Saturday, 20 March 2010

It's all mental

A couple of years ago I came across a book called Levoton Nainen (The Restless Woman) by the Finnish historian Anna Kortelainen. In this fascinating account on the bizarre late 19th century mental condition called hysteria, Kortelainen traced back the millenia-old prejudice against women and the medicalization of their societal frustrations and their hopes of being treated equally. The book got me hooked immediately, not because it was perfectly written (it isn't), but because the narratives of the countless women and the degrading treatments they endured (including forced sexual stimulation by a doctor) told a story of something big and dark that resided in the heart of the humankind. For centuries, especially Western societies have constructed frameworks of power over people who for one reason or another were considered unfit to suit either the moral standards or concept of normality in any given period. Last year I saw Klaus Härö's film Den nya människan (The New Man). It is about the horrendous treatment of the mentally ill in the 1950s Sweden, where "bad stock" was subjected to institutionalization and sterilization programmes. The film shocked me profoundly, and it made me ask questions: how did this happen? Who did these people think they were - God? Why was confinement the answer? Did they believe they were doing the right thing? And most importantly, how did we get there?

When I moved to the US last August, one image that haunted me almost daily (and still does) was the huge, neo-gothic abandoned state asylum and its grounds that overlook our entire town. Being here and seeing the asylum every day forced me to start looking for answers to my numerous, growing questions. The asylum is located on top of a big hill, and its presence reminds me every day of the peculiar theories and practices that have mapped out the philosophical framework of "insanity", and the complicated ways madness has been dealt with in different times and societies.

Currently I am working on quite a few research topics, and I'll just say it for the record: my research is personal in nature, heavily narrative-based and cross-disciplinary - I am not all that into "proper" supervised academic research, and never have been. First and foremost, I am looking into the cultural concept of madness and its aggressive construction from the 17th century onwards, and second, the institutionalization of insanity in the form of "mad houses" and mental asylums - especially our local one, and other state asylums in New York (there were many). With these topics comes a lot of baggage: one cannot avoid reading horrific accounts of bizarre theories on insanity, countless inhumane treatments, and destinies of the individuals who were locked up, by their families (mostly husbands), for the sake of conformity, over the years when mental asylums were at the peak of their popularity. What will come out of my research, I don't know, it is too early to say. At this point I still have more questions than answers.

The biggest problem I have faced doing this research has been the unavailability of balanced histories. Old patient records and annual documents prepared by the asylums in question are, of course, off limits due to privacy acts. Most works on the history of psychiatry are written by proponents of the anti-psychiatry movement, and for the most part, these works are biased and very aggressive in tone. The occasional attempts by the people in the field tend to reject the dark history of the discipline as meaningless, albeit unfortunate. They treat history as if it was just a big mistake. I am certainly no expert, but for now, the field reminds me of that of international relations, which I know rather well. Uncomfortable realities and questions of morality tend to be rejected or tucked in nicely in separate disciplines. Mental asylums in psychiatry are like colonialism to international relations - dark, embarrassing baggage that fits the discipline's basic framework, but can never be fully discussed. When theory, practice, history and morality collide, it is never pretty, but if the collision is avoided for the sake of convenience and in the name of science, it produces a field of discipline that is essentially rootless, and it has no foundation in the human existence. It tells us nothing of who we are. To me, self-protecting disciplines like that are awfully frustrating.

Visiting the remains of our local asylum grounds, the voices of the thousands and thousands of locked up men and women become alive somehow, but a question begs to be asked: what happened here? The unmarked graves in the cemetery, the abandoned dormitories, halls and barns tell a dark, silent tale of a factory-like existence of this place. It also whispers something almost inaudible about the story of humanity. Here a woman was locked up for decades because she wore men's clothing and lived with another woman. Here patients became forced labour that kept the institutions going. Here a former nun was torn away from her religion, her devotion mocked, and after her death, her body dissected in the name of science instead of a proper burial. Here lobotomies and electro-convulsive shock treatments were performed, without anyone's consent. The remains of old asylums give not a distinct name, but a blurry signature to what we have once considered, or perhaps still consider, insane. Parts of our local asylum are going to be demolished in the near future, and with the buildings gone, a big chunk of uncomfortable history will no longer be told. They are going to start building a nursing home here. Once upon a time we locked up our mad, now a similar fate awaits our old.

