Kirkbride Buildings Blog

December 15th, 2008

Asylum: A Mid-Century Madhouse

Last week I picked up a copy of Dr. Enoch Callaway’s Asylum: A Mid-Century Madhouse and Its Lessons about Our Mentally Ill Today. In case you’re not aware: Dr. Callaway was a psychiatrist at Worcester State Hospital in the late 1940s and Asylum is a memoir of his time there. I have to say it’s a great read. Each memory is told with intelligence and wit in one short chapter which you can usually breeze through in about two or three minutes. In spite of their brevity, these concise vignettes provide remarkably insightful illustrations of the hidden world of Worcester State Hospital in the mid-twentieth century.

If you’re looking for pictures, Asylum doesn’t have a whole lot unfortunately. The ones it does have are pretty common (except for one medical staff group shot on the hospital lawn). There isn’t much in the way of in-depth descriptions of the Kirkbride either. Dr. Callaway focuses much more on events and people than on architecture. But the Kirkbride building is where most of the story takes place and it gets plenty of references. You can tell Dr. Callaway has a lot of affection for the old building and a sadness over it’s demise—as well as the hospital’s general decline.

But mostly the book is about the patients and staff, their interactions with each other, the methods of treatment, the advances and failures. In addition to the expected anecdotes about hydrotherapy, ECT, and lobotomy, Callaway tells several unusual stories—like how a “magic mirror” cured one patient’s schizophrenia. You also get a sense of the “pressure cooker” intellectual environment that made Worcester something special among state hospitals, and an important part of the history of psychiatric care.

Dr. Callaway’s style of writing is really refreshing. It’s intelligent without ever being patronizing, and lacks the repetitiveness that often plagues most written state hospital reminiscences. Sometimes the stories are funny, sometimes they’re sad, but they’re always interesting and I really recommend the book to anyone who wants to learn more about the history of Worcester State Hospital.

Has anyone else read Asylum yet? I’d be interested to hear what other people think about the book.

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  1. WSH December 15, 2008, 2:03 pm

    Well you beat me to it! I ordered this book last week as a Christmas present to myself. I’ll get back to you as soon as I finish reading it.

  2. Chandra December 15, 2008, 7:49 pm

    I’m not a big reader, but i love this book. One of my favorites. I like the atmosphere of the book, he brought a lot of humor into it making life brighter then a lot books. One of my favorite parts was of the women who thought she was a train during the full moon. He brought up a lot of good points, like how have “jobs” made the patients feel normal. Also how working on the farm was therapeutic for schizophrenic paranoids..”what could you said to a cow that would upset her?”

  3. Ethan December 16, 2008, 12:56 pm

    Yeah, Dr. Callaway’s good-natured humor definitely adds something special. I don’t think the book would have been the same without it.

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