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Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital Paperback – January 7, 2003

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Editorial Reviews Review

Alex Beam's Gracefully Insane is a knowledgeable historical portrait of New England's McLean Hospital, until recently the mental institution equivalent of the Plaza Hotel. Fenceless and unguarded, McLean's grounds were landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted. Amenities included tennis courts, a golf course, room service, and a riding stable. As one director said, "If you don't know where you are, then you're in the right place." Its patients have included James Taylor, Robert Lowell, and Ray Charles. It also looms large in The Bell Jar and Girl, Interrupted, written by former patients Sylvia Plath and Susanna Kaysen. Beam weaves patients' and employees' stories with an informal review of mental health treatments through the years, including lobotomies, insulin-induced comas, ice-water baths, and a ghastly device called the "coercion chair." Gracefully Insane is amiable, lively, and honest. Its many anecdotes (derived from patient records, journals, and interviews) are by turns poignant, humorous, and unsettling. --H. O'Billovitch --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

"The insane asylum seems to be the goal of every good and conscious Bostonian," Clover Adams wrote in 1879. The asylum she was referring to is the now legendary McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., and in this fascinating, gossipy social history, Boston Globe columnist Beam pries open its well-guarded records for a look at the life of the storied institution. McLean is best known today for its parade of famous patients like Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Ray Charles and all three Taylor children. But these notable "alumni" followed in the footsteps of generations of privileged clientele drawn primarily from Boston's most elite families. From its 1817 inception, McLean's trustees aimed to provide a discreet and appropriately opulent setting for the convalescence of the upper classes. The 250-acre grounds a scattering of Tudor mansions among scrub woods and groomed lawns were planned by landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted (later a McLean patient himself). The hospital offered private rooms, tennis courts, a bowling alley and the latest cures. Beam traces the hospital's place in the history of psychiatric treatment, from the early days of ice water therapies and moral management through the introduction of modern psychopharmacology. He discusses McLean's current condition neither individuals nor insurers can afford McLean's long-term care, and the downsized hospital faces an uncertain future. More than a history of a psychiatric institution, the book offers an unusual glimpse of a celebrated American estate: the Boston aristocracy that produced, for nearly two centuries, an endless stream of brilliant, troubled eccentrics and the equally brilliant and eccentric doctors who lined up to treat them. B&w photos. Agent, Michael Carlisle.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 296 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs (January 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1586481614
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586481612
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (89 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #239,172 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 44 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 29, 2002
Format: Hardcover
By the time McLean Hospital opened its doors in the mid-19th century, mental
illness had been treated by such methods as lowering the patient into a
dungeon filled with snakes, pelting him with vigorous spouts of cold water,
inducing vomiting, draining great quantities of blood, spinning him on a
rotating board, dosing him with opium and hashish, and soaking him in a warm,
electrified bath. Founded at the dawn of the Freudian age, McLean offered
something revolutionary: fresh-baked rolls and art lessons, therapy by
landscaping. Alex Beam gives us a fascinating tour of the next century in
what one doctor bemoaned as the "medical playground" of psychiatry. On the
manicured campus in Belmont, doctors adopted and then rejected lobotomy,
adopted and rejected Freudian analysis, and were finally drawn with all their
profession in the direction of psychopharmacology. Anne Sexton taught poetry
there before her own suicide, and Sylvia Plath and Susanna Kaysen emerged
with syllabus-ready memoirs, and one patient of Freud's greeted doctors every
morning by saying "I am my father's penis." Beam is a skeptical inquirer, and
his book may ruffle the feathers of local psychiatrists. (Has ruffled.) But for ordinary readers, he does what few writers
have done -- tell with humor and intelligence the story of doctors and
patients groping through their suffering and toward some kind of answer.
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44 of 46 people found the following review helpful By platasil on June 30, 2011
Format: Paperback
Reading about the "crazy" lives of wealthy schizophrenics is interesting and the book does give a base outline of the history of modern psychology, but the author's lack of professional knowledge about the actual illnesses he discusses becomes more and more disturbing.
I really enjoyed the first half or so of the book, but by the time he starting in on the patients of the 60's I became a little angry. I'm a psych nurse myself and I've worked in a large state hospital and a private hospital. I have seen mental illnesses of all intensities and varities displayed. The author suggests that the patients of the 60's were just spoiled little babies whose over-conservative parents didnt understand. Well- I wish he would have actually read a book on borderline personality disorder or at least tried to meet some people who have it before he made light of the illness itself. Is it a very well understood disorder? No. Is it easy to treat/cure? No. Is it real- oh yes. Based on the behaviors described by the author, its evident that so many of the patients he dismisses actually do have it. Did he read Girl Interrupted? Has he even looked at the DSM-IV? Did he try to spend any time on a functioning pysch ward anywhere?
I think the other chapters dealing more with schizophrenics and bipolar patients would have been enhanced had the author developed an understanding of the disorders as well. I mean- its amusing to read about the bizarre behaviors of the wealthy elite's crazy folks- but in the end you are dealing with people whose brains dont work- what a sad sad fate for anyone.
The real story of this hospital is of course the same sad story of all mental hospitals today- underfunded and ignored. Mental illness is alive and well- look at our prisons, homeless population and drug addicts. I'm not one to stand on a soap box but the more places like this that close- the more disturbed, dangerous and lost people there will be out in the world. Its a sad and scary thought.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Michael Ramseur on February 6, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I really enjoyed reading Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital. It's a book that I found both entertaining and erudite. Alex Beam's exceptional writing talent brings to life a colorful and misunderstood institution, the famous McLean Hospital. He effortlessly interweaves annecdotal stories of the rich, famous, and talented (not necessarily in that order) with an insightful look into the history of mental health in America. I find this book to be both scholarly and a tantalizing read--no mean feat! Beam captures the tragic/comic aspects of his complex subject in a way that leaves me feeling wistful for the days when patients were able to stay long enough in a hospital to receive therapeutic benefits. Ultimately, the author vividly captures a McLean Hospital that, despite its faults and shortcomings, provided a much needed asylum from modern life for many fortunate enough to afford it.
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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on March 6, 2002
Format: Hardcover
We still have psychiatric asylums, places where those intractable patients of minimal hope of improvement are kept. It is useful to look at the original sense of the word "asylum," which meant a sanctuary, where those inside could take refuge from the outside. Such refuge is no longer the fashion, with "community care" (and plenty of antipsychotic medicines) deemed a sufficient refuge for most. But the rich are different, as everyone knows, and it used to be that there were posh institutes where a family could house (or warehouse) a dotty cousin and could rely upon discretion to keep the patient quiet and quietly removed from society, or Society. Now there is a biography of one of these institutions, one which had a reputation among the moneyed as being the best in the business. _Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of American's Premier Mental Hospital_ (PublicAffairs) by Alex Beam tells the story of McLean Hospital, which had a long guest register of famous and moneyed clients.
Beam does not spend much time on the early history of the hospital. In 1895 it moved to its grand grounds in the woodsy Boston suburbs and it became home to "an improved class of sufferers." It housed a rather amazing cast of characters, and perhaps in tune with the upbeat and upscale McLean atmosphere, they are presented as amusing eccentrics. Beam does not emphasize the pain of their conditions, but he does show the futility of treatment (insulin shock, hydrotherapy, talk therapies, electroshock) for most of them. As pharmaceutical therapies and then managed-care became the way to treat psychiatric patients, McLean lagged behind. Many of the patients stayed on and on, getting expensive care paid in a lump initial sum by families who never wanted to see them again.
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