Friday, September 11, 2009

"The restraint of this place"

An extraordinarily moving piece by Oliver Sacks at the New York Review of Books (subscription only) on what has been lost with the closing of mental asylums. He writes about a number of different books that all sound worthwhile, but I particularly must get Asylum: Inside the Closed World of Mental Hospitals, a book of photographs by Christopher Payne with an introduction by Sacks (a modified version of this NYRB piece) to be published by the MIT Press later this month.

Anyway, here's a bit:
Creedmoor Hospital in Queens, New York, ... had been established in 1912, very modestly, as the Farm Colony of Brooklyn State Hospital, holding to the nineteenth-century ideals of providing space, fresh air, and farming for its patients. But Creedmoor's population soared—it reached seven thousand by 1959—and, as Susan Sheehan showed in her 1982 book, Is There No Place on Earth for Me?, it became, in many ways, as wretched, overcrowded, and understaffed as any other state hospital. And yet the original gardens and livestock were maintained, providing a crucial resource for some patients, who could care for animals and plants, even though they might be too disturbed, too ambivalent, to maintain relationships with other human beings.

At Creedmoor, there were gymnasia, a swimming pool, and recreation rooms with ping-pong and billiards tables; there was a theater and a television studio, where patients could produce, direct, and act in their own plays—plays that, like de Sade's theater in the eighteenth century, could allow creative expression of their own concerns and predicaments. Music was important—there was a small patient orchestra—and so, too, was visual art. (Even today, with the bulk of the hospital closed down and falling into decay, the remarkable Living Museum at Creedmoor provides patients with the materials and space to work on painting and sculpture. One of the Living Museum's founders, Janos Marton, calls it a "protected space" for the artists.)

There were gigantic kitchens and laundries, and these, like the gardens and livestock, provided work and "work therapy" for many of the patients, along with opportunities for learning some of the skills of daily life, which, with their withdrawal into mental illness, they might never have acquired before. And there were great communal dining rooms, which, at their best, fostered a sense of community and companionship.

Thus, even in the 1950s, when conditions in state hospitals were so dismal, some of the good aspects of an asylum life were still to be found in them. There were often, even in the worst hospitals, pockets of human decency, of real life and kindness

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