Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America’s Premier Mental Hospital

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.

Alex Beam’s Gracefully Insane is a knowledgeable historical portrait of New England’s McLean Hospital, until recently the mental institution equivalent of the Plaza Hotel. Fenceless and unguarded, McLean’s grounds were landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted. Amenities included tennis courts, a golf course, room service, and a riding stable. As one director said, “If you don’t know where you are, then you’re in the right place.” Its patients have included James Taylor, Robert Lowell, and Ray Charles. It also looms large in The Bell Jar and Girl, Interrupted, written by former patients Sylvia Plath and Susanna Kaysen. Beam weaves patients’ and employees’ stories with an informal review of mental health treatments through the years, including lobotomies, insulin-induced comas, ice-water baths, and a ghastly device called the “coercion chair.” Gracefully Insane is amiable, lively, and honest. Its many anecdotes (derived from patient records, journals, and interviews) are by turns poignant, humorous, and unsettling. –H. O’Billovitch

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Tags: New Health Ideas

3 comments for “Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America’s Premier Mental Hospital

  1. "e_barry"
    December 1, 2014 at 4:30 AM

    Breakdowns of the Rich and Famous 0

  2. Michael Ramseur
    December 1, 2014 at 4:33 AM

    entertaining and erudite 0

  3. platasil
    December 1, 2014 at 4:55 AM

    Amusing book by a non-professional 0

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