For as long as we can all remember, insane asylums (to be totally un-PC) have been a staple of horror movies. They come up as haunted locations almost as much as houses do. And there’s a very good reason for that. Because the history of mental health care in America is not only very dark, it’s shockingly so in ways you might not expect.
It’s normal to hear of old remedies for illness that just don’t make any sense. Remedies that are far worse than the illness they’re supposed to treat. But what about when torture isn’t just a result of unfortunately misguided medical practice, but the actual aim itself? Believe it or not, torture of various kinds were once thought to ameliorate mental health issues for the very fact that they were so traumatic. Shock treatment and lobotomies are of course described in detail, but near-drownings, the inducement of extreme fear, unnecessary teeth pulling, and other incredible things feature here as well. Combine this thought process with a period in history when eugenics was thought to be a legitimate thing and you have a recipe for true horror. This book isn’t a horror story in the traditional sense. It doesn’t explore the ghosts that haunt particular institutions. But it does lay out the history of mental health and describe ghosts of a more metaphorical sort, ghosts that might still haunt us today.
My only real complaint is that there’s a lack of information here about what was considered mental illness at different points in history. There’s no way that these things could have been the same that they are now. It also tends to focus disproportionately on specific illnesses, like schizophrenia, without really describing much about what these illnesses are. It’s frustrating, but doesn’t seem to make the book any less interesting.
We can only progress and move forward from learning from the mistakes of the past, and this book is full of the most unbelievable mistakes you may have ever read about. If it weren’t so damn sad it would be hilarious. As it is, it serves as a very important reminder of the past that we shouldn’t dare ever forget.
You can read Black Cargoes and learn quite a lot about slavery in America, but there’s nothing quite like a first hand account written by someone who didn’t just learn about it, but actually experienced it. Though it’s not jam-packed with a wide array of facts, it’s something very special, as long as you go into it fully understanding the context in which it was written.
First of all, this memoir was written around 1853, so the language is not in the modern style that we’re used to. Though obviously this isn’t particularly difficult to understand, it does tend to slow me down a bit. Solomon Northup is also not a writer, and his style can come across as very formal and even awkward at times. He is however, a talented and brilliant man not afraid to stand up for himself, far smarter than me or almost anybody I know, and this, along with the fact that this is a first-hand account from an outsider-turned-insider, kept me going until things REALLY got good. The part that first brought this book to life for me was the description of Christmas among the slaves, and you can really feel the joy he describes as it seems to jump off the page and you can’t get the picture of Solomon with a huge smile on his face and wistful eyes out of your head. The moment is magical. It’s obvious that what he says about it is true, it is a slave’s most favorite part of the year, and their excitement is tangible. I loved reading his detailed descriptions of those days more than any other part, and even if I had found the earlier part to be dry, these memories would have easily made the whole thing worth it.
Of course this book is not dry though, not when you consider that all the facts related here are absolutely true. And towards the end as the wheels get in motion towards restoring Solomon to freedom, the suspense builds for the reader nearly as much as it did for him as he waited to learn whether he would ever meet his family again or live out the rest of his life as a slave. His story is brief, but detailed and honest, and definitely a worthy investment of time.
Other suggested reads: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.