Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum

Non-fiction book about the history of an asylum in Georgia, USA

Content warning: racism, ableism, massacres, eugenics, neglect, abuse, slavery, forced sterlisation

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

“Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the haunting of American psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum” by Mab Segrest is a history of a mental health asylum from when it opened as the Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum in 1842 and how it stood by, was influenced by, was complicit in and actively participated in features of American history such as the massacres of first nations people, slavery, the American Civil War, Jim Crow, forced labour, eugenics, forced sterilisation and the prison-industrial complex until its closure in 2010.

This is an exceptionally well-researched book. According to the acknowledgements, Segrest spent many years investigating the enormous institution that at one point was the largest mental health facility in the USA and the many threads that connected this facility to the American historical context. Under several iterations, and many more superintendents, the asylum is thoroughly deconstructed by Segrest who explores, through newspaper articles, annual reports, journals and clinical records, the impacts of racism, sexism, ableism and white supremacy on its administration and its patients. I felt like the case studies of individual patients who found themselves, one way or another, admitted to the asylum. Their stories were equal parts fascinating and heartbreaking, giving the reader a real appreciation of the impact of segregation, neglect, starvation, hard labour and forced sterilisation on the tens of thousands of individuals who lived and died there.

I thought that Segrest’s research clearly illustrated how dependent the conditions of the asylum were on personal views of those in charge – especially when it came to legislation and funding. As demonstrated by the way people with disability continue to fall through the cracks, better legislation and funding is critical to ensuring that they receive the support and dignity they deserve. It is clear that even in 2020, people with disability are still incredibly vulnerable to abuse. In just the past week here in Australia there have been three devastating stories of unfathomable abuse and neglect that demonstrate that on a systematic level as well as an individual level, people with disability are still being failed. The strongest parts of this book were the anecdotes about the day-to-day life of the patients who found themselves admitted to the asylum.

As is often the case with well-researched books, it can be difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out. There is no question about the breadth of Segrest’s research on this topic, and she follows up every single lead that might provide more understanding about the asylum and how it came to be. However, I think at times the breadth of this book was at the expense of the depth. While I appreciate how important political history is to the American psyche, and historical periods and events were to the nature of the asylum, I think a stronger focus on the asylum itself would have made the book a little easier to follow. Particularly in the earlier parts of the books, Segrest peppers the book so liberally with metaphors and historical and cultural references that it does at time result in quite dense reading.

Segrest approaches psychiatry with a level of skepticism informed by the circumstances through which the field has developed and evolved. She critically examines the social factors experienced by patients admitted to the asylum and offers alternative explanations for symptoms of mental illness including environmental factors such as poverty, physical illness, malnutrition, culture, abuse and prolonged exposure to trauma. I agree that these factors are important to consider, and I can understand Segrest’s reluctance to lean too far into genetic causes for mental illness and disability given the horrors of eugenics policies.

However, having worked in mental health, I feel that she did downplay the impact that untreated and unsupported mental illness can have on an individual’s life outside a clinical setting and that this too can leave them vulnerable to abuse, neglect and homelessness in the community, especially without families or friends equipped to care for them. Regardless of her views on the utility of diagnostic tools such as the DSM-5, I think that we must accept that sometimes people do have symptoms of a mental illness or disability that do not have an environmental cause. I think by accepting people for who they are without looking for an external explanation (and unintentionally apportioning blame), we can better design a system that works for the individuals affected.

An important and thoroughly-researched book whose proverbial forest was at times obscured by the (pecan) trees.

 

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Pachinko

Historical family saga novel about Japanese occupation of Korea

Content warning: suicide, HIV

I have heard a lot about this book and so when a copy made its way to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation’s Great Book Swap I hosted at work last year (go team Yirrikipayi!), I snaffled it up. This year is the 10 year anniversary of this incredible fundraising event, so make sure you sign up (using appropriate social distancing, of course). This is another book that has waited patiently on my shelf for a while, and ticks the box for two reading challenges I’m doing this year: the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge and #StartOnYourShelfathon.

