Friday, September 25, 2009

Bookends Friday: Insanity and genealogy

Anyone who's crazy enough to get into indexing and abstracting records of 19th-century insanity commitments should spend an evening or two with a little book from Indiana: From Under the Cloud at Seven Steeples, 1878-1885: The Peculiarly Saddened Life of Anna Agnew at the Indiana Hospital for the Insane (Zionsville: Guild Press/Emmis Publishing, LP, 2002), by Lucy Jane King, M.D. Anna Agnew, evidently a sufferer from what we would now call bipolar disorder, spent seven years on the inside, and lived to get well and tell about it -- but she never got her seven years, or her family, back. King quotes extensively from Agnew's own book and explains the situations. (Her attempts to bring the mental-health story down to the present are less successful, in my opinion. Oliver Sacks has another perspective in a recent New York Review of Books ($).)

It's a unique and essential view of a group that had a rough time in that century. The huge asylum buildings that survive look like grim antiquated warehouses to us now, but warehousing was not what the medical people of the 1800s had in mind. They built asylums on the theory that people became insane because the world was too fast-moving and confusing for them; hence the attempt to create an atmosphere of serene regularity and beauty for the inmates. Of course, not everyone who worked there understood or appreciated that philosophy.

No comments: