Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital

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PublicAffairs, Jul 21, 2009 - Psychology - 288 pages
Its landscaped ground, chosen by Frederick Law Olmsted and dotted with Tudor mansions, could belong to a New England prep school. There are no fences, no guards, no locked gates. But McLean Hospital is a mental institution-one of the most famous, most elite, and once most luxurious in America. McLean "alumni" include Olmsted himself, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, James Taylor and Ray Charles, as well as (more secretly) other notables from among the rich and famous. In its "golden age," McLean provided as genteel an environment for the treatment of mental illness as one could imagine. But the golden age is over, and a downsized, downscale McLean-despite its affiliation with Harvard University-is struggling to stay afloat. Gracefully Insane, by Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam, is a fascinating and emotional biography of McLean Hospital from its founding in 1817 through today. It is filled with stories about patients and doctors: the Ralph Waldo Emerson protégé whose brilliance disappeared along with his madness; Anne Sexton's poetry seminar, and many more. The story of McLean is also the story of the hopes and failures of psychology and psychotherapy; of the evolution of attitudes about mental illness, of approaches to treatment, and of the economic pressures that are making McLean-and other institutions like it-relics of a bygone age.

This is a compelling and often oddly poignant reading for fans of books like Plath's The Bell Jar and Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted (both inspired by their author's stays at McLean) and for anyone interested in the history of medicine or psychotherapy, or the social history of New England.

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - steadfastreader - LibraryThing

Tedious. This book would be better described as the history of an elite mental health institution, the likes of which most of us will never see. Indeed, at the end the only remnant left of 'the old ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - TFS93 - LibraryThing

I was expecting to find out more about the patients and what they had to endure, I didn't find it here. There were brief mentions of a few that stayed here, but not enough to hold my interest. This ... Read full review


1 A Visit to the Museum of the Cures
2 By the Best People for the Best People
3 The Mayflower Screwballs
4 The Country Clubbers
5 The Search for the Cure
6 The Talk Cure
7 Welcome to the Twentieth Century
8 The Mad Poets Society
9 Staying On
10 Diagnosis
11 Physician Heal Thyself
12 Life Goes On
Notes on Sources

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About the author (2009)

Alex Beam is a columnist for the Boston Globe and the author of two novels. He has also written for the Atlantic Monthly, Slate and Forbes/FYI. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts with his wife and three sons.

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