The Opal Whiteley
Mental Health Report
By Stephen Williamson (c)
Did Opal have had Autism/Asperger's
started the Opal Whiteley Memorial in 1994 to talk about
subjects that are often taboo like child abuse and
schizophrenia. Opal's life and writings offer important
lessons for how we treat people. I know of no sadder
story than Opal's nearly 50 years in England's Napsbury
Hospital. Whatever sins she committed against the literary
world were surely paid for by nearly a half-century of
This article was first published in Anne Hill's 2007 compact
disc of Opal's words set to music, Beauty Attends. It
is an enchanting cd. Anne Hills used Opal's own words and put
music to them. The result is a beautiful cd of music from
Opal's writings. Anne asked me to help write the inside
liner notes. I had recently completed working on this article,
about Opal and her mental health. If you have not heard it,
please look it up. Anne Hills is an amazing performer and
interpreter of music and literature.
In my career, working with people who have psychiatric
conditions, I have known over one hundred people with
schizophrenia. None of them were much like Opal at all.
However, ten years ago I began working with people who have
autism and Asperger's Syndrome. Most of them had a lot in
common with Opal Whiteley.
believe that Opal was wrongfully-diagnosed with schizophrenia,
However, experts have also seen characteristics of almost
every disorder in the book in Opal. For example, she
constantly counts things, like many people with Obsessive
Compulsive Disorder. She had what some would call
bizarre ideas, like many people with schizophrenia. Opal
was prone to long manic bursts of energy and creativity, like
people with bipolar disorder. And, anyone familiar with
signs of child abuse can see recovered memories and multiple
personalities in Opal's behavior. Opal also may have had
typhoid fever as a child. It causes brain swelling and
that could have effected her mind in several ways.
The first time I read Opal's diary I
was convinced it was an open and shut case of schizophrenia.
People with schizophrenia may have hallucinations and fixed
ideas that seem very strange to others. They have great
difficulty organizing their lives. Many homeless people have
schizophrenia. It is an very disabling condition and people
are often unable to care for themselves. The hallucinations
and delusions interfere with people's ability to process
Most of the really
bizarre statements attributed to Opal come only after years
of institutionalization. She may have been given a
lobotomy in the early 1950's and there is no counting the
number of pills and electroshock treatments she had.
Lobotomies were surgeries on the brain that had the goal of
reducing the delusions of mental patients. However, in
about 10% of patients, the lobotomy actually caused symptoms
to increase. I believe this was the case with Opal.
Plus, simply being in a mental hospital for almost 50 years
is enough to make anyone crazy. We tend to adapt to our
surroundings, wherever they are.
While Opal did believe she was related to
the French royal family (and did over 30 years of research
to try and prove it) she did not have hallucinations. In her
childhood diary she often appears to be hallucinating, such
as seeing fairies. However, upon closer examination,
she never talks to anything that is not real. Her "faeries"
are dragonfly insects. She also uses the word "fairy"
to mean the spirit or soul.
At the beginning of the last century many people still
believed in "fairies". Opal often writes about seeing
"fairies" and "little people". In folklore a "fairy" is a
small creature, generally with a human form. Fairies are
also said to live in the everyday world such as trees,
streams, flowers and hills. Opal believes the fairies bring
her pencils and paper to write with.
Opal believed that all things had a living spirit - it's
"fairy". In her childhood diary she writes that yellow
jackets are fairies too. In her 1918 book, The Fairyland
Around Us, Opal writes that her grandmother and her uncle
taught her about fairies. It is important to note that
Opal NEVER writes about imaginary creatures that do not
exist. Often when she uses the word "fairy" she is
writing about the soul within a living animal or plant. This
is much closer to the Native American and Celtic belief
system. She is not hallucinating and seeing things that are
not there. Many researchers have made this mistake. I had to
read many different texts she wrote to notice the
Opal presents an complex mix of
psychiatric symptoms. Her behavior often is like a person
who has a personality disorder (usually caused by childhood
abuse and neglect). She also shows signs of OCD,
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Opal is always counting
things like rocks, trees and the number of steps she takes.
Opal's had few close relationships. She may have been
briefly married, but that is in dispute. While she
could develop strong bonds with older adults and younger
children Opal had great difficulty making friends among
people her own age. This seems to have been the pattern
throughout her life. Her male relationships were
almost exclusively with men old enough to be her father or
grandfather and her women friends tended to be grandmotherly
types as well.