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“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee is a historical family saga novel that spans from 1910 to 1989 in what is now known as South Korea and Japan. The book begins with the birth of Hoomie, a stoic, sensible man with two visible disabilities in a south-eastern seaside village in Japanese-occupied Korea. As the story progresses, the focus shifts to his young, pragmatic wife Yangjin and their beloved daughter Sunja. Seduced by an older, wealthy man, when Sunja discovers he is married, she is determined to forget him and raise their child alone. However, when a young Christian minister called Isak boarding at their home offers a solution, she travels with him to Osaka, Japan to start a new life. There, the reader meets Isak’s brother and sister-in-law, and we watch Sunja, her children and her children’s children unfurl in a country that, decades on, looks down on ethnic Koreans.

This book is a very compelling read and particularly in the beginning hooks you in. Lee has done exceptional research and the settings and era are fully realised, particularly through food, clothing and cultural norms. I have never been to Korea (and sadly had to cancel my honeymoon to Japan), but I had a number of Korean friends and classmates when I was in high school. A beautiful and unbelievably sweet Korean friend who only studied with us for a year had a similar facial difference to Hoomie. Lee’s exploration of how stigma associated with visible disability, intellectual disability and mental illness impacts not only the individual concerned, but their parents, children and even grandchildren, especially in relation to marriage prospects, gave me so much more understanding of what my friend must have gone through growing up.

I had another classmate who people used to say was part Japanese, was in gangs and had connections with yakuza. Reading this book really unpacked some of the meaning in this kind of talk for me, and how precarious the position was for Koreans who stayed in Japan after the war and ingrained racism became for these people who were no longer as Korean as the people left behind, but also not Japanese enough to be recognised as citizens. Disadvantage is something that marks Sunja’s family – evolving from poverty to racial discrimination. Even after Sunja’s children and grandchildren manage to claw their way to success, they are still marred by their ethnicity and for some, the knowledge that they will never be Japanese is too heavy a cross to bear.

I think one of the most interesting things about this book is it is only the second book I have ever read about a non-Western nation colonising another. I think these stories are incredibly important because it is a Eurocentric idea that the only examples of colonialism were Western examples, and because these themes of power imbalances, direct discrimination, stereotypes and structural inequality are universal themes that still play out around the world today. The title of this book, pachinko, was absolutely perfect. It references a key industry for several of the characters, but it also captures the struggle of trying everyday to win success in life when so much is left to chance and overnight someone tampers with the machine in such a succinct metaphor.

However, there were a few things about this book that I wasn’t completely supportive of. Lee introduces an ensemble cast, and the story skips from one character to another, highlighting a lot of the various social issues they are exposed to. As is tempting in a book of this magnitude, I think there were times where Lee tried to include too many things. Some of the stories As strong a proponent I am for inclusion, the parts of the book that deal with same-sex attraction felt gratuitous and lacking in the depth accorded to their heterosexual counterparts. I felt that while Lee very convincingly describes the situations her characters found themselves, I would have liked a little more development of the reasons why her characters found themselves there. Lee writes about suicides, and perhaps this is me showing some ignorance about the significance of cultural belonging in Japan, but I felt that the reasons weren’t expounded upon enough.

Anyway, a gripping book about a very important part of history in which it was occasionally a little difficult to see the forest for the proverbial trees.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Miss Austen

Historical fiction about Jane Austen’s sister

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist.

Miss Austen

“Miss Austen” by Gill Hornby is a historical fiction novel about Cassandra Austen, writer Jane Austen’s older sister. In her 60s, Cassandra drops in all but unannounced to the vicarage in Kintbury to visit Miss Isabella, also a spinster, following the death of her father Reverend Fulwar Craven Fowle. Close family friends, Cassandra was once engaged to Fulwar’s brother Tom and her sister Jane was a keen correspondent with Fulwar’s wife Eliza. After Jane’s death and continuing success as a novelist, Cassandra appoints herself the keeper of Jane’s reputation and is determined to make sure that nothing compromising remains.

