The Lost Virtues of the Asylum

We tend to think of mental hospitals as snake pits, hells of chaos and misery, squalor and brutality. Most of them, now, are shuttered and abandoned—and we think with a shiver of the terror of those who once found themselves confined in such places. So it is salutary to hear the voice of an inmate, one Anna Agnew, judged insane in 1878 (such decisions, in those days, were made by a judge, not a physician) and “put away” in the Indiana Hospital for the Insane. Anna was admitted to the hospital after she made increasingly distraught attempts to kill herself and tried to kill one of her children with laudanum. She felt profound relief when the institution closed protectively around her, and most especially by having her madness recognized. As she later wrote:

Before I had been an inmate of the asylum a week, I felt a greater degree of contentment than I had felt for a year previous. Not that I was reconciled to life, but because my unhappy condition of mind was understood, and I was treated accordingly. Besides, I was surrounded by others in like bewildered, discontented mental states in whose miseries…I found myself becoming interested, my sympathies becoming aroused…. And at the same time, I too, was treated as an insane woman, a kindness not hitherto shown to me.

Dr. Hester being the first person kind enough to say to me in answer to my question, “Am I insane?” “Yes, madam, and very insane too!”… “But,” he continued, “we intend to benefit you all we can and our particular hope for you is the restraint of this place.”…I heard him [say] once, in reprimanding a negligent attendant: “I stand pledged to the State of Indiana to protect these unfortunates. I am the father, son, brother and husband of over three hundred women…and I’ll see that they are well taken care of!”

Anna also spoke (as Lucy King recounts in her book From Under the Cloud at Seven Steeples1) of how crucial it was, for the disordered and disturbed, to have the order and predictability of the asylum:

This place reminds me of a great clock, so perfectly regular and smooth are its workings. The system is perfect, our bill of fare is excellent, and varied, as in any well-regulated family…. We retire at the ringing of the telephone at eight o’clock, and an hour later, there’s darkness and silence…all over this vast building.

The old term for a mental hospital was “lunatic asylum,” and “asylum,” in its original usage, meant refuge, protection, sanctuary—in the words of the Oxford EnglishDictionary, “a benevolent institution according shelter and support to some class of the afflicted, the unfortunate, or destitute.” From at least the fourth century AD, monasteries, nunneries, and churches were places of asylum. And to these were added secular asylums, which (so Michel Foucault suggests) emerged with the virtual annihilation of Europe’s lepers by the Black Death and the use of…

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