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Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital [Paperback]

Alex Beam
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 7 2003
Its landscaped ground, chosen by Frederick Law Olmsted and dotted with Tudor mansions, could belong to a New England prep school. There are no fences, no guards, no locked gates. But McLean Hospital is a mental institution-one of the most famous, most elite, and once most luxurious in America. McLean "alumni" include Olmsted himself, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, James Taylor and Ray Charles, as well as (more secretly) other notables from among the rich and famous. In its "golden age," McLean provided as genteel an environment for the treatment of mental illness as one could imagine. But the golden age is over, and a downsized, downscale McLean-despite its affiliation with Harvard University-is struggling to stay afloat. Gracefully Insane, by Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam, is a fascinating and emotional biography of McLean Hospital from its founding in 1817 through today. It is filled with stories about patients and doctors: the Ralph Waldo Emerson protege whose brilliance disappeared along with his madness; Anne Sexton's poetry seminar, and many more. The story of McLean is also the story of the hopes and failures of psychology and psychotherapy; of the evolution of attitudes about mental illness, of approaches to treatment, and of the economic pressures that are making McLean-and other institutions like it-relics of a bygone age.

This is a compelling and often oddly poignant reading for fans of books like Plath's The Bell Jar and Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted (both inspired by their author's stays at McLean) and for anyone interested in the history of medicine or psychotherapy, or the social history of New England.

Frequently Bought Together

Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital + The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic + Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals
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From Amazon

