The courage to speak out: Finding your voice and taking action

(Photo by: Polina Kovaleva)
(Photo by: Polina Kovaleva)

As we reflect on the influence of arts and ideas in this section of the Accent, I am reminded of the power of the pen and the role it plays in society.

On Oct. 9, 1887, the first part of an exposé was published in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. When yellow journalism ran rampant and women journalists were scarce, this article shook stereotypical ideas of newspaper content. Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, the author, was an obscure journalist who wrote under the pen name “Nellie Bly.” In a book titled Ten Days in a Mad-House, Cochrane published the articles on her harrowing experience

Cochrane perfected her ruse by infiltrating a women’s boarding house and pretending to be insane. She was hauled in front of a judge who pronounced her insane, and subsequently she ended up in Blackwell’s Island, a New York City mental institution for women. She was struck with the horror of the constant screams and wretched, rotting food. As the days passed, Cochrane observed and experienced the extreme cruelty of the nurses. Ice baths were a dreaded torture. After rough dunking in frigid, rank water, forty-five residents shared two towels.

According to an article in The Washington Post, Cochrane talked to the suicidal and mentally ill, as well as to sane women who had been misdiagnosed and tossed into the hell-like facility. Among the 30,000 to 50,000 yearly sent to Blackwell’s Island, many were immigrants cast into the asylum because of language barriers. The women told of brutal beatings, being held underwater, and being choked and kicked. The doctors dismissed reports of abuse, arguing that these women were hallucinating loons.

Without an escape plan, Cochrane struggled through each miserable day. Finally, ten days after her being admitted, Pulitzer arranged for a lawyer to get the exhausted and starving Cochrane out. The publication of Cochrane’s exposé spurred an investigation. But word had leaked, and the asylum staff had scrubbed away some of their filthy secrets before the inspectors arrived. However, officials believed Cochrane’s scathingly honest articles and added $1 million to the facility’s budget. 

Cochrane understood her duty to tear away from her secure world and step into a bleak realm of injustice to fight for those who could not fight for themselves. She looked for truth, and she found it, although she was not credited for her discovery until after her death. 

But what about the rest of us?

“Stand up for what you believe.” We’ve all heard that phrase before. But do we take it seriously? And when was the last time you really explored what you believe? It may seem easy to live in a bubble of familiarity and comfort, content with what we already know and believe, because, as they say, “ignorance is bliss.

I challenge you to ask the hard questions. Explore and research until you are sure of what you believe in and you can defend it if need be. Practice not looking away, but looking deeper into an issue. 

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