~oOo~

2012-04-24

"in their graves because of false modesty"? [neha spring 2012]

This past Saturday, I presented a paper at the spring meeting of the New England Historical Association (NEHA) at Rivier College in Nashua, New Hampshire. You can check out the full text of the presentation here: "In Their Graves Because of False Modesty?": An Allegation of Sexual Assault in Boston, 1914-1915 (PDF, via DropBox).

The paper was my first attempt to pull together a research project I'm working on into a coherent narrative. The research concerns a mysterious deposition I stumbled upon in the Godfrey Lowell Cabot Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. As I write in the opening paragraphs:
Mediated, it is true, by the framework of legal testimony, the narrative voice of the deposition is nevertheless an active one. [Nellie] Keefe [the deposed] describes herself purposefully seeking medical treatment and intervening in that treatment when it goes contrary to her expectations. She positions herself as a consumer of medical services, with the ability to select a treatment plan with which she feels comfortable, rather than the passive recipient of medical care with which she is uncomfortable -- from a medical professional whose authority she should not, or cannot, challenge. She evokes the spectre of sexual aggression by describing how Dr. Underhill “turned the light out [and] inserted his finger in my vagina,” yet ultimately circumscribes Underhill's actions by indicating that she successfully ordered him to stop.

To the modern reader, the deposition feels both remarkably contemporary, yet also deeply embedded in an historically-specific set of social and medical expectations surrounding patient-doctor interactions. While Keefe's self-reported actions make clear that she was dissatisfied with Underhill's professionalism, she also indicates that Dr. Underhill was similarly dissatisfied with her performance of the role as patient. “During the treatments he would pull the blanket off me and I would pull it on again and he would pull it off again leaving me stark naked,” she testified, vividly illustrating the battle between patient and doctor over the circumstances under which Keefe's treatment should proceed. Keefe was clearly unhappy with Dr. Underhill's methods, yet returned to his office multiple times to try and negotiate a more satisfactory interaction. What appears at first to be a straightforward account of a doctor's unprofessional conduct is, I would argue, a more complicated document containing multiple and uncertain meanings.
You can download the full paper from DropBox.

Like my past appearances at NEHA, it was great to spend a morning talking history with a diverse and encouraging group of practicing historians from all over New England. I particularly enjoyed the presentation of my co-panelist Allison Hepler (University of Maine, Farmington), whose research into the life of "Communist hussy librarian" Mary Knowles not only paralleled my own project in unexpected ways, but also gave me a certain amount of professional pride (who wouldn't want to be known as a "Community hussy librarian"?!).

While we had very little time for Q & A at the session, I had warm words of encouragement from folks for the continuation of my research. What questions and reflections I did field helped clarify how I might move forward from here. I'm particularly motivated to explore the network of female friendships and associations that seem to be such a central part of the Keefe-Underhill case. Time to roll up my sleeves and get to work exercising my reference and historical research skills!

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