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Book Reviews   |    
Insane Sisters: Or, the Price Paid for Challenging a Company Town
Reviewed by Patricia E. Deegan, Ph.D.
Psychiatric Services 2001; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.52.12.1661
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by Gregg Andrews; Columbia, Missouri, University of Missouri Press, 1999, 262 pages, $29.95

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This is the story of two women who dared, early in the 20th century, to step outside of prescribed gender roles and challenge corporate power—and lost. The book takes us into the lives and times of Mary (Mollie) Heinbach and her sister Euphemia (Feemy) Koller and their struggle with the powerful Atlas Portland Cement Company in the small company town of Ilasco, Missouri.

When Mollie inherited a tract of land that was desirable to Atlas, the company used its influence to persuade politicians and local lawyers to challenge her ownership. Molly enlisted the aid of her fiery and feisty sister Feemy, and for 17 years the two fought Atlas. Their case returned to the Missouri Supreme Court four times, but in the end the powers of institutional psychiatry were invoked as juries found both sisters to be insane. Molly was placed under guardianship, and Feemy—alleged to be monomaniacal in her 17-year pursuit of litigation to protect her sister's property—was involuntarily committed to the Insane Asylum in Fulton, Missouri. Both women perished within a few years of being stripped of their liberty. Feemy was buried in an unmarked grave. Atlas went on to claim the land and, many mergers later, continues to thrive.

Insane Sisters is well written and has a compelling story line. It has been meticulously researched and is quite rigorous from a historical point of view. Although this rigor is one of the book's strengths, the author's emphasis on providing historical context detracts from its usefulness for mental health professionals. For instance, he suggests that the sisters' plight raises some "questions about the use of guardianships and insanity as methods of social control," but his analysis never moves beyond the lives of the two sisters. Hence we are left to wonder about the breadth of the powers of institutional psychiatry and the fate of other unconventional women in the early 20th century.

Nevertheless, the real value of Insane Sisters for mental health professionals is to be found in its caution about the use of psychiatry to police compliance with social, political, and economic role expectations. The greatest danger and the gravest responsibility of our professions lie in our duty to refrain from locating social problems in individual brains. Today—like a century ago—angry, well-educated women with unconventional views who directly challenge male-dominated power are—like their "insane sisters"—likely to wind up labeled "madwomen."

Dr. Deegan is director of ex-patient studies in the Institute for the Study of Human Resilience at Boston University.




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