I bought this book primarily thinking that it would be an even-handed exercise in sociology and amateur archaeology. As someone who really enjoys exploring abandoned buildings and postulating on the things people "leave behind" to be forgotten and then found again, I was really excited about the idea of finding out more about the lives of actual mental patients during the period of widespread institutionalization. Overall, my reaction to this book was mixed.
First of all, the authors of this book take a very strong anti-asylum tone. While it stands to reason that conditions in the asylums at the time were far from what would be considered acceptable today, no comparison is made nor information given as to how Willard compared to other asylums at the time. Furthermore, the authors shed very little light on the condition of psychology as it existed in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Other than arguing that a culture prevailed which encouraged a maintenance of the status quo in order for the hospitals to exploit the free labor of the patients, little insight is given (and even this argument is weakly made).
Another problem that I found with this book is that very little information is given on how the details of the lives of these people were acquired. While some of the information is explicitly drawn from the case files as well as interviews with workers at the asylum, the narratives are filled with holes in which the authors posit a number of intriguing, but unsupported theories. An example of this may be seen in a description of someone as being "close to her family" due to the fact that she had personal phone numbers in her possessions. Likewise, on several occasions the book posits that a patient may not have been popular or easy to get along with, due to the frequency of her changing address. While certainly one possibility, such assertions are made continuously on a whole variety of subjects with what appears to be scant grounding.
Generally, the portrayal of health care the authors seek to portray is one which is callous, cold, unsympathetic, and deliberately exploitative. Generally, the people analyzed by the authors are portrayed as being generally normal, ordinary people- who through some quirk, a high degree of emotional stress, or even sinister machinations- were involuntarily warehoused in a sort of prison which only worsened their condition. The symptoms of the patients are presented in a curious, detached sort of way, and at no time do the authors raise any questions with regards to what sorts of conditions the patients may actually have had, or that they were genuinely suffering from serious mental disorders. While some of this may certainly be true, the positions of the authors- that people were incarcerated for decades in mental hospitals simply for becoming upset in public or trying to talk with the president-- seems unlikely.
When the man in question is arrested by the Secret Service and sent to a mental hospital for trying to see the president, the authors postulate that the Ukranian man was just misunderstood and didn't realize that one does not simply walk into the White House to meet the president. The fact that he refers to himself as Jesus Christ in his interviews is not seen to be a sign of mental disorders, so much as an unusual way of expressing his personal innocence. While this is all very psycho-analytical, it does very little to explain how a handful of doctors-- faced with overcrowding and deteriorating facilities-- would have been unable to see the misunderstanding and let him go instead of keeping him locked up for 30+ years.
Furthermore, the book is compounded by a number of factual errors. For example, in describing the arrival of a Ukranian national to the hospital, the authors refer to the armies of tanks which fought in the Ukraine in 1940 after the Germans had pushed past Leningrad (for the record, the Germans did not invade until 1941 and Leningrad is in Russia, on the opposite side of the country from the Ukraine). Likewise a half-French, half-Italian woman is described as coming from countries from which there were "few immigrants to the United States."
Overall, this book is an interesting look at the lives of people held in almost permanent sequestering inside a mental hospital. However, given the ideological bent of the writers, one cannot help but feeling as though the tragic lives of these people are being filled in or "colored" in order to make a case for the elimination of in-patient mental health care.