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.