Incisive Insights

We all carry scars. Roadmaps of the painful journeys we’ve had to endure. Unlike the distinctive hallmarks that make up the natural landscape of our of our lives, these marks carry with them lessons of a sobering nature that cannot be realized any other way. As I’ve often said, there is more of value in the experiences of trauma and tragedy than there ever is in the experiences of triumph and tribulation. While time may help to heal those wounds there is always a scar. When we see asylums now, if ever, they serve as nothing more than a painful reminder of what seems like an ancient sore that may never fully heal from the damage inflicted, which runs deep. However, it is important to remember that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. These institutions when they began were designed, at least in part, to help provide an atmosphere within which people whom were considered mentally diseased or deficient could function.

To this end, Carla Yanni in her composition The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States examines “the participation of architecture in this grand project to ‘bless, soothe, and restore…wondering intellects.” Her thesis, as I understood it at-least, is to demonstrate “that nineteenth-century psychiatrists considered the architecture of their hospitals, especially the planning, to be one of the most powerful tools for the treatment of the insane. Architects were challenged by this novel building type, which manifested a series of tensions between home and institution, benevolence and surveillance, medical progress and social control, nature and culture (pg. 1).”

One quote that I found particularly interesting was when Yanni pointed out that, “Asylums presented an architectural paradox. On the one hand, it was possible to assert that asylums should be unassuming and utilitarian, expressing the economic constraints of the state. On the other hand, they might better offer magnificence, thereby enhancing the hospital’s status in society and enticing the public to respect them as civic enterprises (pg. 19-20).” I find this interesting because neither part of this paradox mentions serving the interests of the patients. Caring for others is not just a business enterprise, it’s a peoples business. Also I have to say that the use of pictures was quite useful in helping the reader to envision what the time and place must have been like. Words alone are sometimes not enough in conveying information with meaning in a way that strikes an emotional chord that has resonance. I think that Yanni’s dividing the book into sections is quite useful in helping to synthesize the information. The one book that I kept thinking of as I read this is Gerald N. Grob’s Mad Among Us. I feel that Yanni’s work is really a logical extension of this growing canon of literature in the same vein as Grob. Also I thought of Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in A Mad-house. I wonder if Bly’s experience, even though it was anecdotal, was truly reflective of what went on behind the scenes of many of these institutions. If we wish to understand the significance of these institutions and their place in the history of American culture, we must understand both their physical and individual personalities. Each was as distinctive and unique as each of the individuals that shaped and informed them.

Overall, I would recommend this book as a means to advancing the growing discourse of what these places meant both in their heyday and in what they have to offer us now as we continue to grapple with the questions of how to help those who require mental help.

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