This is an interesting novel that tackles a great mystery in the history of Jane Austen: why did Cassandra burn so many of her letters after her death? Hornby has chosen a good subject for her novel, and has clearly spent a lot of time researching the Austen family and the places they visited and lived. I felt that Hornby captured the linguistic style of the time well, particularly in the letters, and the idyll of coastal towns and country villages. I actually visited Jane Austen’s house in Chawton last year, and it was a lovely experience visiting some of the other haunts of the Austen family including the range of wealth among the siblings. I think Dinah the maid was one of my favourite characters and her sneakiness and loyalty to Miss Isabella were very enjoyable to read.

Jane Austen’s writing desk at Chawton

I think there were two things that I wasn’t fully on board with. One was the reason why Cassandra seeks out Jane’s letters to scrub them from the official record. Hornby wrote the letters really beautifully, but I think I would have liked a little more artistic license. The contents of the letters is the one unknowable thing, and I felt Hornby could have added a bit more spice, intrigue and controversy and drawn some modern themes into a classic period. The other thing was the rationale behind Cassandra’s spinsterhood, and I would have liked a bit more commitment either to her one true love or her chosen path as dutiful sister.

A relaxing and easy read that tells a little-known story, but that could have used a touch more drama.

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The Secret Commonwealth

Fantasy novel in the new series from the author of “His Dark Materials”

I am certain I wasn’t alone in my excitement when Philip Pullman announced that he would be writing a new trilogy following on from the series “His Dark Materials”, and I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the new series. If you haven’t read the first book, then you might want to avoid this review in case of spoilers. Then, before I knew it, the next book was out and I picked it up from Harry Hartog Woden who, given current circumstances were doing takeaway books. The cover design is brilliant, it’s consistent in style with the first book but so striking in its own right.

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“The Secret Commonwealth” by Philip Pullman is the second book in the trilogy “The Book of Dust” which is set after the events of the “His Dark Materials” series. Lyra is in her early 20s and studying at Oxford in St Sophia’s, a college of young women, but still calls Jordan College, where she was given academic sanctuary as a baby. Lyra has taken her studies seriously, and has become intrigued by new philosophical works advocating for a radical type of rationalism. However, things are not going well for Lyra. Since gaining the ability to separate, she and her dæmon Pantalaimon have become increasingly estranged. When Pan witnesses a murder one night while exploring the city alone, Lyra’s life is turned upside down and she must journey halfway across the world to find answers to the questions she is left with. Meanwhile, Dr Malcolm Polstead, a young academic with secret connections, must trace the murdered man’s steps to find the truth about mysterious roses.

I picked up this book and I was absolutely ensconced for days. Pullman is at his absolute finest in this novel, and combines all the elements required for an excellent novel in perfect measures. Familiar with Lyra as a confident, plucky young girl from the original series, this adult Lyra we meet in just as compelling. Her unusual upbringing and the impact of the events and her decisions in “The Amber Spyglass” have not left her unscathed, and instead we have a young woman who is struggling with self-esteem and finding her place in the world with no family. Pullman pushes his concept of dæmons, an outward expression of your soul shaped like an animal that you can speak with, to completely new places, and I am still thinking about the implications of what it means when you don’t get on with your own dæmon.

This book also shows an entirely new side to Malcolm, who we got to know as a good-natured, resourceful boy in “La Belle Sauvage” and a friendly if boring tutor in “Lyra’s Oxford“. If Lyra’s part of the story explores more deeply the philosophical discourse, Malcolm’s investigates the causes behind the sudden economic and political upheaval and the swift changes to the international religious organisation known as the Magisterium. Since we left him as a young boy, Malcolm has developed a number of skills and has grown into a fascinating and rather intimidating man.

