Theaters of Madness
I made a gross generalization in an earlier blog about nineteenth-century perceptions of madness. I had stated that insanity was defined as a person being out of sync with society. However, Benjamin Reiss in his book, Theaters of Madness, theorizes that nineteenth-century people believed insanity “was at its root a disease of the brain that called for medical intervention,” and yet at the same time “believed that mental illness … had a psychological or ‘moral’ etiology, and carefully controlled environment was as essential to the cure as the administration of medical treatment” (Reiss 2008, 4). In other words, they had a wholistic approach to mental illness. That is why, in Seeing the Elephant, we see Eli engaging in what today might be called "talk therapy" with Dr. Winston Stanley.
However, the part about a carefully controlled environment is fascinating. People of the nineteenth century believed day to day life in a fluid culture could lead to mental illness. Last week, when I was blogging about George L. Fox, I noted that familiar trade figures standing in front of shops were believed to help city inhabitants navigate the jarring effects of change.
There is no question that United States during the first half of the nineteenth century was a nation in flux. There was 1) great social mobility as fortunes were made and lost; 2) great physical mobility as people pushed into the frontier, 3) increased political participation; and 4) greater freedom regarding intellectual inquiry and religious expression. Add to that the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, immigration, and urbanization as well as a bitter national debate over slavery, and you have a recipe for stress. And all that strain could disorder your brain. (Reiss 2008, 9)
Allow me as an aside to suggest that perhaps what’s wrong with us today is the massive amount of stress pummeling us. Perhaps our nineteenth-century forebears were right.
Anyway, Reiss writes that physicians borrowed elements of the “moral treatment” movement to create treatment centers designed to control the patients’ environment. To promote relaxation, institutional buildings were airy and light and beautiful, and the grounds were gorgeous. Inside asylum walls, superintendents promoted cultural activities believed to help patients get better in the way of “a rational, polite, elevating model of culture” that encouraged them to read and write poetry, perform in and attend plays, go to lectures, read novels, write prose and poetry, listen to and sing or play music, stroll appreciatively around the beautiful grounds, attend restrained and rational religious services, and much more (Reiss 2008, 7).
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? And it certainly seems humane. But the new asylums created tensions, as well. Treatment was not always kindly. Some patients suffered harsh or abusive behavior from attendants and physicians, so much so that former patients went on to write exposes about their experiences.
Tomorrow, in a twist on scholarly writing, I will make a goofy connection between nineteenth-century insane asylums and attitudes about mental health expressed in a popular movie. I know what I'm doing. About twenty years ago, I wrote a long piece on how the Drew Carey Show was classically carnivalesque. It is gathering dust and most likely never will see the light of day. But it sure was fun to do. (I love comedy. One of its functions today is very much like the function of the court jester. But I digress...)
Benjamin Reiss. Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century Culture. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008)
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