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

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PublicAffairs, Jul 21, 2009 - Psychology - 288 pages
3 Reviews
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


A Visit to the Museum of the Cures
By the Best People for the Best People
The Mayflower Screwballs
The Country Clubbers
The Search for the Cure
The Talk Cure Freud and Man at Mclean
Welcome to the Twentieth Century
The Mad Poets Society
Staying On The Elders from Planet Upham
Diagnosis Hippiephrenia
Physician Heal Thyself
Life Goes On
Notes on Sources

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Page 11 - This consists in removing patients from their residence to some proper asylum; and for this purpose a calm retreat in the country is to be preferred: for it is found that continuance at home aggravates the disease, as the improper association of ideas cannot be destroyed. A system of humane vigilance is adopted. Coercion by blows, stripes, and chains, although sanctioned by the authority of Celsus and Cullen, is now justly laid aside.
Page 11 - It was at once seen that feminine instinct had solved the question, and the name was adopted, to convey the idea of what such an institution should be, namely, a place in which the unhappy might obtain a refuge ; a quiet haven in which the shattered bark might find the means of reparation or of safety.

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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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