Rothman and “Life in the Asylum” (Group 4)

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 4)

  1. Jacob Morton

    It’s interesting how the days interact with each other–each a distinct vignette. Of course, there is no overarching narrative other than the psychological roller coaster undergone by the subject. And, yes, it truly does read as a whiplash-inducing ride. The first day is far from the disgusted condemnation and/or cry for help expected out of a patient at an asylum. Not a mental institution–but an “asylum.” Through a modern lens, that archaic word carries with it a slew of gothic suggestions–an almost Poe-like prison for the mad, and perhaps even the criminally insane. The subject continually refers to the institution as “the Asylum,” and though it aligns era-wise, I can’t help but find my mind envisioning something far more sinister than the first day illustrates. In that first day, the subject focuses on the autonomy provided–“each one is the mistress of her own apartment.” The last paragraph–in which we are given a lovely description of the parlor and the makings of a fair–contrasts jarringly with the first words of the second day. “DEAR FRIEND: — I can’t get out.” Suddenly, the unflattering image of a gothic asylum is not so distant. The sentence suggests a stark decline–the subject is done pretending and has finally snapped. Narratively, it is compelling and somewhat satisfying. In many ways it is the account we anticipated finally revealing itself. Then of course we see that it is merely a dramatic introduction for more positive descriptions. The subject cannot escape because there is nothing appealing about leaving.

  2. Rachel Horowitz-Benoit

    The first day of the diary entries reads like propaganda that the institution itself churned out. In the context of the next diary entry, however, which rapidly alters the woman’s worldview, would be damaging to the institution. I think it comes down to identity; the first day, the woman is a “visitor,” but the next, she joins the ranks of the “insane.” A person obviously does not change overnight, but the very concept of institutionalization introduces this disorienting shift. The first set of descriptions could have been produced by anyone visiting the asylum, and I’m sure there were outsiders looking in who saw the conditions similarly favorably. The woman likes what the institution offers, but comes to resent them when she realizes she cannot leave. What changes is her confinement and loss of agency. This makes even the finer things that the State Lunatic Asylum offers be perceived poorly. Everything is colored by her lack of freedom: “I see no beauty in these flowers ranged before my eye — its demon throws an ebony hue over them. I turn to the free air without, it brings to my ear appeals to get out.” Of all the creature comforts that an asylum can provide, its basic structure of confinement and control work against the wellbeing of their inmates. By presenting an outsider’s view, and then showing how quickly this view alters when the person themselves is on the inside, these entries would call into question contemporary positive outsider accounts of institutions. I expect more credence would be given to this entry in particular, since it is so well-written and genteel. It also spans 3 days; it would be interesting to read entries from this woman on a further date in her stay.

  3. Alexander Merrill

    I found the essays we read from The Opal to be very different from the classic conceptions I have of mental health institutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. Thinking about these overly positive accounts of life in an Asylum, the administrators who led the journal, and what life might really look like in the asylum, I was reminded of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There’s a strange sort of dichotomy in the treatment of the inmates in Kesey’s novel, where the nurses and guards simultaneously seem very empathetic and care about the “moral treatment” of the patients, while also seem very controlling and at odds with the patients. I almost imagine the patients writing the stories for The Opal with a metaphorical gun to their head, coerced into focusing on the normality of their treatment and general life in the Asylum as a way of promoting the benefits of the hospital to the general public and politicians, as the prompt suggests. I also wonder if there might be voluntarily committed patients in the NYS Asylum in Utica that might be contributors to the journal, while other patients with more serious or dysfunctional issues might not be involved, also similarly to the dynamic between patients and administrators in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

    Overall, the two stories we read from The Opal seem highly bias in favor of the hospital and it would not surprise me at all to learn that the stories were either entirely fabricated or heavily edited and reviewed before publishing.

  4. Gordon Lewis

    To me, The Opal seems a lot like an attempt at a more refined, less invasive avenue with which the general public (or at least those in the state of New York) could peer into the lives of the patients in the asylum, and subsequently allow the institution to profit off of this “viewing”. Instead of begging for a penny each time someone was finished walking through the long narrow halls of a place like Bethlem, they receive donations in the form of the purchasing of the journal every month. The Opal in this case serves a variety of purposes, from fundraising, to public affairs and raising awareness, as well as a form of therapy for the patients themselves. Personally, I would be quite interested to read a journal entry from a patient who had negative things to say about the institution, if there ever were any that were published at all. Given the stereotypes surrounding mental institutions at the time, I can see how something like The Opal could have been a concerted effort to dispel this image and make the asylum in Utica appear to be a reputable place that you’d feel comfortable sending your loved ones too, and, of course, supporting it financially in the process.

  5. Henry Mooers

    During the last discussion, one relevant topic of conversation to “The Asylum” was the idea of the romanticization of mental health. We compared the idea of an author’s writing about a protagonist with a heart disease vs. writing about one with, say, a mental illness. I remember bringing up the point that from a plot creation standpoint, mental illness is probably just a better way to create space when writing. I felt as though it would (as unfortunate as this may be) a better means of writing a compelling story.

    I believe this concept of romanticization can easily be applied to this context as well. As this discussion post’s description most cynically notes, the manner in which the entries were written “would have played well with politicians who raised taxes to fund the institution”.

    Given this, the entries seem to attempt to develop a certain persona to represent the institution as a whole. This representation is bolstered by numerous literary references, including the excerpt where the narrator describes the library, referencing poets such as “Cowper, Young, Milton, Tennyson”. It similarly references the transcendentalist eye in another entry. There are numerous references to the bible and other religious figures, such as “Our Heavenly Father”, for one.

    In the context of both romanticization of mental health and also appealing to supporting politicians, I would not be surprised at all if this piece were to have been curated, edited, and potentially even produced by the institution itself.

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