Book Review: Out of the Darkness, The Story of Mary Ellen Wilson
Stop Child Abuse Buttons
I went into this book almost kicking and screaming because I was sure I’d find the subject matter too difficult to read.
Mary Ellen, a child born in 1864, was abused and eventually rescued with the assistance of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). That’s right, protections for animals was being advanced in New York City at this time BEFORE an organization dealt with the issue of abuse of children.
We soon learn by way of the narrative that these were generally cruel times for nearly everyone, and most especially the poor. It was right after the Civil War, so many children were without a parent—or two. Orphanages were dens of disease and mistreatment and people were dying in droves due to consumption and other diseases.
Suffering extended to all beings including animals such as the horses used for transportation and labor. And with each example within the book, it becomes clear that the human condition was rife with those who felt no empathy for any creature who suffered at their hand.
The situation was so distressing that Henry Bergh fought for and received legal backing to promote animal rights under the auspices of the ASPCA.
In the meantime, through a series of unfortunate events, Mary Ellen was placed in an orphanage and then adopted by a man and woman with the last name of Connolly. For the next several years of her life, from the time she is a toddler until she is 10 years old, she is subjected to all manner of abuse and mistreatment.
Eventually, with the assistance of neighbors and a woman named Etta Wheeler, Mary Ellen is rescued by means of the protections afforded to animals of the day through the newly formed ASPACA, and the stepmother Connolly is taken to court for her abusive behavior. That same year of 1874, after Mary Ellen’s trial, The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was formed.
THE NARRATIVE STYLE OF A HISTORY
The authors Eric A. Shelman and Stephen Lazoritz, M.D. wrote this book based on research from court records, newspaper accounts and information about the ASPCA and its founder Henry Bergh.
“Out of the Darkness” reads like a novel, providing the backstory of Mary Ellen’s parents and details of New York city daily life at the time. The format makes the book easy to read and follow with storylines of conjecture woven around the basic facts of Mary Ellen’s story. I did speed-read through the accounts of abuse afflicted on Mary Ellen, but generally did find “Out of the Darkness” to be a fast and compelling read.
RECAP OF THOUGHTS FROM THE REAL LIVES BOOK CLUB
Our group discussed the frustration of reading about the situation of Mary Ellen and were appalled that it took nearly 10 years for her to be rescued. We considered the reasons for this—the norms of the day including corporal punishment, and the idea that intervention by other parents probably was not a habit of the times. We also recognized that children, like other animals, were largely viewed as property rather than beings with rights of their own.
The irony of the narrative style was that, while it helped paint a vivid picture through storytelling, it was largely derived from general history of the day rather than true facts of many of the people involved in Mary Ellen’s story. As seasoned readers of memoir, biography and autobiography books, we talked about whether this hindered our commitment to the book in total, but did not reach a consensus.
I’m glad to have read the book if only to learn something about those times and Mary Ellen’s story. In light of contemporary events it seems as humans we still struggle to muster empathy for other people, let alone other creatures, as deserving of humane treatment.
There were a few little factoids I found both disturbing and interesting, such as the practice of leaving a dried cat within the framework of a building as a way of warding off bad luck. Although, the story in the book suggests a live cat was trapped in a column under construction, a quick look at Wikipedia suggests this practiced used cats which were already dead and dried rather than burying them in a building alive. Such a relief!
It took authors Shelman and Lazoritz nearly five years to complete “Out of the Darkness,” and they only met twice in person during their collaboration. I can’t fathom working on such a project for quite so long, but believe that it was a labor of love and an important subject. That must have been reason enough.
SPOILER ALERT: THE ENDING
Given how difficult Mary Ellen’s story is, I HAD to go to the end to see how it all worked out. Thankfully, once in a while, there is justice. Mary Ellen not only lives to a ripe old of 92, she married and had two children and adopted another. Her children report that Mary Ellen was a loving mother and lived a happy life.
Alexandra and Sherry, 2016