Rothman and “Life In the Asylum” (Group 1)

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?

5 thoughts on “Rothman and “Life In the Asylum” (Group 1)

  1. Thomas Dillon

    I can’t help but think that the doctors and administrators would have found this article to fall under the consideration of good publicity, given the author chooses not to define a distinct separation between life outside of the asylum and inside the asylum, establishing a pattern of relative normalcy and care. Furthermore, I tend to agree with Tim’s point that the religious undertones of the first day recollections evokes a sense of patriotic righteousness that serves to justify and condone the asylum’s setting and overall care given to patients. The account describing the first day also describes a subtle sense of autonomy, stating that “For each one is mistress of her own apartment, and may live in solitude or company, according to her mood. We reach a niche, midway the long hall, and seat ourselves on its comfortable lounge” (Page 1). Essentially, the article, especially while recalling the first day, seems to provide positive publication for the administrators and doctors that were in charge of the instiution because of the patient’s descriptions that reinforce the notion of social normalcy that Professor Newbury mentions in his powerpoint. It almost seems like the institution is confining patients and slowly persuading them to buy in to their facilities and services through religion and American pride, as if their treatment and care can lead to this realized conclusion of a patient finding not only the lord, but as well as their gradual longing for justice and freedom.

  2. Paolo Gonnelli

    The first thing I thought while reading the first part (day 1) of the journal was “if it is so perfect, and so people in it, why are they there in the first place?”. Clearly, these embellished diary entries would represent good PR for the asylum itself, but I think more than anything I think it perpetuates the existence of the asylum itself. Just like a school is considered essential in the context of a town because it will educate the children who will go to form the society of that town, so is depicted the asylum. I think, through the journal. the institution is sort of justifying its own existence as a necessity. It is there to create culture and give civilization to the insane, thus irreplaceable. Another important thing that underscores this self-validation is the use of the religious language and imagery. I don’t know if it is intentional or simply a custom of the time, but the effect is in my opinion that their condition, thus their treatment, is god-bestowed, it is a divine law that should not be broken. The religion is a way to legitimize the work done inside the asylum. Thus, everything that is descended from god is just, but more than anything perfect and beautiful. In this sense, I got a sort of image of “Eden for the insane”, where everything is just perfect and the insane live a mirrored life to the one people have outside those walls.

  3. Timothy DeLorenzo

    The politicians who funded the institution and the constituents that they represent would be very happy to read lines in the first page that call upon the Christianity and country in service of some high principles of justice and equity, “Our Heavenly Father hath spread a bounteous table for his poor, through the government of a free people, on whose banner is written equal rights and equal privileges.” Perhaps readers who didn’t really want to engage to thoughtfully in the wellbeing of others would be caught by sentences that evoke mythological aspects of national or religious identity. In Page One, the voice of the diary walks through the institution in awe seeing people glide from room to room, light spilling in through bow windows, people reading and cheering. The language evokes a floating, or support. A reader might even be shocked that the conditions of this institution are this good, as compared to life outside of the institution. Perhaps the reader is being primed to believe that those inside the walls who criticize the institution are being unworthy of what society and God has given them. On page 2 the voice of the diary shifts to one who is not necessarily critical of the conditions of the asylum, but critical that they cannot get out. This might prompt a reader to ask why they would want to leave. This is how I can possibly read the function of the diary.

    The diary explores the relationship between what’s inside and what’s outside by focusing on the dressing of the women. “Seven o’clock. — The hall is lighted, the ladies dressed, the platform over which I walked insane this morning is now an inviting parlor, with carpet spread and curtains of blue festooned around. Underneath one of their graceful folds is a seat prepared for the goddess of sweet sound, and the piano keys invite her skill. She is arrayed in green, and looks like a bright flower perched within. Her fashionable basque has caught my eye and suits it well. A lady can see nothing but a pretty dress. I grant that power to the sex, and prize it. Say what you will, sirs, of the dress, behind it lies many a bright thought. It is an idea; there is poetry in dress, and philosophy too, but this will be the subject for another day.” Here the imagery is focused on what is adorned onto people or objects. Even on Page 3, the morning after the performance, the ladies are discussing the dresses again, “The morrow after the exhibition is like the morrow of the party, ladies look jaded at the breakfast table, but a discussion soon begins to open all eyes and give vivacity to expression, for the merits of the different actors and the different dresses are brought into eloquent discussion.” Perhaps by evoking performance and fashion the diary is trying to mirage the actual conditions of the institution by drawing attention to how things are actually different than they appear?