There is one condition that
appears to include each of the behaviors that Opal
had. Asperger's Syndrome. This has only recently
been recognized as a form of autism which is now known to
have a wide spectrum of severity. People with
Asperger's tend to have trouble in personal
relationships. They tend have few interests or
hobbies, but they can learn these to an almost genius
level. Some can learn and absorb subjects they are
interested in faster than "normal people". They may
count numbers , and do activities in specific steps
repeatedly. They may also accumulate or hoard
possessions about things they are interested in.
Despite these positive
qualities, people with Aspergers/Autism can seem to lack
empathy with others and even "common sense". It's not
that they lack empathy, they just have difficulty picking up
on the same social cues the rest of us do. People with
Aspergers/Autism often have superior memory skills. Opal
amazed people with her ability to remember books and
facts. Opal also had a very formal way of speaking and
using words, even at a young age. This is also a
characteristic of people with Asperger's. Most people with
Asperger's have normal or slightly above normal
intelligence. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft is said to
have Asperger's Syndrome. Opal
was clearly a genius in her nature studies and her later
obsession with learning about European nobility. In the past it was not unusual to find them
institutionalized for years with nearly every psychiatric
label. In my 25 years of working with people I have not
known anyone who was so misunderstood than Opal Whiteley.
Many scientists and creative artists have had this
condition. There is debate over if Asperger's should be
considered a "mental illness" and treatable or if we really
need people with Asperger's in the genetic pool. Some
argue that it is not an brain disorder at all, but an
important addition to humanity's gene pool. Opal
Whiteley's writings may offer us an opportunity to see
Asperger's through the eyes of a young child - with all it's
gifts and limitations. Few people stuck to their beliefs
Locking Opal up in a state mental hospital only made her
believe that she was someone important, a real "princess".
Locking people who believe the are high officials in an asylum
usually reinforces their belief system and fears of government
persecution. Some of the typical treatment of the 1950's
included elector-shock convulsions, powerful tranquilizer such
as Thorazine, ice baths where you had to lay in a bath of ice
and lobotomies. Often these
"treatments" failed, leaving the patient even crazier. Opal's
treatments did not change her core beliefs at all. That is
another sign of a person with Autism rather than
schizophrenia. Most people with schizophrenia will change
their beliefs to avoid getting themselves into trouble. They
may deny their delusions because they know that's what the
professionals want to hear. There is not one instance on
record where Opal ever changed her basic story that she was
the daughter of a French prince. Was she? Not likely,
but in Opal's world anything is possible.
The Cottage Grove Library
now has a lovely life-sized bronze statue of Opal, donated by
South Lane Mental Health. A postcard of the statue is shown on
this page. It is deeply appreciated by the community of Cottage
Grove and all fans of Opal Whiteley.
DIAGNOSTIC CRITERIA FOR ASPERGERS
NOTE: I'VE MARKED THOSE THAT FIT OPAL
in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as: eye
gaze, facial expression, body posture, and gestures.
Difficulty developing age-appropriate peer
relationships. (AS children may be more comfortable with
adults than with other children).
OPAL * Inflexible adherence to routines and
Fascination with maps, globes, and routes.
Superior rote memory.
Preoccupation with a particular subject to the exclusion
of all others. amasses many related facts.
OPAL * Difficulty judging personal
space, motor clumsiness.
Sensitivity to the environment, loud noises, clothing
and food textures, and odors.
OPAL * Speech and language skills impaired in
the area of semantics, (volume, intonation, inflection,
OPAL * Difficulty understanding other's
Pedantic, formal style of speaking; often called "little
professor", verbose (well documented in Cottage Grove)
OPAL * Extreme difficulty reading and/or
interpreting social cues.
Socially and emotionally inappropriate responses.
OPAL * Literal interpretation of language.
difficulty comprehending implied meanings.
Extensive vocabulary. Reading commences at an early age
OPAL * Stereotyped or repetitive motor
Difficulty with "give and take" of conversation.
This page has links to many organizations that help people
with mental health issues. If you, or someone you care
about has mental health needs, perhaps these links can
The links below reflect the
diversity in mental health care - treatment is much better
today than in Opal's time - but, we have a long
way to go.
Support Groups also help many people. Most folks can find
a support group online or in their community. There are
peer support groups for almost all conditions.
introduction to Asperger's, many references
Opal Whiteley was
diagnosed with this confusing condition
The major site on
mental illness for Family Members
Much info on the dark
side of mental health treatment, when help hurts