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Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital Paperback – Jan 7 2003

4.5 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 296 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs; 1 edition (Jan. 7 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1586481614
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586481612
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 1.9 x 21 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 440 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #134,460 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

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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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An artfully written historical account of America's premiere mental hospital. The setting of Girl Interrupted and Silvia Plath's The Bell Jar. A rare glimpse into the history and treatment of mental illness, in an untraditional setting.
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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Hardcover
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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