- Paperback: 296 pages
- Publisher: PublicAffairs; 1st edition (January 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1586481614
- ISBN-13: 978-1586481612
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 106 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #164,671 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital Paperback – January 7, 2003
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"Touching, humorous, illuminating--in short, irresistible." -- Chicago Tribune
"[Beam] elicits fascinating stories from both residents and staff...[and]...has nicely traced the history of this institution and its inhabitants." -- Entertainment Weekly
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When I was at McLean, psychiatrists did everything they could to discourage me. One told me that when I arrived I was the most severely mentally ill person psychiatrists at McLean had ever seen. Another one told me that I should never return to Harvard. One of my psychiatrists seemed to me to be catatonic. Psychiatrists told my parents that they should have no contact with me since it was they who had caused my insanity. For months I had no word from my parents at all and could not imagine why they should have abandoned me when I needed them the most. After thirteen months, McLean depleted my parents' bank account and I was transferred to a less expensive insane asylum.
I graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1968 at the age of 22 and immediately went into permanent exile to help me try to forget the horrors of my life in America. For the past fifty years I have had a most wonderful life without once consulting a psychiatrist or taking psychiatric medicine.
The most obvious reason for wanting to read about McLean is that a number of famous people stayed there for various periods of time, including poets Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton and musicians James Taylor (and his siblings Livingstone and Kate) and Ray Charles. Some of them wrote about their stay in one way and another, as did other inmates such as Susanna Kaysen, author of Girl, Interrrupted. These people (as well as some of the eccentric Bostonians) are covered in Beam’s book, although somewhat briefly.
The book is also interesting as a sidelight on the history of psychiatry, describing what was considered the best care that money could buy for mental illness at various times. On one hand, the McLean residents obviously were lucky compared to most people who ended up in mental hospitals. On the other hand, with hindsight, it seems questionable whether some of the people described, such as the adolescents diagnosed with what the staff informally called “hippiephrenia” in the 1960s, were really mentally ill at all, as opposed to simply rebellious against or inconvenient for their respectable families.
I found the book somewhat intriguing, but not as interesting as I had hoped it would be in terms of either individual character studies or discussion of mental illness treatments in various periods. I would recommend it mainly to people with a strong interest in the history of the treatment of mental illness.
Because neither families nor insurance companies were any longer willing (or able) to pay for the long-term care it had specialized in, McLean almost closed in the 1990s, shortly before this book was written. In 2017, however, it is still open, affiliated with Harvard Medical School and specializing in the treatment of adolescents.
The book was too light, meaning it didn't go deep enough. With all these disturbed albeit wealthy patients, the author discussed those who committed suicide, and just barely mentioned one who murdered a servant. These seemed to be the most well-known stories. What other infractions did patients do...were there other run-ins with the law? They had schizophrenics, what about kleptomaniacs...since they allowed them to go into town relatively freely? I bet the town shopkeepers weren't crazy about that! But I'm also sure that spreading the wealth around kept things quiet.
As other reviewers remarked, the writing was choppy, and I found the discussion of the science/neuroscience/psychiatry all over the place. I would have liked more information about the psychiatry used in the hospital...
The main reason I picked up the book was because it talked about James Taylor and his siblings being in that hospital. The chapter on all the rock/pop stars from the 60's being in the hospital, and so many poets from the 50's and 60's being there, was fascinating to read. I really wondered why Taylor's liberal parents had to put all three of their children into 'high school' at this hospital...obviously, all the children were sensitive souls, but the parents couldn't manage any of them? This wasn't a boarding school, for heaven's sake.