–whether legal or medical–are framing these narratives and constructing meaning. Carlson seems to argue that they are just reflecting popular tropes from society,whereas Trent and Duggan seem to give their experts more power in how deviance is constructed and ultimately how it influences society. How much does this tension between reflecting society or influencing society matter?
  • Carlson is fundamentally interested in how males construct narratives about women and how the males listening to those narratives in a trial situation respond to render a verdict. Duggan’s analysis as to who is constructing and who is listening/using those constructions are more inclusive of women. How much do questions of women’s participation in these constructions matter?
  • On the surface, it would appear that Carlson and Duggan are more concerned with behavior as the women in their books are shown as walking a very narrow path of propriety. Whereas, Trent seems more interested in how deviant behavior springs from mental capacity. However, the feminization of insanity puts them all on a level playing field with regard to the importance of the underlying mental state. This thought is not fully baked yet, but I do think there is something to the stratification of behavior and mental state that is worth discussing.
  • I am of two minds about the inclusion of lynching in Duggan’s book. On the one hand, her triangle metaphor to explain the complexities of the anxieties surrounding white masculinity is elegant and requires lynching and fear of the black beast to work. On the other, the two are so different, one has to wonder if she’s trying to shoehorn race into a study of sexuality and gender.
  • The importance of sources becomes very clear in this week’s readings. Trent is relying solely on the documents produced by the experts, whereas Duggan relies solely on media accounts (due to the destruction of the original court documents.) Carlson’s work is less documented in footnotes, but her bibliography shows more varied source material. Specifically with Trent, how much does a reliance on the experts’ source material skew his study? I ask because I know a good chunk of my cases will be void of court documents due to a flood. How I fill in the gaps in information will become important as I look at cases over time. (Additionally,  we should discuss how to deal with Bellesiles and his collection of mostly excellent essays in the wake of his evidence scandal.)

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