History of Mental Health in the U.S.

Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America’s Premier Mental Hospital (2001)

Book Cover from Goodreads.

In connection with our reading of Girl, Interrupted (1993) this week, I decided to dig up a source I looked at because it was also connected to my project about John Nash! McLean Hospital is the location of much of Susanna’s Kaysen’s book, and the hospital itself has a longstanding history as a mental institution. In 2001, Alex Beam published Gracefully Insane : The Rise and Fall of America’s Premier Mental Hospital which, like many other books we’ve read this semester, focuses on McLean Mental Hospital as a case study. I discovered this book after doing research into Nash’s life and was surprised when I saw Kaysen’s name, because at the time I had not read Girl, Interrupted, and was only familiar with the name because it was an assigned text for this class. In connection with our reading of Girl, Interrupted (1993) this week, I decided to dig up a source I looked at because it was also connected to my project about John Nash! McLean Hospital is the location of much of Susanna’s Kaysen’s book, and the hospital itself has a longstanding history as a mental institution.

In 2001, Alex Beam published Gracefully Insane : The Rise and Fall of America’s Premier Mental Hospital which, like many other books we’ve read this semester, focuses on McLean Mental Hospital as a case study. I discovered this book after doing research into Nash’s life and was surprised when I saw Kaysen’s name, because at the time I had not read Girl, Interrupted, and was only familiar with the name because it was an assigned text for this class. However, as I did more digging I discovered that not only did Nash and Kaysen end up in McLean, so did Ray Charles, Steven Tyler, Sylvia Plath (author of The Bell Jar, which also talks about her experiences at McLean), James Taylor, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and David Foster Wallace. First off, wow, this hospital had a lot of famous patients. Secondly, Beam’s book is filled with stories about patients and doctors, including a protégé whose brilliance disappeared alongside his madness, Anne Sexton’s poetry seminar, John Nash’s stay before becoming a Nobel Prize winner, and many more. Beam’s tale of McLean covers the hopes and failures of psychology and psychotherapy (much like we have been discussing in class), the evolution of attitudes about mental illness, the differing approaches to treatment, as well as the economic pressures that are making institutions like McLean become “relics of a bygone age.”

I personally was using this book as a source to better understand the treatment John Nash received while he was at McLean, however that doesn’t mean it cannot be used by others to study McLean in a similar matter to what we have done with Nancy Tome’s work on Thomas Story Kirkbride or Wendy Gonaver’s work on the Eastern Lunatic Asylum.

Beam, Alex. Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America’s Premier Mental Hospital. New York: Public Affairs, 2001.

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