Tag Archives: history

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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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, eBooks, Non Fiction

Migraine: A History

Non-fiction book about the history of treating migraines

Back in the days when gyms were allowed, I was using audiobooks to help motivate myself to go. The rule was that I was only allowed to listen to the book while physically inside the gym building. This meant that in order to hear what happened next, I would have to go back to the gym. It was a great system! Anyway, I was flipping through Audible, trying to figure out what to spend my credits on, and I came across this book. I’ve had migraines since I was about 10 years old, so this is a topic close to my…brain.

Migraine: A History cover art

“Migraine: A History” by Katherine Foxhall and narrated by Robin J Sitten is a non-fiction book about the history of diagnosing and treating migraines. Foxhall examines how early physicians responded to their patients complaining the constellation of symptoms we now associate with migraine, and attitudes changed over time.

This is a fascinating book that taught me a lot about the way migraine is viewed by society. Interestingly, Foxhall argues that during the Middle Ages, physicians were more sympathetic to migraines (despite the brutal treatments they often tried out on their patients). It was only later that migraine began to be associated with weak, feminine and intellectual individuals unsuited to the hardships of labour outdoors. Foxhall argues that this change in social attitude has meant that migraine, despite being such a common and debilitating chronic condition, has received so little medical interest and funding. She compares this with other illnesses associated with women and touches on the issue of pain bias in the medical profession.

Foxhall is a clear, thorough researcher who explores in great detail the hardships many patients were subjected to in addition to their migraines. Sitten does an admirable job of bringing spirit into a non-fiction work, and her slightly sardonic tone was particularly enjoyable when reading the more gruesome treatments patients were subjected to.

However, this book taught me two other things. One, non-fiction is difficult for me to listen to for prolonged periods of time. Two, long books are difficult for me to listen to for prolonged periods of time. Despite Foxhall’s compelling research and Sitten’s reading style, it is hard to make a non-fiction book exciting to listen to, especially one written in an academic style. This book is just shy of 10 hours long, and with introductions, chapter summaries and conclusions, there was quite a lot of repeated information. Foxhall also spends a significant amount of time at the end of the book describing migraine art competitions which felt a little bit hard to relate to without actually looking at the artwork itself. It is also worth mentioning that this is a Eurocentric book, and while I appreciate that linguistic barriers exist, I would have really liked to have learned about how migraine has been considered and treated in non-Western cultures as a comparison.

Although perhaps a bit too long and academic to keep me enthusiastic at the gym, I related a lot to this book and learned a lot about how medical opinions on migraines have changed over the centuries, and not necessarily for the better.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

My Name is Book

Creative non-fiction short history of books

I actually have no recollection of where this book came from. There are no clues on it either except for a faded sticker that says $16.99 on the back. Was it a gift? Did it appear in my street library? Who knows! The important thing was that it was short, because I had mere days left to reach my 2019 reading goal.

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“My Name is Book” by John Agard and illustrated by Neil Packer is a short creative non-fiction book about the history of books. The book is told from the perspective of Book, an anthropomorphised representative of all books, who reflects on how books evolved from stories told by the fire to the eBooks of today.

Agard is a talented wordsmith who has a clear background as a poet. It is an easy, lyrical read with plenty of historical highlights, interesting designs, calligraphy, illustrations and poetry to keep the reader engaged. Although not particularly a poetry aficionado myself, it was Agard’s poetry, and the poetry of his partner Grace Nicols, that I enjoyed the most. The illustrations are also very beautiful, and I think this would make a really nice coffee table book.

I think it’s probably pretty self-evident that this is not a definitive history of books, but rather a creative non-fiction piece with historical elements. This book has a focus on written language as it developed from the Middle East/Northern Africa and spread through Western culture, and does not go into much detail about other independent inventions of writing around the world.

Nevertheless, a quick and entertaining read that brings books as physical objects to life.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, Non Fiction

The Mosquito

History of the impact of mosquito-borne disease on war

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

“The Mosquito: A human history of our deadliest predator” by Timothy C. Winegard is a non-fiction history of the influence mosquitoes and the diseases that they carry have had on humanity. The book encompasses ancient and modern history, and explores the devastating impact of diseases such as malaria on pivotal historical moments. To make sure you don’t think it’s a book about something else (like I did), this is at heart a military history.

I was really excited to read this book, and I loved the opening. Winegard connects with the reader through the universal experience of being annoyed with a mosquito, and provides a play by play of just exactly how the mosquito’s bite is so irritating. Winegard is certainly very knowledgeable about history, especially military history, and provides a thorough overview of some of the most well-discussed parts of Western history.

Although Winegard’s enthusiasm doesn’t wane as the book progresses, mine certainly did. I was expecting a lot more social and scientific history, and was hoping to read how mosquitoes had shaped our culture and progress. Every time Winegard touched on an area of scientific significance like the decision not to drain the swamps outside Rome until a ridiculously late time and how the mystery of mosquito-borne disease was finally solved, he glossed over the detail. Perhaps it was a question of confidence in the subject-matter, but I really wanted to know how these brilliant scientific minds figured out mosquitoes were the vector for malaria! I reread over that part thinking I’d missed something, but no – it just wasn’t of as much significance to Winegard, who was far more interested in how casualties from disease influenced the outcome of particular wars.

There were also some questionable and likely controversial parts in the book. Probably the most striking was the suggestion that the reason (or at least part of the reason) that African people were sold into slavery was because of genetic blood disorders like sickle cell disease made them more robust against malaria and therefore better workers in the Americas. I think that this would likely not stand up to academic scrutiny, and seems to minimise the reality of racism, greed and racist greed. Margaret Kwateng puts it succinctly in her 2014 paper on race and sickle cell disease: “studies today that try and attribute disparities between the races to genetic differences may be similarly searching for a way to explain inequity in a way that does not selfimplicate”.

