Rothman and “Life in the Asylum” (Group 2)

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 2)

  1. Colston Merrell

    In reading “Life in the Asylum” I was tempted, at points, to read it as satirical, partially, I think, because the over-the-top language of the 19th century has been so frequently lampooned in modern times, but also because it was so clearly an advertisement. Without realizing how short it was, initially, I suspected that the piece was going to become a little more like Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys” by the end, and was puzzled when I got there and there had been no serious criticisms, even implicit, on behalf of the patient. Especially interesting were the parts where the author did express some occasional feelings of discontentment with asylum life, like here: “The master, man, makes me a lunatic in these walls. He will not let me pass his door. I declare myself a free woman; he pays me no heed, but hammers in his nail the stronger and the louder.” The feeling the author is expressing here is a genuinely terrifying one; it sounds like the stuff of nightmares (or, as seen in this week’s slides, the stuff sailors went through at the turn of the 18th century) to be told you’re crazy when what you’re feeling is real, to not be allowed to leave a place that you checked into voluntarily, a place where your protestations are just further evidence of your deteriorated mental condition. Ultimately, though, the author seems to side with the doctor, and it is in submitting to his (weirdly deified) demands that she finally feels something like liberation (“I am free”). Professor Newbury noted the genteel Christianity at play, here, and I can’t help but feel that, even in this hyper-idealized world that the author is presenting, there’s something immensely discomfiting about the Godlike powers granted to the physician, who is shown to be capable of dispensing something like grace (“No miracle is this, but… the spirit of love has been imparted to the performance of duty. It has set the prisoner free”). Though the piece, as a whole, reads like a carefully edited PR piece right down to this last turn of narrative (the insane patient realizes her fault in assuming her sanity and gratefully goes back to her needlepoint), the underlying feeling we get that this is a place where the power dynamics between human beings are so polarized as to turn doctors to gods and patients to penitent sinners is not, in my opinion, a good one. I’m sure we’ll talk about Stockholm Syndrome some before this class is through, but to use it in the pop-lexiconal way it’s so often used, it really feels like the narrator of this piece has been brainwashed right down to her prose style, so all the affection she demonstrates for the asylum she lives in is just not, on the whole, encouraging.

  2. Annabella Twomey

    I think the articles would have brought great publicity to the asylums and projected the idea that moral treatment was working in terms of bringing the patients back to a place of “normalcy” and curing their insanity. The flowery, descriptive language, the eloquent writing, and the overall positive tone of the piece makes it seem like an oasis or an escape that any would be lucky to attend. It hopefully had possible effect of de-stigmatizing ideas surrounding the mentally ill at this time. After the historic horrors of mental institutions pre-moral treatment, the stigma surrounding mental illness certainly did not improve overnight, even if the asylums drastically changed their conditions. I am glad and was honestly surprised to see positive narratives like this out as publications at this time. I thought an interesting line was “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.” This slightly reminded me of an idea in “The New World of the Asylum,” which said, “Rather than attempt to reorganize American society directly, they would design and oversee a distinctive environment which eliminated the tension and the chaos,” (129). It is an interesting take that feels relevant today as we battle mental health crises and inequalities between races, between classes, between genders. In this private asylum, they attempt to alleviate those barriers, and perhaps that step back from a pressurized society had real, lasting benefits.

    At the same time, however, I was skeptical. I am definitely not breaking new ground with this comment, but as many of my peers said, it is possible that the medical superintendents edited this or even wrote pieces of themselves to pass as a patient writing this. Like others say, it almost seems a little too perfect and paints an ideal picture, which is certainly in the best interest of the psychiatrist researchers who had a stake in this moral treatment being beneficial. How much free writing could really be done when they “discouraged the exchange of letters, fearing that news from home might intrude on the calm and regular routine of the asylum,” (143). While I did not pick up on a conniving and malicious intent of the articles, who is really to say? “The New World of the Asylum” also spoke on how well the improved asylums did with having no incidents of brutality or violence and being completely moral in their treatment of the patients. But truly, who was keeping track of this? Was it purely on their word? How did they actually assure there wasn’t abuse of patients at this time? I was just skeptical of how certain the reading sounded in the complete and utter improvement of facilities.

  3. Elizabeth Srulevich

    I think the doctors and administrators at the asylum would’ve thought the “Life in the Asylum” article brought great publicity to their establishment. After all, their goal was to be more humane and “restorative” than their abusive predecessors, whose brutal “treatments” the public was quite well aware of via the once-popular madhouse tourism industry. Because such tours no longer operated, publications like The Opal offered one of the only glimpses into the “daily life” of patients in asylums, and a generally positive article such as the one we read would’ve certainly proved the institution was succeeding in its mission.

    That said, I’m still deeply suspicious of the idea that patients in an asylum in the 1850s were permitted to write, edit, and publish their honest thoughts in an institutional literary magazine. Charlotte Perkins Gilman published “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) decades after The Opal ran its course, showing that mental health treatment — especially for female patients — wasn’t exactly advanced and well-understood in this era. While it’s possible (as Rothman says on p. 150) that the New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica was just extraordinarily forward-thinking and dedicated to their mission of “moral treatment,” I think it’s also likely that (as Carl and Michael both briefly mentioned in their responses) the article wasn’t really written by a patient. It sounded a bit “too clean” and like someone was “intentionally trying to seem somewhat mentally unstable yet ultimately happy.” Especially considering that facilities were limited — “no separate building existed for noisy and violent inmates, just makeshift rooms” (Rothman 151) — at the Utica asylum, the resources that would be needed to facilitate a patient-run literary magazine would’ve probably been too great for it to have been a truly patient-run endeavor. It’s hard for me to believe someone as eloquent, reasoned, and wealthy as the writer of this article would be institutionalized at all. But at the same time, the article could’ve been authentic, written by a real (and unique) patient. Who knows?

  4. Andreya Zvonar

    The article would have been well accepted by doctors and administrators. While the narrator depicts both positive and negative sides to life in the asylum, the overwhelming sense is one of safety and ultimate health. Most importantly, by establishing herself as a visitor when she is in fact a patient works well for the “doctors and administrators” because she immediately dispels notions of her credibility. While one feels comfortable believing the general descriptions she provides, any more nuanced thought is bound to be questioned. Take section 9 for example: “Now comes the power of man, with his scaffoldings and hammer sounds. I try to pass his boundary and my fate is declared”. On day two, as the narrator switches from visitor to patient, the darker side of the asylum comes out, showing a clear distinction between the patients and their supervisors. However, as the narrator has become a patient herself, one is less inclined to believe everything she says, from the power of the physician to her prison-like imagery. This would certainly help doctors and administrators like the article. Furthermore, there is a sense of peace throughout the article. There is virtually no talk of violence or harm. Some phrases that particularly stick out are the following: “Grace here abounds” and “quiet is the condition it brings us to enjoy”. It is all indeed very lady-like and about as distant from Poe’s narrators as one could get.

    I also found interesting the narrator’s idea of doing in Rome as the romans do. In this case, that means being insane when in the insane asylum. It makes the reader perceive her illness as benign. This, coupled with the rather luxurious amenities provided and the beautiful architecture described, paints the asylum in a generally bright light. However, I wonder if an asylum might face backlash for this, especially as they began to receive public funding. Might a reader wonder if this lady should in fact be there? After all, one should have to work to live such a lavish lifestyle. Therefore, the article leaves me divided. On the one hand, I find that doctors and administrators would respect the quality of life described in the article. On the other hand, I wonder if in fact life in the asylum might be too good.

  5. Carl Langaker

    I found it quite fascinating how ‘Life at Asylumia’ conveys such a broad spectrum of emotions. By this I mean that there are constant comments indicating that living in this asylum is akin to being in prison, yet there are also numerous instances where the asylum is glorified and appreciated. The negative tone is evident in lines like “We have both sexes as inmates“, “The monotony of our every-day life”, and “we are carefully locked into our several apartments” all feel eerily grim. The diction that is being used here very much reflects a dull and captive-like lifestyle, and it generally paints a gloomy picture of the patients all being very aware that they are being held there as prisoners, against their own volition. However, this is contrasted by positive statements, like “frequently we trip on the light fantastic toe to the music of the violin and other instruments, performed by some of our number”, “we have a well-conducted house”, and “when we get there we always find something to eat, whether we have money or not”. This blend of varying emotions makes it difficult to establish one set tone. It further makes me wonder about the extent to which the people in charge of the asylum influenced this piece of writing – without the intermittent positive statements, this piece becomes entirely different, solely depicting the melancholy, monotonous, and lonely lifestyle of these patients. One aspect that makes me suspect that there has been some intervention here is the way that the asylum is described as a sort of hotel at the start, and later the patient writes that the house is well-conducted – I feel like these phrases feel out of place compared to the lifestyle that the patient describes, and could very likely have been added later, or ‘forced upon’ the speaker.

    I also wonder about the mental state of the speaker, and to what extent they are capable of examining the morality of their asylum. When describing the distinction between ‘regular’ people and the patients, the speaker likens the difference to ‘fashionables’ and ‘unfortunates’ – this reflects a negative self-image, which is reinforced by labelling themselves as ‘inmates’ compared to outsiders who are ‘sane people’. This shows that they fully acknowledge that they are ‘insane’. Despite this, there is simultaneously a depressing lack of awareness that is made evident through quotes like “it will be seen we keep good hours; and to prevent any leaving during the night without paying their bills, or for some other good reason, we are carefully locked into our several apartments”. Them saying “for some other good reason” has a sense of childlike innocence to it, as if the speaker does not believe that they are capable of doing anything wrong, and that being locked in feels both confusing and unnecessary.

    I think that with regards to the purpose of this journal, this is a good piece. It both highlights many of the depressing realities of living in an asylum, yet it also takes consideration to the vastly improved conditions compared to the madhouses that preceded the asylums. For the people running the institution, I understand that a piece like this is good PR, as it very much works against the notion that all people living in asylums are insane beyond human comprehension – this piece instead presents an inmate who is (seemingly) mentally clear, and has good things to say about their predicament. I do however find myself wondering about how representative this patient is – for all we know, this could be a fabrication by one of the people running the asylum, who is intentionally trying to seem somewhat mentally unstable yet ultimately happy. This is obviously quite unlikely, but the mental clarity evident in the person writing this piece still feels like it isn’t an accurate depiction of the average person living in an asylum.

  6. Michael Taylor

    I agree with Professor Newbury that this article would play well to the public. I found the narrator’s unreliability to be particularly effective to that end. Not only do we see a full micro-cycle of illness and cure in the article, as the narrator returns to obedience and “spirit of love” after her attempt to escape the asylum, but we also see the insane cast as fundamentally deceptive. The narrator remarks that her deception is reciprocal (“They cheat us, in the semblance of liberty… [so] I shall sleep in the semblance of sanity”), but regardless of context or justification, her willingness to lie to the man at the asylum door and to the reader – casting herself as a visitor to the asylum rather than a patient – neutralizes any overture for freedom made by the anonymous narrator and, by extension, asylum patients in general. As such, this article serves the dual functions of justifying the regime of discipline as a cure for insanity and eroding the validity of a patient’s claims to freedom.

    I snooped in another discussion group and saw Henry Mooers’s conclusion that this article could have “even [been] produced by the institution itself.” I totally see why he thinks so. This article is just a little too clean and its narrator too close to what an asylum superintendent would hope a patient to be. The narrator is deceptive but harmless, vibrant but obedient; in a word, infant, and in need of the state to correct her behavior.

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