Book Review: Poems from the Asylum

Poems from the Asylum

Edited and arranged by Janelle Molony*
Introduction by Jodi Nasch Decker**

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*Janelle Molony is Martha’s great-granddaughter.
**Jodi Nasch Decker is Martha’s granddaughter.

Poetry, Insanity, and a New Religion

In 1927, Martha H. Nasch underwent a secret medical procedure. Cryptic family notes and correspondence refer to her operation but never give details. As she recovers, Marth complains that she has lost her appetite and food has become tasteless. These events coincide with the discovery that her husband, Louis J. Nasch Jr., was having an affair.

With no more wrong with her than “a case of nerves” and a signature from her adulterous husband, Martha was committed to an asylum. For nearly seven years, Martha was patient-inmate #20864 at the St. Peter State Hospital for the Insane. The real shocker is, Martha wasn’t insane.

Asylum staff reported that Martha “appeared normal in all respects.” However, the law dictated that she could not be discharged unless a male family member was willing to receive her. That meant she was stuck in the asylum until her philandering husband was willing to take her back. That didn’t happen until 1934.

Upon discharge, Martha claimed that owing to her lack of appetite, she had not eaten during her time at the asylum. Patients who wouldn’t eat were force-fed, often while under the effects of morphine and scopolamine. The drugs induced a condition known as twilight-sleep. During twilight-sleep patients felt no pain and woke with no memory of events that occurred while under the effects of the drugs. Consequently, Martha most assuredly did eat while at the asylum, even if she doesn’t remember it.

Martha’s outrageous claim of having not eaten for years was published multiple times in a variety of newspapers. Between September 19, 1934 and November 3, 1934, six versions of Martha’s story appeared in 90 articles nationwide. The publicity caught the attention of Hilton Hotema, a metaphysical guru of the Breatharian Lifestyle from Pomeroy, Washington.

Hilton Hotema (a.k.a. George Clements) was an alternative health writer, esoteric author and mystic. He cited Martha’s story as an example of spiritual achievement in his books, Man’s Higher Consciousness and Empyreal Sea. While touting her as a high-level Breatharian, Hotema neglects to mention that Martha did eat. Also, Martha bemoaned the fact that her sense of taste never returned, referring to the condition as a curse rather than a spiritual choice.

From simply being upset at the discovery of her husband’s affair to being heralded as an example of spiritual enlightenment, this book shows how a person’s words and actions are often twisted to suit other people’s needs.

The book is divided into three parts:

  • Martha’s Life
  • Martha’s Poetry
  • Medical explanations for her loss of taste.

More than 50 photographs and illustrations are included in the book, which helps bring Martha’s story to life. The poetry was easy to read and chronicled shocking eyewitness accounts of patient mistreatment, as well as her emotions regarding her adulterous husband. I found the medical explanations for her loss of taste particularly interesting, especially since we’ve just lived through a pandemic where loss of sense of taste was a common ailment among those who’ve had Covid-19.

From family drama to escape attempts, the book proved an interesting read. I’m giving it two thumbs up.

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