A well-written book with some interesting and some challenging ideas by an author whose interests are fundamentally different to mine.

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Dark Emu

Captivating non-fiction on Aboriginal agriculture, aquaculture and architecture 

One thing that is no secret is that I have been making an effort to read more books by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors over the past two years. I’ve read several novels such as “Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms“, “Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior” and “Terra Nullius“. I’ve also read some non-fiction, most notably “Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia“. Each of these books has had a significant impact on the way that I view this country, and has helped to shed a little more understanding to counteract the misguided or absent knowledge I learned about our first nations people when I was young and failed to take enough steps to correct as an adult. A few people recommended that I read this book, especially after having read “Guns, Germs and Steel“, and I finally bought myself a copy.

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The artwork is a magnet my friend bought for me while working in the Northern Territory. The artist is Susan Wanji Wanji, and her art is available via the Munupi Arts and Crafts Association and Alperstein Designs

“Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe is a non-fiction book that compiles records from early white settlers to the continent of Australia to extrapolate a more accurate history of Aboriginal people and their relationship with the land. The book is broken up into several chapters that cover topics including Aboriginal agriculture, aquaculture, population and housing, storage and preservation and fire. Pascoe patiently examines each of his sources going through quotes that refer to Aboriginal grain crops, cuisine, wood and stone housing, penned animals and dams.

You can read my review which is going to be quite long and heated, or you can listen to the far more eloquent speech given by the author himself at the National Library of Australia.

Anyway, to be perfectly frank, any history books currently on the curriculum teaching Aboriginal history should be thrown in the proverbial bin and replaced with “Dark Emu”. Up until this point, for the past 230 years this country has been complacent about the biggest example of collective gaslighting of all time: that Aboriginal people did not manage their land and that Aboriginal people allowed themselves to colonised. Slowly, the fiction has evolved over time. terra nullius morphed into the hunter-gatherer story. The hunter-gatherer story changed to the fire-stick farming story. However, until more recently, Aboriginal people have largely been excluded from telling their own stories and their own histories. Until more recently, people didn’t know about the frontier wars, the truth of the Stolen Generations, or the validity of Aboriginal science.

It must be acknowledged that perpetuating this story of “primitive” Aboriginal people is in the best interests of white Australia. The belief that the people who were already here were not really people, or not as sophisticated as the settlers who arrive, has helped to justify white acquisition of land. As an adult, I have heard stories from people while drinking around campfires of Aboriginal artifacts and burial sites being discovered on farmers’ land and removed and destroyed. When I first heard stories like this, I thought it was through callousness and disrespect that someone would do something like that. However, on reflection and after reading this book, I think that ever since colonisation people have actively destroyed evidence of Aboriginal occupation of land because of the threat of native title.

This book is exceptionally well-researched and Pascoe weaves through a carefully considered commentary and some of his own personal experiences alongside excerpts from diaries and letters of early settlers. The book is meticulously divided into easily accessible sections and I actually found this much, much more readable than the important but relentlessly repetitive “Guns, Germs and Steel”. This is a book that is critically relevant to this country’s past and this country’s future. People ask me from time to time, given the area that I work in but certainly not because of any special personal experience, what I think should be done to create a better future for Aboriginal people in this country. I truly believe that we cannot have a better future until we fully acknowledge the past.

I was desperately sorry that I missed Pascoe’s recent talk at the National Library of Australia, but as I said you can watch it online. I cannot recommend this book more, it is an excellent and necessary edition to Australia’s literary scene and I look forward to seeing the works that emerge from future Aboriginal authors through this newly opened door.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

The Harp in the South

I didn’t have high expectations for this book. Yet another immigration-themed novel, but this time set in Australia, “The Harp in the South” by Ruth Park is one of the Penguin Australia Classics and is a gorgeous-looking hardcover with bright red pages.

“The Harp in the South” is about Irish immigrant family, the Darcys. In the poverty-stricken area of Sydney known as Shanty Town (Surry Hills), pious Mumma, drunk Hughie and their daughters Roie and Dolour live at number Twelve-and-a-Half Plymouth Street. They share their rather squalid home with tenants, but things get even more crowded when Grandma moves in.

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When I first started reading this book, it was with the critical eye of someone living in 2015 and I found myself cringing often, particularly at some of the racial descriptions of the characters such as Lick Jimmy. However, if you take into account that it was originally published in 1948, “The Harp in the South” is actually a pioneer of social justice for its time. It shows multiculturalism in a positive light while the White Australia Policy was still in full swing. It contains positive depictions of an Aboriginal character when Aboriginal people were largely absent from mainstream literature. There are progressive and honest attitudes about sex including suggestions about the importance of consent and that sex work (and the people in the industry) is not necessarily immoral.

There is no question that Park, a professional journalist, had a keen eye for observation. Through her writing, she encourages the reader to look past poverty and see humanity; see exactly the same trials and tribulations we all face as people, regardless of our background. However she also makes it impossible to dismiss the characters because of their socio-economic status, and forces the reader to acknowledge the complexity of factors that cause and maintain poverty.

While an impressive novel for its time, this book isn’t perfect. Although complex, the characters at times do seem a bit like caricatures. Although progressive, there are still some things in there that are pretty cringeworthy by today’s standards. Finally, while it is a fantastic insight into poor Australian life in the 1940s, the attention to detail and day-to-day conversation does sometimes get a bit monotonous.  Nevertheless, “The Harp in the South” is a great piece of Australian literature and a fantastic insight into the post-war immigration boom.

 

 

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Penguin Australian Classics, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges