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My Time in the Sanitarium: Six Books Based in Mental Health Facilities

In the Middle Ages, European villages would deal with their problem citizens—the mad, the criminals, the religious zealots—by loading them onto boats and sending them downriver to the next town. Foucault describes in Madness and Civilization how this remedy fell out of fashion with the invention of the modern-day asylum, as more people were institutionalized and “cured” of their insanity.

Over the centuries, the “cures” offered in asylums were as diverse as they were cruel: from the lobotomy to electroshock therapy, to a horrific mask invented by a 19th-century German doctor to prevent screaming in patients. Little attention was paid to the patients’ own understandings of their illnesses and their inner worlds. Collected here are some of the most engaging accounts of mental illness and life in the sanitarium as understood by the patients themselves. 

Down Below

Surrealist artist and author Leonora Carrington entered a sanitarium in Santander, Spain, in 1940, just as she fled German-occupied France and just as her lover, artist Max Ernst, was sent to a concentration camp. Her slim book, Down Below, is a description of her life at the sanitarium and of her increasingly convoluted beliefs at the time: “I convinced myself that Madrid was the world’s stomach and that I had been chosen for the task of restoring this digestive organ to health.” This was not a metaphor: Carrington believed her physical pains were the manifestation of a sick world that only she could fix. Down Below is a standout of books written about life in the asylum, at once a matter-of-fact recounting of delusions and a map of sanitarium life during World War II.

Memoirs Of My Nervous Illness

Among psychoanalysts, Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness is considered a text unlike any other, praised by Freud and others for the insight it offered into schizophrenia. First published in 1903 in German, Schreber’s memoirs methodically dissect the German judge’s visions and fantasies and the forces he believes are at work in his madness. Schreber describes how his daily actions, from waking up to going to the bathroom, were dictated by gods engaged in an epic struggle for the soul of humanity. Schreber undoubtedly endured cruel treatment at the hands of his doctors in the asylum, and his memoirs speak to his condition in a way that no outsider could.

Walks with Walser

“I have not come here to write; I have come here to be mad.” So Swiss author Robert Walser tells Carl Seelig, who visited the frail and aging writer regularly at a sanitarium in Herisau, Switzerland, starting in 1936. Though Walks With Walser is filled with Seelig’s recollections of the pair’s strolls from town to town, drinking beer and eating cheese, it’s also Seelig’s attempt to find the answers to some of the mysteries of Walser’s life: Why did he stop writing? Why is he in the sanitarium? Seelig suggests to Walser that maybe one day he will write about the people he has met in the sanitarium. Walser disabuses any notion that he will ever write again: To write one must be free, and Walser never intended to leave the sanitarium. He spent nearly three decades there, until his death in 1956.

Girl, Interrupted

When Susanna Kaysen was forced to entered a psychiatric hospital at the age of 18 in 1967, with no other notes on her admission sheet besides her being “profoundly depressed,” she had reason to be embittered toward her captors. She went from being young and free to being under lock and key. Her memoir is a questioning of the line between sane and insane, which Kaysen believes is not always so clearly defined.

My Lobotomy

Howard Dully never quite understood why he was subjected to a lobotomy as a teenager—he doesn’t remember being particularly unruly or disruptive—but he was certain that the operation didn’t fix any of his problems, it only seemed to intensify them. In this memoir, Dully recounts his transorbital lobotomy and the many years he spent in and out of institutions in the 1960s. But at the root of the memoir is his trying to understand why his stepmother was so eager to institutionalize him and why the doctors allowed it in the first place.

The Lives They Left Behind

In 1995, New York’s Willard State Hospital closed after more than a century of operations and left behind an attic full of suitcases containing patients’ meager belongings, some dating back to the early 20th century. The authors of The Lives They Left Behind parse through the contents of the suitcases to try and piece together the lives of the hospital’s patients, both through the objects they owned and through archival research. What they find is shocking and disheartening: Many of the patients entered the hospital at a young age only to never be released. The stories of the lost lives that emerge in this book are testament to the silence of many more.

Writer and editor based in Texas. Desert island book: Riddley Walker.


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