  4. Madison Brito

    I definitely think these would be viewed as very good publicity for the institution. In the “Life at Asylumia” article, you very much get the image of these patients as ‘respectable citizens,’ from their highly scheduled day, to religious endeavors, to the most civilized activities, like ‘receiving company’ and enjoying music. At the same time, you are reminded that these are people inside a walled community, as if giving you the reassurance that as the reader, you are part of the ‘healthy’ world and these people are far from you; when the writer describes being reminded of the people from which they are ‘seperated,’ he speaks of the ‘many happy hours spent in their society.’ It’s an implication that society, the civilized world outside of this institution, is the desirable world they remember fondly, and they are merely in a community rehabilitating them to be ready for the actual world.
    So much of the writing, from how they knock at the door before entering to ladies sitting down to sew, imbues the idea of manners and fulfilled societal roles. Really, you get the idea of model citizens, as “the rich and poor meet here without livery or pride, each maintaining true self-respect; for each is content and helps to bear the burthen of the other. To the spirit of goodness is allotted the highest seat. Grace here abounds.” But as noted in the prompt, it feels so over the top. You get the impression this narrator loves being in the asylum, she even complains about time passing too quickly (paragraph 4), which may be true, but I honestly have trouble believing this person is completely reliable and not influenced by the institution. It almost feels hyperbolic to the point of satire, like it’s making fun of an outside impression the public may have of this asylum (I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, but it often feels that way).
    Even when she comes to see herself as a prisoner in the asylum or as not belonging there, she still asserts: “Who could refuse to be happy here? So many comforts, such beautiful occupations, such good company! But, today…” It’s like a reminder to the reader that she is merely unwell and that is why she wants to get out, but in reality it is this wonderful place – like something is wrong with her for wanting to leave, and even her state she recognizes its wonderful ‘comforts.’ Even a more negative portrayal of the institution and of the patient’s experience in this day 2 entry is lessened or even invalidated by the reminder in the writing that she isn’t mentally stable, and thus her account of being only a visitor there cannot be reliable. So this part that should paint the institution in a less perfect light doesn’t actually have that effect on the reader.

  5. Karianne Laird

    After reading the article in the Opal and Professor Newbury’s PowerPoint, I have the impression that the writer of the “Life in the Asylum” comes to the institution with high expectations and a charitable view of these establishments. Much was being made out of the transition from the inhuman treatment of the mentally ill (like we can see in Goya’s painting) to the new principles of “moral treatment”. The professionalism and high status of the mental health asylums can be seen in the architecture alone, with its classical Greek columns that exude authority and grandeur. I believe it is likely that the author of “Life in the Asylum” is influenced by this and at her first encounter she is happy, feeling like a mere visitor. Her positive descriptions on day 1 highlight the social normalcy of it and the refined lifestyle. However, not more than a day goes by before her view changes drastically. The invasive regulation of her life sinks in – she begins to internalize her imprisonment. The difference between being there as a visitor versus as an inmate is highlighted in these lines: “The Doctor! I did not come here to be ruled by the Doctor. I came here a visitor. It was very pleasant to bow to the Doctor’s smiling attention yesterday; to obey as a patient his mandates of to-day is another matter. I am insane now; a host of demons are to be quelled into a reasonable submission.” For all the grandeur of the new type of mental institution – it is clearly having severe effects on some patients’ mental health.

    In pondering why this article was published when it is a clear criticism of the institution – I wonder whether it might not be so clear at first glimpse. I think the author makes it clear to the reader that she is a sane, intelligent and reliable source on her first account. She writes well, giving detailed depictions of the nice surrounding and references God – showing her Christian values. As Professor Newbury explains – her tone and descriptions would have played well with politicians and at least the opening would have been well received by those in charge. However, interestingly once the reader is interested, her tone shifts, and she explains how the situation really is after having spent more time in the institution. However, this is deep into the article and could easily be missed by those controlling the content.

    I also wonder if maybe those in charge let this piece be published because they thought the author would not be believed by the readers. The author’s two very different accounts of the asylum could demonstrate mental instability and thus be a justification for the presence of the asylum. Sometimes she can understand the beauty of it while at other times she is just delusional.

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