I do research on this field, and on our local asylum, because with the supposed victory of psychiatric drugs and de-institutionalization, the voices of those who were once locked up seem to have become useless to the discipline of psychiatry. They should be meaningful to us human beings, though. In the back yard of our civilized cultures, these institutions once tucked away and weaved out the unfit, the mad and the dangerous. Those people tell us an awful lot about the society we live in today, and the way we have become what we are. Books and movies like "One flew over the cuckoo's nest" and "Girl, Interrupted" are important because they remind us what once was, but it takes a little more to fully realize how many, to what extent and with what cost, people have fallen, and still fall, under the catch-all phrase of "insanity", and what the machinery behind all that was, and is.


sariti said...

great, great post!

gina said...

Fascinating post. I've recently read some fictional accounts of madness and asylums that I found interesting. Not all of these focus exclusively on insanity, but it's at least an important part of all of them.

The Golden Notebook
by Doris Lessing

The Women's Room
by Marilyn French

The Yellow Wallpaper
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath

Very accurate what you said about locking away people who didn't fit accepted societal norms, considering them insane, and "treating" them in ways that didn't help at all. Somewhat similar to what happens right now to people who are considered criminals. Isolation from society, degrading and inhumane treatment, and lack of any kind of actual beneficial assistance or rehabilitation.

Karenina said...

Wow; great post. Like you, I am interested in doing research on topics that are of interest to me, though not necessarily through rigorous academic portals.

Your interest in the history of "insanity" as a social construct is something I have long been curious about as well. One would hope after so many years and so many terrible abuses that the mental health care systems throughout the world would have "seen the light" and started treating the mentally ill with care and compassion. However, it would seem that mental health issues are just as stigmatized (and stigmatizing) as ever.

Mental illness as a social construct (rather than a veritable disease, in many cases) continues to be used as a weapon against the disempowered and disenfranchised among us. Witness the sickening rise of "research" that supports the idea that children as young as 6 months can be diagnosed with Bipoloar disorder (a typically adult onset disease). It seems that now, instead of asylums, the pharmaceutical industry wishes to tie "consumers" into the belief that they are pathologically afflicted and in need of a lifetime of toxic, bizarre and highly ineffective treatments (at a hefty and debilitating price).

I would check out "Mania:A Short History of Bipolar Disorder" by David Healy. He takes a long, thorough look at bipolar disorder (and other forms of mental illness) as a social construct and a matter of perception (rather than as a legitimate affliction) and shows the impact that our "pathological" mindset having on society today.

I would also look at the various websites around the internet that are proponents of the idea that children can be "Bipolar". Personally, I find these sites, while well-intentioned, do a spectacular job pathologizing normal childhood behaviour to the point where any child could be identified as "mentally ill" and in need of a lifetime of meds (pretty scary for the average citizen, and pretty profitable for big pharma).

Keep it up with the research; it gives me hope that others are interested in the same ideas I am and that there is a vibrant, thinking community out there that wants to know more about the world and how we "got" to where we are (and be stylish at the same time ;-)

Take care!

tigerteacher said...

Very interesting and thought provoking post - I can't wait to read more as your research continues!

Eline said...

Oooh! Once again, I love this post. I'm pretty interested in this myself, albeit mostly with the gender politics involved. I don't know if this is what you're looking for but Elaine Showalter's 'Sexual anarchy' discussed gender in the turn of the century and I can't remember for sure but I do think she mentions mental institutions, or more specifically the how & why women were declared "mad", the origins of hysteria etc. It's so distressing! I read about a dozen books to do research on a paper for school (most of which I didn't end up using but for my own personal interest) and it truly is shocking. Mostly because women themselves thought these treatments were good for them. I've also just read how their ovaries and clitoris were frequently removed because women's sexuality was seen as pure evil... by both sexes. Oh and also most feminists! Unbelievable, isn't it?

