Psych Major Ponders the Meaning of Normal

For the religious group known as the Shakers, hearing voices was a part of everyday life, but for most people today, hearing voices is considered a sign of mental illness.

How these different points of view are shaped by cultural context is the focus of Stacey Ridel’s summer research project archiving and analyzing firsthand Shaker vision accounts.

Ridel, a class of ’15 Frances Perkins Scholar, is a native of Vernon Rockville, Connecticut, double majoring in gender studies and psychology. Professor of Religion Jane Crosthwaite’s fall class on the Shakers sparked her interest in looking more closely at the role of visions—or more precisely auditory hallucinations—in the mid-nineteenth-century communities formed by the religious sect.

“I liked the Shakers and got to be passionate about them,” she says. “It was like a small cast of characters, and you really got to know them and spend time with them.”

Her project is on Shakers during their “Era of Manifestations,” a period marked by widespread visions and communication with otherworld spirits.

She is working in Mount Holyoke’s Archives and Special Collections, which has all the pertinent papers, ledgers, and other documents on microfilm.

“I’m interested in how today we’re so quick to call everyone [who has visions] psychotic and give them a pill, where 150 years ago they had a supportive community,” she says.

She initially planned to focus on Miranda Barber, a woman from the Shaker community in Lebanon, New York, who had thousands of visions in which the “Holy Mother of Wisdom” spoke through her.

“Her prophesies tended to be more fire and brimstone,” Ridel says. “People now think she might have been bipolar, but I don’t think you can go back [in time] and diagnose people.”

Since there was too much information on Barber for a summer project, she plans to write a sketch about a lesser-known man from the same community, Garret Lawrence, while making note of references to Barber for another time.

Ridel would like to get a Ph.D. in psychology and practice as a clinical psychologist. She expects this project to support her long-range goal of forming a deeper understanding of the many ways of being normal.

She adds that only a small percentage of the people who hear voices have criminal intent, although others usually assume otherwise.

“If we allowed people to have these differences and we could remove that stigma, it would remove a lot of the pain,” she says.

—By Ronni Gordon