I think that my only critique of this book is that despite being 687 pages long, I did not want it to be over. I rarely tolerate books that are long for the sake of being long, but the pacing and complexity of this novel was so perfectly executed that I was absolutely willing to be at Pullman’s mercy and follow this story to all the unexpected places it goes. I think that this book was better than the first in the trilogy, but it did admittedly develop a lot of the concepts introduced by Pullman in “La Belle Sauvage” who smoothly referenced the events in this book to remind the reader without being overly repetitive.

I cannot wait until the final in the series; Pullman has really hit his stride.

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The Old Lie

Military space opera science fiction

Content warning: war

I was very excited when this book came out recently, because I enjoyed the author’s debut novel so much. These past couple of months have hit the publishing industry hard, with book tours and events being cancelled en masse across the country. So, in a small effort to support local bookstores, I went and bought this and a few others from Harry Hartog Woden who were running a book takeaway service. The cover design is so striking. I was hoping to get this review up in time for ANZAC Day, but alas, it was not to be.

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“The Old Lie” by Claire G. Coleman is a science fiction novel with several point of view characters. Corporal Shane Daniels volunteered for the war and fights the enemy planetside through mud while dreaming of the family left behind. Jimmy is on the run with no documentation or support, trying to find his way back home one station at a time. William is trapped in a cell in a medical facility, with no way of knowing if he can ever leave. The only thing more impressive than Romany “Romeo” Zetz’s flying skills is Romeo’s reputation with women. Weakened by a terrible sickness, Walker is trying to make his way home to his grandfather’s country.

Coleman has constructed a clever novel using multiple perspectives to examine the human impact of war. Although the intergalactic setting may seem far fetched, this is a well-researched novel and the things that happen in this book are all based on things that have happened historically. Even the title, drawn from Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum est, is well-considered. Coleman paints layer upon layer of complexity and the individual stories, particularly Jimmy’s, are engrossing. While the experiences of the main characters seem worlds apart at the beginning, with Shane and Romeo more than willing to risk their lives for the war, as the book progresses, the true nature of the Federation and their positions in it becomes clear. This book is at heart a political commentary on the way Aboriginal people were treated following military service in the World Wars, and it is excellently executed.

However, this is not an easy book to read. War novels aren’t exactly my cup of tea, so the first half of the book, which is all no guts, no glory, was a bit hard going for me, someone who would prefer no war altogether in fiction and real life. This book, like the reality of war, is incredibly violent and that violence, physical or otherwise, is extremely confronting in Coleman’s hyper-realistic style. Coleman uses a lot of tools to hit her point home, but after a while I was a little overwhelmed by the “hammering of small-arms fire”, “stomach contents” and “the screams [that] would not stop”.

A well-written and well-researched novel that science fiction buffs and war history aficionados will enjoy equally.

 

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In the Vanishers’ Palace

Vietnamese-inspired queer fantasy novella

It was my turn to host the feminist fantasy book club I’m in, but alas: social distancing. I had chosen this book after coming across a list of Asian-inspired fantasy and this one looked particularly interesting. However, until basically this past weekend, having guests over was basically illegal and that meant that book club was suspended indefinitely. Except, I really wanted to have book club and was missing all my friends, so I decided to host a virtual book club. Three members put their hand up for a DIY dinner pack, and I had a great time foraging for ingredients and containers to put together the bare bones of a two-ish course meal that just needed wet ingredients and cooking. The menu: rice paper rolls, pho and spiked Vientamese coffee. The evening was pretty successful! While there were some technical difficulties early on, and limits to how many could be in the video chat at once, and some mysterious reverberation, it was a great night and I loved seeing what everyone cooked.