Michele said...

Charles Dickens wrote a critical travelogue from his time in the US, during which he visited many prisons and mental asylums. I read it so long ago that I'm afraid I can't recall many more details, but it's called American Notes if you're interested.

mirattes said...

fabulous post, thank you :)

abby said...

I'll add to your reading list:

Mad, Bad and Sad by Lisa Appignanesi.

Also, know the institutions might be creepy, but I love big old buildings like that.

Anonymous said...

Great post, hon! CR

Anonymous said...

This post reminded me of my visit to the Binghamton Psych Center. I was visiting my father. He was diagnosed with manic depression (bipolar) and schizophrenic, although later they changed the diagnosis to only bipolar. He spoke of shock treatments as a young person. They dried up his tear ducts, he told me. I remember the huge building, the doors locking behind you, people walking the halls, jumping out at you and yelling. I found the building large and cold, and scary. I never went back. This was 29 years ago. My only other experience with this sort of institution was in Germany. We had a hospital in Regensburg named Karthaus. As you walked down the street leading to the hospital, it was lined with huge chestnut trees. The hospital was huge and old, and there were other buildings also. My sister worked there as a nurse and would bring children to our house for a visit, boys, about 6 years was about 40 years ago. I always found the building frightening and intimidating. I tried to google a picture and could not. Regensburg is a university town and I am not sure if the building still exists or if they tore it down for housing, etc. We will see when we visit.

SnapandPrint said...

gReat post. Research on topics like this can be frustrating because it seems as if people want to sweep the topic under the carpet and forget about it.

So many poeple were locke dup in insane asylums because they were just "different" in some way. It is sad to read about and makes me feel angry as a woman because if I lived back then, I may have been locked up for just thinking women and men are equal and women have a right to be treated as intelligent human beings.

Keep researching. It may never truly answer your questiosn and just keep giving you more questions to add to the ones you already have but, it may also give you an idea of what causes you to search for answers.

Kay said...

Hello Waves

I live in Christchurch, New Zealand, and we had a mental asylum but in the Gothic Revival (Dracula'a castle) style. All pointy windows and dark gray stone. It was demolished amid protests about "architectural merit" and such. None of the protesters came forward with funds to buy it, nor for the separate but same style admin building and that, too, was demolished, thank goodness. Where it stood is now an up-market housing development. There is still a hospital there but it is not the grim presence that the other building was.

jesse.anne.o said...

As someone else mentioned, I'm often grateful I was born when I was because it's likely I'd have been suspect as well. Or, worse, seething while walking the line of normalcy knowing the threat of treatment. (Or, did they even know there was threat of treatment, really? When people "went away" how much was it really spoken about?)

This line is frightening!
"(including forced sexual stimulation by a doctor)"

It's such a huge issue because the spectrum of folks who ended up in these institutions was so broad. I feel badly for all of them - the people who just weren't "normal" and also for the people who weren't "functioning" - because there were so little resources to help them feel okay, interact with others and take care of themselves.

Looking forward to hearing more about your findings.

a cat of impossible colour said...

This was fascinating, thank you!

Have you read 'What I Loved' by Siri Hustvedt and 'Owls Do Cry' by Janet Frame? They both deal with this in different ways, and they're both amazing novels. Just to add to your ever-growing reading list. :)

A xx

Michele said...

Ooh yes! Janet Frame! I've yet to actually read her works, but there's a great film adaptation of her autobiographical trilogy called Angel at My Table.

Eyeliah said...

It is so tragic, I imagine back in the day you or I or anyone really could have easily ended up in one of these. I would have been considered a which once upon a tme for being left handed.

Charlotte said...

I've read this post a couple of times & looked at the photos, which I'm glad you were able to take before being asked to leave. It's a surprising reminder of a time when mental institutions were more like prisons than hospitals.
You might find Allan Horowitz's book "Creating Mental Illness" helpful, as well as Kay Redfield Jamison's several books on bipolar disorder, starting with her landmark book on our favorite writer, Virginia Woolf, called "Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament."
Thank you for posting this.