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Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals 1st Edition

77 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0262013499
ISBN-10: 0262013495
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Editorial Reviews


Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals contains sadly beautiful photographs by Christopher Payne and a masterful essay by Oliver Sacks that reminds us that state hospitals were not always places of neglect and abuse but also of true asylum -- of refuge from the stresses of life. The book presents us with a world of abandoned buildings, forgotten ashes, and derailed futures. It packs a powerful punch.

(Elyn R. Saks, author of The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, and Professor, USC Law School)

Asylum is a haunting, beautiful book of lost dreams and lost minds. It is a reminder that society's ideals deteriorate more rapidly than the structures built to facilitate them. Asylums for the insane, which started with high intentions, usually ended in horror and neglect. Oliver Sacks has written a deeply moving elegy for the lives of those who lived, and often died at these asylums and Christopher Payne has captured the soul of the asylums themselves through his extraordinary photographs. I cannot imagine forgetting this book: it has evoked sadness, awe, and shame.

(Kay Redfield Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and author of An Unquiet Mind)

The book will appeal to historians or scholars of material culture as well as to the medical personnel, photography lovers, and citizens familiar with the lore and lure of asylums.

(Jane Simonsen The Annals of Iowa)

Astoundingly beautiful work on a subject that rarely gets the attention.

(Aaron Britt Dwell)

Beautifully researched, exquisitely photographed and expertly composed and edited...Extraordinary.


Christopher Payne's photographs perfectly match his subjects: they are strong, yet understated and dignified -- a fitting tribute to the talented architects who built these asylums and the troubled people they sheltered. It's impossible to look at this wonderful book without imagining the people who lived in these formidable structures, and wondering about their lives and what happened to them.

(Henry Horenstein, photographer)

... Asylum is of enormous value, as a record of how such places looked in their final years. More than that, and despite its dismal subject matter, it makes for a remarkable and endlessly fascinating book, one that can be recommended with enthusiasm to both the architectural historian and the general reader.

(Times Literary Supplement)

About the Author

Christopher Payne is a photographer and practicing architect in New York City and the author of New York's Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway.

The late Oliver Sacks was a neurologist and the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, Musicophilia, and other books.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 209 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press; 1 edition (September 4, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262013495
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262013499
  • Product Dimensions: 11.8 x 1 x 10.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #56,758 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 28 people found the following review helpful By emmejay VINE VOICE on December 15, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I came to "Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals" having interpreted "closed" figuratively (i.e. private; inaccessible to the general public). But Christopher Payne intends the word literally here, in this photographic tour of state psychiatric hospitals that have ceased operation and fallen into ruin.

In an introductory essay, neurologist Oliver Sacks discusses asylums as the self-supporting, castle-like sanctuaries they began as in the late 1800s, rather than the wretched places of confinement most grew to be by the mid-1900s. Photographer Christopher Payne laments similarly in his essay: "Sadly, few Americans realize that these institutions were once monuments to civic pride, built with noble intentions by leading architects and physicians who envisioned the asylums as places of refuge, therapy, and healing."

Those essays are followed by nearly 200 full-page photographs (black and white, color) showing the decayed remains of numerous hospitals in dozens of states -- their architecture, grounds, interiors, equipment, and patients' personal effects. Payne returns in an Afterword to describe how this book came to be, and how it felt, over weeks, to watch the demolition of one state hospital that held ties to his childhood.

My only quibbles were that I was confused by frequent blank pages (as though photographs had been removed at the last minute), and I longed for an index. Otherwise, this is a lovely, albeit melancholy, book, and a moving homage to state hospitals.
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45 of 49 people found the following review helpful By Paul Kronenberg on September 30, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I'd been looking forward to Christopher Payne's new book, as I've long had a copy of his book on the forgotten subway power substations.

His new book "Asylum" is even richer than the previous book, as it captures the mood of many of these abandoned mental hospitals. I especially like the interior shots of hallways, treatment areas and especially the behind the scenes shots of boiler rooms,work shops and storage areas.

The exterior shots of many of the hospitals built before 1900 give a glimpse of a whole other approach to the treatment of people in trouble. Many of the buildings look more like resorts and reflect a model of the hospital as a positive place to get away from the pressures of life.

Payne was blessed with access to many of these unused buildings and is further blessed with an eye that sees much and captures it on photos.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Jane on January 14, 2011
Format: Hardcover
"Asylum" is not a book of words as much as it is a book of images. A photo-essay, others have called it. And the pictures definitely tell a story.

"Asylum" contains haunting and classical views of 19th century Kirkbride-plan mental hospitals. The old asylums were closed-off worlds complete with greenhouses, sewing rooms, craft shops, small theaters, even bowling alleys, to occupy and entertain the patient-residents. The hospitals were completely staffed and stocked for nearly every medical contingency. They had the all the facilities and devices of 20th century psychiatric care including: straitjackets, ice showers, immersion tanks, ECT units, and one would imagine, lobotomies, for the 'treatment resistant'.

Entire communities and cultures existed inside those red brick buildings, with their white painted trim around doors and windows, and everything inside painted institutional green. In the old days, thousands of patients lived out their adult lives in these State asylums, with diagnoses like: 'undifferentiated depression' and 'dementia praecox', and were even buried on the premises after they had expired.

This book really brought back some memories. I once lived as a teenager in a residential treatment facility on the grounds of Concord Hospital (originally called: "New Hampshire State Asylum") which is depicted a few times in the book (p45, 47, 143). Looking at the photos of the different institutions in this book, I saw my old room, my old bed, the basement tunnels, the bathrooms we showered in, the chairs we sat in during group, the windows I used to look out of...
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Book Collector on October 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This collection of photographs contains an illuminating forward by Oliver Sachs and beautiful, melancholy views of historically significant architecture that should have been preserved. There's also an interesting section at the end about the tragic destruction of Danvers State Hospital in Boston, the magnificent building that first piqued my interest in this subject. I look forward to seeing more from this photographer.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Amaranth on June 22, 2010
Format: Hardcover
"Asylum" is a fascinating coffee table book of now-abandoned mental hospitals. It's not the usual coffee table book with mouthwatering food or colorful scenic vistas. "Asylum" evokes a bygone age. In the 19th century, mental hospitals were seen as having a salvific mission--they'd be places for refuge, exercise, and therapy. By the following century, they were drab, depressing places where patients were routinely mistreated. Now, many of these buildings are empty shells. The places LOOK haunted. There are mental hospitals that still have the unclaimed ashes of former patients, books on their shelves, artwork on the walls.

"Asylum" shows that mental hospitals used to issue their own postcards, have their own farms. Napa State Hospital was once a stately gothic structure--now it's a set of dreary modern buildings. The book chronicles the destruction of the Danvers Mental Hospital in Massachusetts as well. The now-abandoned gothic building of the asylum in Worcester, Massachusetts struck an eerie chord. I knew a professor who said he had gone there as a child because of his lack of emotions. The Worcester asylum looks like the setting of a horror movie (it was also the only mental institution Sigmund Freud visited when he came to the US in 1909).

"Asylum" has an introduction by psychologist Oliver Sacks. It's a superb, fascinating, poignant and subtly chilling coffee table book.
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