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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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Rich in Anecdotal History July 6 2004
Beam's "Gracefully Insane" is rich in anecdotal history, but poor in other areas. Makes for a light, enjoyable read, but Beam rarely teases out the interesting insights that arise from his excellent access to the inner workings of America's "Premier" mental hospital.
This book will make you think about the (troubled) history of psychiatry/ treatment of mental illness, and Beam's portrait of this institution caused me to shed no tears for the fall of this fabled refuge for blue blooded loons.
Reading interviews with "graduates", its hard not to question the assumptions that underlied McLean's very reasons for existence. Few of the individuals profiled within seem like they were ever a "danger to self or others". Indeed, when a rash of suicides hit McLean a couple of decades ago, the staff were singularly unprepared to cope. Perhaps this is because the "inmates" were not as bad off as one might suppose?
Makes an interesting companion piece for Goffman's "Asylums".
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This book promises to depict the way in which caring of the mentally ill has changed over the last 150 years. I wish the author had kept his promise. Back when McLean was called the Boston Lunatic Asylum, life was a little different for the average schizophrenic patient. And the idea of tracing the development of psychiatry by way of a history of McLean is a great idea. Unfortunately, what we get instead is hodge-podge of Boston Brahmin gossip, architectural history, psychiatric theory, and mundane factoids. I was expecting anecdote, but I wanted revealing anecdote. For instance, Beam writes about all the McLean patients who had received lobotomies. But he never delves into how lobotomized patients acted or how they might have felt about the procedure. I would love to have known why old-time psychiatrists thought hydrotherapy was useful for depressed patients. Beam mentions hydrotherapy, but really doesn't do any more than skim the surface. I guess I wish the author had been someone with some background in mental health. As an aside, I thought it was interesting that the subtitle of the paperback ("Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital") is different from that of the hardcover version ("The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital"). I remember when the book first came out that McLean administrators were unhappy with the hardcover title since it suggested that McLean was on the decline. Why would Beam have changed the name? I tend to think that the reasons had to do with selling more copies of his book rather than with any change of opinion on his part. If that is the case, then Beam is more than just a superficial writer, he is also a sell-out.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Esoterica for a niche market June 3 2003
GRACEFULLY INSANE is advertised as a narrative description of life inside McLean Hospital, "America's premier mental hospital". More accurately, perhaps, the volume is a superficial history of psychiatric care in the United States, or at least as practiced in the Boston area, using McLean as a backdrop.
Mental health care has come a long way from less enlightened times when, according to author Alex Beam, terrorizing patients into wellness was considered effective:
"One German asylum lowered patients into a dungeon filled with snakes." (My mother, a psychiatrist, once told me about a patient of hers who saw pink snakes on the ceiling. Hmmm, I wonder where Mom did her residency.)
The narrative is at its best when describing the evolution of 19th and 20th century methods of therapy: cold water dunking, bath treatments (hot air, electric light, vapor, salt, sitz, loofah), insulin coma, electroshock, metrazole shock, lobotomy, Freudian analysis, and psychopharmacology. Unfortunately, the author fleshes out the text by describing the experiences of specifically named individuals undergoing such cures, usually at McLean. It was then that my eyes began to glaze over and GRACEFULLY INSANE becomes almost a work of local interest since most of the inmates came from Boston's social upper crust, which regarded the hospital as a handy dumping ground for mentally challenged and inconvenient family members.
I was briefly re-invigorated when a 1948 sex scandal involving McLean's psychiatrist-in-chief and a nurse got the pair prosecuted on a Morals Charge (Oh, puhleeze!).
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Alex Beam is a reporter/columnist for the Boston Globe. In this remarkable book he recounts the history of McLean's Hospital in Belmont, which covers history of treatments, grounds, theory and perceptions. McLean's is/was an incredible place. In it's hayday its exterrior was set up like a country club, pools, tennis courts, while the treatment du jour was brain surgery (lobotomy) and electric shock therapy. It explores the "we're the experts and you're not" mentallity of psychiatrists which still occurs. It also recalls how it was the Betty Ford of mental health in-patient centers. The hospital served people such as James Taylor, Sylvia Plath, and Susanna Kaysen. Although mentioned in a chapter, the focus of this book is not just this. Interesting to know that poetry groups and groups for the arts are still occurring on-site.
This book is a complete account of the exterrior and interrior workings of McLeans. Even today, if you walk the grounds, it feels like you're walking a college campus. The place is green, and beautiful. Beam's words and wit, his historic sense, his story telling, and his focus on detail is all encompassing. This book is wonderful and fascinating.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Very good.
Published 3 months ago by donna hayduk
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Doctors/Good Creature Comforts=Acceptance
3/06/03 Alex Beam's "Gracefully Insane" is a frightening example of "Let the Mentally Challenged" dream on (night time ,daytime) nightmares,et al .. Read more
Published on March 6 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
Not only is Gracefully Insane a history of McLean Hospital, but also a history of psychology and mental illness treatments of the last two hundred years. Read more
Published on Feb. 19 2003 by Rhonda C. Elsaesser
3.0 out of 5 stars Unbalanced
I was disappointed in this book, especially after all the good reviews. The book is heavy on gossip, real estate issues and miscellaneous information. Read more
Published on Feb. 1 2003 by Maere
3.0 out of 5 stars Unbalanced
I was disappointed in this book, especially after all the good reviews. The book is heavy on gossip, real estate issues and miscellaneous information. Read more
Published on Feb. 1 2003 by Maere
5.0 out of 5 stars Great history of a field and an institution
Like others, I found this satisfying on several levels. Beam does a commendable job of reviewing the history of psychiatry since the early 19th century and appropriately noting the... Read more
Published on Jan. 20 2003 by Richard A. Jenkins
5.0 out of 5 stars A Review by someone who has worked at McLean for 20 years.
This book is an engaging account of what still is America's Premier Mental Hospital. I have worked at this hospital as a counselor, and have worked with patients in a direct-care... Read more
Published on July 8 2002 by Doug Holder
5.0 out of 5 stars Will appeal to many different audiences
I have never read anything by Alex Beam before, so it was a pleasant surprise to come across such a talent. His research is thorough and he makes history entertaining. Read more
Published on May 29 2002
4.0 out of 5 stars A brief look at psychiatry and society
Alex Beam's book about the McLean Hospital is more than just a history of a well known mental hospital It also manages to give a glimpse into the changes in psychiatric care, the... Read more
Published on May 10 2002 by Mary G. Longorio
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