Review: Out of the Darkness: The Story of Mary Ellen Wilson

Out of the Darkness: The Story of Mary E - Eric A. Shelman,  Stephan Lazoritz

This is one of those books that are hard to read - or they are for me anyway - because of the child abuse. In recent years tales of such abuse, specifically autobiographies, have become very popular (or at least they sell well), and I never can quite see what draws people to such graphic abuse stories - because in all of the stories I'm thinking the abuse is very graphic, and horrible. Even if it were less detailed and less terrible, I'd still find it very, very difficult to read. But the stories that really go in-depth with the detail, well, those feel somewhat tabloidy - almost glorying in the horror of it - and in these sorts of stories you can't pull back and say "ah but none of that's real, this is just a horror story." Because it's all supposedly true. I don't blame people for rating them highly - which they usually do under "it's a story of survival" - but all I take away are the detailed, horrible descriptions about defenseless children who didn't get any help. After I read something like that I'm depressed, and I don't have a great feeling for humanity as a whole. (Note, I myself have not been abused, but I have had many close friends who have been. It's not a subject I can take lightly because of that.)

I've tried to think of an analogy that could better explain my problem with the genre (not sure what to call it - the abuse genre? children in peril?), and I can't seem to. I did suddenly realize that there aren't a lot of true crime or murder stories where you see everything from the victim's point of view - you more often see the horror in third person, or from the detective's perspective or even through the murderer's eyes. There just aren't as many readers that want to read stories from the perspective of the person about to be hurt or killed. And frankly, that's not really supposed to be attractive. (Not to mention once the victim dies, their story is mostly over, in reality anyway.)

ANYWAY. That much is why I'm not going to rate this book - my feelings on the issue make any liking for the book itself problematic. It's probably not as graphic as some of the other abuse-autobiographies, but still, it wasn't a good read for me. It doesn't help that the book is history written in a style as if it were a novel. It always makes history problematic when the author is deciding what people are saying and what their tone is - things you can't exactly dig up via documentation.

At the same time, it is a story worth telling, and a story that's to some extent fallen out of history and public memory. I bought it because I read about the book and its subject, and felt that this was history I needed to learn. After reading it I still feel that way, but I'm definitely not hanging onto the book. It's not something I'd want to keep and reread.

From the back cover (wikipedia links for those who want more of the history):

It began with one abused child.

"...I was where the first chapter of children's rights was written, under warrant of that madfe for the dog..."
- Jacob Riis, 1874

Before the world became aware of Mary Ellen Wilson in 1874, it was a hopeless place for abused and forgotten children. Child protection agencies existed, but were reluctant to the point of inaction when it came to "saving" children from the abuses of their parents and guardians. Children were considered property, and to become involved was to invade the family, a sacred and private institution. But to Etta Wheeler, a Methodist social worker, and Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a child's safety and welfare were more important.

But what of Mary Ellen's beginnings? What became of her birth parents? What events occurred to place the toddler in an almshouse on Blackwell's Island (now), a narrow strip of land in the East River, home to criminals, the sick, and the insane? How did Mary Connolly, her foster mother and abuser, come to adopt her in the first place?

The historical drama unfolds on these pages for the first time since it appeared in the pages of the New York Times, the Brooklyn Eagle, and the New York Herald of 1874.

"A riveting book. It is not just Mary Ellen who comes out of the darkness, but all of society. The most accurate re-telling of Mary Ellen's story I have read."
--Anne Reiniger, MSW, JD, Executive Director, The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC)