Rothman and “Life in the Asylum” (Group 3)

As the introduction to “Life in the Asylum” notes, the brief article, presented as diary entries, appeared in _The Opal_, a literary journal written and edited by patients in the New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica during the 1850s. What would the doctors and administrators have thought of this article? Does it seem like good or bad publicity? My guess is that few pieces would have passed into publication without the awareness of those managing the institution, but it’s hard to know how fully they would have controlled the content. The concentrated display of literary “refinement” from the author and other “ladies” gathered for literary endeavors present the asylum and patients in it as highly cultured, far from the poor or working class. The genteel Christianity evident throughout only enhances the image of propriety, delicacy, and manners. Even the diction describing music played and sung by a fellow patient in the parlor oozes good taste: “We wander on, drawn by the strains of music, and we enter the parlor door, to be regaled by the sweet songstress seated there.” Who really says “We” when she means “I”? “Strains of music” and “Sweet songstress” are a bit over the top. All of this would have played well with politicians who raised taxes to fund the institution, so at least this opening part of the “diary,” with its depiction of a certain kind of population being treated, would have been welcomed by those in charge, even if the patient population was by no means dominated by the sort of woman depicted here. What do others think?

6 thoughts on “Rothman and “Life in the Asylum” (Group 3)

  1. Michael Frank

    Though we hear a breakdown of the asylum structure in the introduction, the healing process is not entirely clear from the daily diaries. For answers, my attention is drawn to the Christian zeal that shapes the institution. In some ways this is a clear aspect of the reform process. Specifically, “purity” seems to be the aim of the asylum and this end permeates every aspect of daily life. In some ways it can be subtle. In the opening, for instance, the author mentions that games are available for the patients to enjoy except cards. Could this be because gambling is considered immoral? The services also sound like a mandatory aspect of weekly life, as well. Is purity the goal, the cure, or both?
    I imagine these patients in Maine were all uniformly religious (even though Maine is the least religious state today). In some ways this seems like a Christian commune that actually adheres to the faith, feeding rich and poor alike. In other ways, not so much, as when release is denied to debtors and others deemed unwell. What this culture mostly seems to be doing is infecting the patients with a fear of impurity– the author fixating on the demons in the environment that subsume her. A purity-based mental health program seems like it could wreak havoc on those in an asylum.

  2. Haley Glover

    The sudden shift between days in “Life in the Asylum” appears to highlight the facade of the Asylum, as Dan argues. While in the first day the narrator is lost in the illusions of ladies and camaraderie in “bear[ing] the burthen of the other,” she is soon disillusioned on the second day by the overbearing “power of man” (1). The narrator suggests that insanity is cultivated within the Asylum and that it is a cause of such mental illness, not the end. On the second day the narrator states, “the master man, makes me a lunatic in these walls” and that “here insane I must be; its my only prerogative” (1,2). The narrator accounts her own dehumanization in the Asylum as she is stripped from all other characteristics besides that of insanity. While day 3 offers a more positive account, possibly as a result of the doctor’s treatments, there is a tone of defeated submission that evokes images of imprisonment rather than liberation. For example. the narrator states, “I am insane now; a host of demons are to be quelled into a reasonable submission” (2). Following day two’s account and the narrator’s denial of her own insanity, this line places the cause of her insanity on the Asylum. The narrator makes a point to say “I am insane now,” thus suggesting that she did not believe herself to be insane upon entering the Asylum, only after the doctor’s treatments. Further, rather than suggesting that the doctor cured her illness, she uses the word “submission,” suggesting that her demons can not be eradicated, only partially silenced. As Rothman suggests, the fear of mental illness was high in this time period, as the cause was pinned to civilization, meaning anyone was susceptible. This account, compounded with the public’s fears of insanity, offers a dark coercion-minded Asylum that manufactures insanity, rather than curing it.

  3. Joseph Levine

    I agree with Dan that the described opulence of the asylum distracts from its oppressive lifestyle. One account describes her joy at hearing the “hum of business and pleasure” and “quiet is the condition it brings us to enjoy”. Yet these romanticized anecdotes are oddly unspecific, and describe particular moments of comfort in the asylum without acknowledging the arduous work schedule each patient is assigned. The only mention of the days’ happening is that “the business of the day is to work and to gossip in deep criticism.” I find it hard to believe that a patient would spend their day “gossiping in deep criticism” when Rothman describes how adamant medical superintendents were in enforcing time consuming work schedules. Furthermore, the very nature of the asylum was to alleviate the need to think deeply; activities which “rapidly consume mental energies” were meant to be avoided, and work was meant to relieve “the demon of unrest, the luckless offspring of ambition.” To me the third day’s account of the idyllic leisure in the parlor with other women would likely entice a more bourgeoisie base to either enroll themselves or their family members into a mental asylum. Rather than a site of imprisonment, the asylum is presented as a kind of restorative resort, “Kind sympathy in the social feeling of the hall has been imparted from those drawn here from scenes of life where lock and key is out of sight”. In addition, the sane-sounding tone of the accounts may indicate to the reader the efficacy of the institution’s treatment. The patients sound far from the delusional lunatics that are purported to inhabit the asylum, but instead display coherence and a sane capacity for observation. Perhaps this could be used to help dispel the stigma behind enrolling in a mental hospital, and could entice future patients who read the accounts.

  4. Alexandra Lawson

    The goal of many of these early institutions was to “teach discipline, a sense of limits, and a satisfaction with one’s position” (154). As discussed in “The Discovery of the Asylum,” while families were discouraged from visiting the patients, they were not forbidden, and further the public was often allowed to visit the institutions. In this sense, I think that doctors would have thought these publications to be good publicity. While, as Daniel mentioned, it is true that the second day description of the first publication is not particularly favorable of the institution, as the narrator describes, “but, today – the poetry of Asylum life has faded before the near vision of stern reality,” I still think that all these descriptions fit with doctors and administrator’s goals of the asylum. It was not meant to be “bounteous”, “divine”, and “sweet” as the narrator described on day one. Rather, asylums were meant to present a “disciplined routine that would curb uncontrolled impulses without cruelty or unnecessary punishment” (133). This goal was reflected well in the second publication where the author states, “we have a well-conducted house, the intention of which is the relief of human suffering” (8). Doctors might argue that the changes in mood throughout the days of the first publication actually reflected a success of the institution. The inside of the asylum was meant to prepare the individual to function in the real world, rather than present the patients with luxuries. I do agree with Daniel that the author of the first publication likely intended this piece to be a form of bad publicity, but I don’t believe that the author was successful in this. Any sort of publicity that reflected humane treatment would be good publicity for these institutions at this time. Perhaps, administrators would not have thought highly of the language describing a feeling of being ‘stuck’ and held against one’s will, as this sways towards what we might expect of the early madhouses. However, simply the fact that the individual was allowed to write these pieces speaks favorably of the institution, and ultimately I believe these publications would have sat well in the public opinion.

  5. William Koch

    I do wonder the degree to which The Opal may have been filtered and censored by those in charge of the asylum. I imagine that a lot of the content in “Life in the Asylum” would have been perceived as good press. There certainly is a lot of literary sophistication on the part of the author in terms of the language, allusion, and logic (e.g. “In Rome we must do as the Romans do” strikes me as a combination of all three), but I’m more interested in how the presentation of the asylum in this piece would have assisted in transforming the public perception of asylums. There certainly is not language that indicates brutality (I suppose one might be able to make an argument about a certain level of psychological brutality or the doctor exercising authority through “bitter pills” as a form of brutality, but there is nothing here that matches the dehumanizing portrayals of madhouses in the slideshow’s paintings). I am curious that the day two portrayal finds the author claiming themselves to be sane, but I imagine that the asylum could claim that to be a product of the asylum itself, and not that they institutionalized an already sane person. Just as critics accused madhouses of turning their inhabitants insane, the operators of this asylum could use the same logic. But overall, I think this portrayal of an asylum when compared with the reputation of antiquated madhouses is more positive, more humanizing, and perhaps demonstrates more effective (or surface level effective) forms of treatment.

  6. Dan Cielak

    Although parts of this article present this asylum as a hospitable place, doctors and administrators would have probably disapproved of this article for a few reasons. While the description of the “first day” seems rather welcoming, where people notably “wander” throughout the institution, have access to “the purest literature of the past and present age,” and the general atmosphere is one of equality, respect, and “grace,” the description on the “second day” is a bit more dark. On the second day, the narrator portrays a prison-like atmosphere to the same asylum. She mentions that she cannot “get out,” that she was turned into a “lunatic” by the “master” of the asylum who bangs his hammer “stronger” and “louder” every time the narrator declares herself free, and that “the Doctor” ultimately rules over all with his “bitter pills.” And, although the narrative on the second day ends on a more celebratory note, the narrator’s gloom still emanates throughout the piece; she closes her description on the second day by writing, “[they] cheat us, in the semblance of liberty, and I this night retire to rest. I shall sleep in the semblance of sanity. Adieu till the morning.” Here, the reference to “they” seems to be geared towards the doctors and administrators of the asylum. Given that there is a pervasive undertone of being trapped despite having attractive liberties and amenities, the overall intent of the article seems be to illustrate the institution as a facade.
    I do believe, however, that the writer of the article is strategic in her appeal towards her authorities. The prevalence of religious language, such as “[our] Heavenly Father hath spread a bounteous table. . .”, and the eloquent language that the writer employs would make the doctors and administrators more receptive to the message she is trying to develop. These subtle additions make the inhabitants of the asylum appear educated and tolerant. Thus, while I think that the article is intended as bad publicity for the asylum, the author ensures that her message is well received by deliberately including ways of elevating the article’s appeal. 

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