Snakes & Ladies

3 minute read

THE SNAKE PIT (278 pp.)—Mary Jane Ward—Random House [$2.50].

For the inmates at Juniper Hill Mental Hospital, neither small courtesies nor a sense of time existed.

“Cut the shoving, ladies!” the sweet-faced nurse twittered as the patients rushed to the dinner table. “Get away from my chair,” said one of the ladies. “No talking, ladies,” screamed Nurse Hart, who looked “like a wildebeest.” Virginia was disappointed in her dinner because she only managed to get two bites of bread. The rest was snatched by the other ladies.

Titian-haired Virginia Cunningham, whose trouble is schizophrenia, is the heroine of Mary Jane Ward’s novel, The Snake Pit, which has already caused a mild stir in psychiatric circles, and netted Author Ward over $100,000 in advance royalties. It is based on Author Ward’s own experience as a patient in an Eastern mental hospital.

Her heroine sometimes tried to follow threads of reality through her blacked-out mind, but her memory was “swathed in wet gray chiffon that stuck to the . . . part she wanted most to examine.” One, night, in a brief moment of sanity, she thought: “Here on [a] narrow cot, clothed in a numbered nightgown, [I lie] with women who [are] insane and [I am] one of them.” After almost a year at Juniper Hill, Virginia was pronounced cured—but not before she and her fellow patients had been treated to shock therapy, hydrotherapy, psychoanalytical questionings, paraldehyde dosings and old-fashioned madhouse discipline.

“I just don’t know where it’s all going to end,” said a young nurse. The head nurse snapped: “I’ll tell you. . . . When there’s more sick ones than well ones, by golly the sick ones will lock the well ones up.”

Manhattan Psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, president of the Association for the Advancement of Psychotherapy, who likes Author Ward’s psychic attitude, believes that The Snake Pit is “so good that you cannot read it in one sitting.” Laymen, while appreciating the literary skill that illuminates the weird, narrow private life of the insane, may feel that The Snake Pit is just another morbid addition to the current boom in morbid pathological fiction.

The Author. Novelist Ward was born in Fairmount, Ind., has been married 18 years. The Snake Pit is her fourth novel. She has finished the first draft of a fifth novel and the outline of a sixth. Says her husband: “Mary Jane isn’t happy unless she has a novel under her hat.”

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