This is the story that Isn’t in the film on Lincoln. But I couldn’t look at Robert Lincoln in it, without thinking of how he betrayed his mother and had her certified as insane and bundled into a mental home ten years after her husband died.
After her husband’s death and then the death of Tad, Robert was her only son. He left her to grieve alone in her cheap hotel when Tad died and went off on holiday for a month. Later, after she had had a premonition that he was in danger, he decided he’d had enough.
Reasons for certifying her were her obsessive grief, belief in spiritualism and premonitions – her husband had dreamt of his death shortly before his assassination – compulsive shopping, and embarrassing efforts to raise money – like selling her clothes – because she couldn’t afford to buy a house when she left the White House, and was lobbying for a pension..
Two men arrived at the hotel where she lived, took her off to court, where Robert had bribed six doctors who’d never seen her, to say she was insane, and the jury – of men – certified her. After three months, she managed to smuggle a letter to a woman friend who was also a lawyer though barred from practising because she was a woman, and finally extricated herself from the asylum. She went to live with her sister.
The actor playing Robert was a remarkable likeness, as was Sally Field, who wore copies of the same clothes that Mary Lincoln had been seen in, and also looked uncannily like her. Mary Lincoln, for all the slurs and vicious attacks on her in the newspapers of the time, was her husband’s most loyal and percipient supporter. She’d seen his greatness from the days of their courtship, when she turned down another suitor – Stephen Douglas –Lincoln’s political rival, and said she intended to marry a man who was going to be President, and it wasn’t him!
When her confidant Elizabeth Keckley, and she fell out, Keckley wrote a book about Mary’s years in the White House. Who of us would want our lives exposed by a friend we’d fallen out with? Over the years newspapers picked up every piece of malicious gossip, true or not and ran with it, while Robert’s explanations for his behaviour added to the picture of an unbalanced and unlovable woman. The lasting effects of all this negative publicity shows in her entry in Wikipedia in which all the slurs of that time are repeated as though they were true.
One of the last massive public snubs this unhappy and difficult woman endured was when one of my favourite people, Ulysses Grant, and his wife Julia, were given a triumphant reception in Pau, where Mary Lincoln was living in frugal exile in France, and they failed to even call on her.
In psychological terms, she never got over her feeling of being a victim, which she was, attracting the very events which re-inforced her victimhood. She was a victim both of the times she lived in, and of her own frequently tactless behaviour. Displaced as a year- old baby by two more brothers, she became the forgotten middle child in a family of six, and then her mother died when she was six years old.
A new stepmother arrived swiftly in the family and one of her methods of dealing with her unwanted stepchildren was to shame and humiliate them, which to a vulnerable six year old would have been devastating. As more and more children arrived in the family via the stepmother, the older children became more side-lined and alienated.
Mary became a boarder at a school in walking distance from her home, and at seventeen left this unhappy house to live with her sister. She was pretty, mad about fashion, accomplished, speaking French fluently, highly intelligent, and fascinated by politics, an unusual quality at a time when most girls left school and thought of nothing but clothes and who they would marry .
When she met and married Lincoln, unlike most other women then, Mary had neither slaves not servants. She kept her house like a new pin, became a noted cook and hostess for her husband’s political supporters, and brought up their children in a very modern way, easy-going and tolerant, as was Abraham. But the deaths of three sons and her husband devastated her already scarred psyche.
After each death she did become emotionally unbalanced, no doubt driven by that first deep wound of her mother’s death. And history has not been kind to her. Today, she would have been understood and received the counselling and therapy she needed to exorcise her pain. Today we would have understood that her extravagant shopping was an attempt to comfort herself… who of us has not enjoyed some retail therapy at some time in our life?
Today, her child-rearing methods would have been accepted, as would her need for an outlet for her talents and energy. Today it would not be possible to bundle her off out of sight into a mental home because she was an embarassment. But it was okay to do that to a woman in the 1870’s.
Today, she would have received proper medical treatment for the post childbirth problems she suffered for the rest of her life, as well as for her constant migraines. She would not have been treated as a hysterical neurotic with no rights. (“Get that woman out of here,” a man said when she was weeping over her dying husband.)
Today, she would not have had to leave the White House with no means to buy a house for herself and her children, would not have had her husband’s estate withheld from her for two years because of dilatory executors, and she would not have had to beg for a pension. After leaving the White House she lived in cheap hotels for the rest of her life.
She had a happy marriage and a devoted husband, and had no need of VAWA, and the protection against violence that so many women need today all over the world. She needed the protection of rights and respect, and in Western countries at least, today women can no longer be treated like chattels or second class incompetents – they are equal under the law, they have a vote and a voice.
The contrast between Mary Lincoln’s treatment then, and women’s rights and opportunities today shows us that we have made progress, that civilisation is inching its way to a better world, and that though there are still so many areas of pain and poverty that need to be tackled, we can still hope to ease the suffering, knowing that we’ve achieved so much already.
Don’t miss that film ‘Lincoln’!
P.S. If I seem neglectful at reading your blogs, it’s I’m having great trouble with Word Press. According to the teenage son of the garage proprietor I’ve lost my cookies or something, but he can’t fix it… So it means a long drive into the nearest town to the computer man to get it done… I have visions of a computer buff scoffing a plate of chocolate brownies, but presumably computer cookies are something else….
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
Summer and salad days. We have a glut of cauliflower, thanks to a generous neighbour. We’ve done cauliflower cheese of course, but my favourite way with cauliflower is raw. This recipe is for one person, just increase the amounts for each person. Grate a cup, to a cup and a half of cauliflower, chop lots of parsley, hard boil one egg and chop three or four dates. Pour a tablsp of almond chips – not flakes- into a non stick frying pan, and watch carefully until the almonds brown in their own oil. Tip into the grated cauliflower immediately or they go on cooking, and mix everything together gently with enough good mayonnaise to bind it. Sometimes I add grated carrot, sometimes chopped banana, but this is the mix I like best. It’s filling enough on its own for a meal.
Food for Thought
The success of any great moral enterprise does not depend on numbers. William Lloyd Garrison 1805 – 1879 One of the great heroes of Abolition, whose life was sometimes endangered by his crusade against slavery. He also campaigned for women’s suffrage, and civil rights for blacks.