The Real Alice James

What was wrong with Alice James?

AliceJames-245x300The James family tree harbored many peculiar relatives, including Alice’s first cousin, Katherine James Prince (Kitty), who makes several appearances in Alice in Bed. Kitty ended her life in the Somerville asylum (precursor to McLean Hospital) and appears to have been a textbook case of severe bipolar disorder. Alice’s fourth brother, Robertson (Bob) James, was almost certainly bipolar: he was in an out of sanitariums and suffered from terrible mood swings and alcoholism. Alice’s father, Henry James, Senior, a mercurial and mesmerizing man, may have been bipolar as well, but the evidence is inconclusive.

Then there is the eldest James brother, William, the psychologist and philosopher, whose life is minutely documented. His diaries and letters paint a picture of recurring cycles of mania (sleeplessness, flights of ideas, et cetera) alternating with severe melancholia, which drove him to the brink of suicide at times. His struggles made him exquisitely sympathetic to the suffering of others, and throughout his life he went out of his way, professionally and personally, to befriend troubled souls and seek a cure for mental illness.

220px-AliceJamesWas Alice bipolar? Possibly, but we just don’t know. Late nineteenth century psychiatry did not recognize our diagnostic categories. Although melancholia, mania and “cyclical mania.” were described in Alice’s lifetime, other mental illnesses such as schizophrenia were unknown. Schizophrenics were herded into the catch-all category of Hysteria, which embraced everything from florid hallucinations, dissociative and fugue states to vague female discontents. At various times Alice James‘s doctors diagnosed her with hysteria, neurasthenia (a vague term meaning “weakness of the nerves”), “suppressed gout” (a disease unknown to modern medicine), “nervous hyperesthesia” (presumably, extreme sensitivity or nervousness) and, implicitly, with not being a proper female.

The late nineteenth century was very keen on nerves. In the most advanced medical centers, patients with “nervous” complaints—i.e., just about everybody—were hooked up to batteries and soothed with gentle currents. James Jackson Putnam, William James’s former lab partner, held the prestigious post of Electrician at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He often treated William and kept him supplied with batteries, which he carried to Europe with him when he traveled, electrifying himself diligently. Alice was less enthusiastic. Like everything else, electricity seemed to make her worse.

Whatever ailed her, Alice James herself did not consider her life tragic or wasted, as she explained to William in a letter not long before her death: Notwithstanding the poverty of my outside experience, I have always had a significance for myself—every chance to stumble along my straight and narrow little path, and to worship at the feet of my Deity, and what more can a human soul hope for?

(For a more detailed discussion see the appendix “What was wrong with Alice James” at the end of Alice in Bed.)


“And these doctors tell you that you will either die or recover. I have been at these alternations since I was nineteen and am neither dead nor recovered.”
—from Alice James’ diary