In the Vanishers' Palace by Aliette de Bodard

“In the Vanisher’s Palace” by Aliette de Bodard is a fantasy novella retelling of the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast“. The story is about Yên, a young woman who lives in a traditional village governed by strict rules and hierarchies. Unless part of the social elite, a villager is only tolerated as long as they remain useful. Yên, an aspiring academic but yet to pass the requisite exams, instead teaches children and helps her mother, the village healer. When Yên’s friend, the daughter of a village elder, is infected by a plague, Yên’s mother summons an ancient dragon called Vu Côn to save her life. However, in this broken world, nothing comes for free, and the village agrees to give Yên to the dragon to pay the debt. Yên is whisked away to a strange palace where Vu Côn sets her the task of teaching her two spirited children. Once there, Yên marvels at the mysterious and deadly palace and slowly grows closer to Vu Côn. However, with the threat of the plague looming closer and secrets threatening to erupt, the least of Yên’s worries is a broken heart.

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My DIY dinner pack

This is a unique story that takes the general elements of “Beauty and the Beast” and reimagines them in a completely different setting. de Bodard is quite a lyrical writer with a keen interest in language and words, and fuses fantasy and science fiction elements to create the palace that is Vu Côn’s home. One room seems to contain a magical library whereas another contains extremely modern technology, and I enjoyed de Bodard’s interplay between modern and ancient.

My friend Rhiannon’s beautifully presented dishes

This is certainly an incredibly inclusive book and aside from queer romance, there are non-binary characters, diverse examples of female leadership and the book itself clearly draws on de Bodard’s own Vietnamese heritage.

My friend Erin-Claire of Erin-Claire Illustration and “The Adventurous Princess and Other Feminist Fairy Tales

However, I wouldn’t say that this would be my first recommendation for a book during the coronavirus crisis. This is quite a dark book, and Yên’s is a world ravaged by illnesses left by the mysterious Vanishers with those who fall ill facing banishment or worse. Given the current times, it was a little hard to want to pick this up to relax after a day spent reading the news.

This was my attempt!

In a similar way to “The Black Tides of Heaven“, I felt that de Bodard raced through this story a little and that the concept of the Vanishers could have been fleshed out a little, or at least hinted at a bit more strongly, than simply the ruins left behind. I also felt that the romantic aspect of the book was a little hurried, and some of the subtlety could have been teased out a little further.

…and my spiked Vietnamese coffee

Nevertheless, this is a quick and spirited read that is an original retelling of a classic fairy tale.

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And, last but not least, Spike using up some of the noodles for lunch the following day

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Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

Ancient book of Persian poetry

I received a copy of this book via one of Beyond Q’s care packages they were offering during the height of the social distancing measures in Canberra. I had quite an exciting experience when I realised that this was one of the books in the pack, because it is of some significance to an unsolved mystery. I don’t read much poetry, to be honest, but this looked both interesting and succinct.

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“Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” translated by Edward FitzGerald and illustrated by Edmund J. Sullivan is a collection of poems by Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and poet Omar Khayyám. FitzGerald provides a brief introduction to the collection before the poetry begins. The style of poetry is ruba’i: Persian four line rhyming poetry. The poems are arranged in a sort of narrative sequence and are largely concerned with life, death, faith, philosophy and hedonism.

This is a well-edited and nicely illustrated book that transitions smoothly from poem to poem with a clear, over-arching narrative. Khayyám includes himself as an older man grappling with his own morality, mortality and the love of a younger woman. This book has quite a nihilistic perspective, with Khayyám concluding that we’re all going to die anyway, so we might as well enjoy ourselves and love and drink to our heart’s desire. The poems present an almost equal balance between existential dread and enjoyment. The illustrations are incredibly evocative and with one per poem, I think that the contribution they have to the overall impact of the book cannot be understated.

There is quite some debate on how authentic FitzGerald’s translations are and, in fact, to how much of the poetry can truly be attributed to Khayyám himself. Not being any kind of expert in Iranian poetry, I cannot comment on this with any kind of authority. However, with possibly hundreds of poems at least thought to have been written by Khayyám, and only 75 selected for inclusion in this collection, I think that it is sensible to consider this largely FitzGerald’s work inspired closely by Khayyám.

It’s unsurprising to me that this volume was so popular. Even for someone who is not much of a poetry aficionado, it is very readable, clear and complex with universal, timeless themes.

 

 

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