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?
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.