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Committed to the State Asylum: Insanity and Society in Nineteenth-Century Quebec and Ontario

by James E. Moran
230 pages,
ISBN: 0773521895


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Insane Asylums¨A History of Debate
by Douglas Brown

Committed to the State Asylum is a triumph of scholarly precision; it establishes a corrective example of how historians of psychiatry might integrate widely divergent claims on their attention into a coherent, inclusive approach to the history of the insane asylum. To help reader's comprehend these larger ambitions of what at times seems his modest study, Moran opens with introduction to the problems of interpretation in the histories of psychiatry and of the nineteenth century insane asylum. Moran thereby situates his study within a field where an older, progressive, Whig (an old-fashioned term used by the author, denoting a liberal and reformist political orientation in accordance with the social and political objectives of the late 18th and 19th century British Liberal Party) or meliorist vision of the significance of the modern asylum has been opposed by a radical revisionist view, first articulated by Foucault, of the asylum as an institution for oppressing the mad.

A "fierce historiographical debate" in the 1970s and 1980s between the Whig view of the asylum as benevolent and the revisionist view of the asylum as sinister led to a rhetorical and theoretical impasse that the rise of "new social history", with its emphases on archival detail and the lives of asylum workers and patients, only temporarily sidestepped. Subsequently researchers began, on the one hand, moving through Foucault's critique back to a meliorist view and, on the other hand, turning attention away from the roles of institutions, the state, and their officials and professionals, to the roles of families and communities in committing individuals to asylums.

Drawing on these antecedents, Moran develops a multi-faceted approach which recognizes the concerns of Foucaultian revisionists, social historians, and the new interest in the roles of family and community, and though he shies away from dogmatic views of the asylum as either unproblematically benevolent or essentially sinister, Moran seems ultimately committed to developing a convincing neo-meliorist vision of the state insane asylum.

In spite of the book's success in articulating its ambitions and arguments, as a layman I found myself wondering how many, outside the realms of academic specialists in medical history or 19th-century Canadian history, would ever find this book compelling enough to finish. It is not so much the subject matter¨which should intrigue anyone interested in the social and political histories of Ontario and Quebec, or in how effective and ineffective public policies are played out, or especially, in what is currently happening in the psychiatric profession¨that provokes this question, but the dry detachment of Moran's prose and intelligence. So intent is Moran on the methodical accumulation of evidence and on giving various forces and interacting influences in the nineteenth-century asylum their due (but nothing more than their due) that he misses, I think, opportunities to emphasize some of the odder and memorably revealing aspects of the history he is writing. Occasions for digression or expansion, for pursuing connections of this history to other histories or to the present, and for imaginative leaps of historical understanding, abound in Moran's work, but they are not taken up. It is to Moran's credit that his research has revealed these possibilities; and his ability to remain focussed on his subject is also laudable, but to a reader not involved in the production of academic historical knowledge, those missed opportunities are, well, missed.

If only Moran had allowed himself to throw off the constraints of academic strictness in a speculative footnote now and then...but I am probably praising Moran with faint damnation, for what I found myself wishing for as I read his book was for it to be longer, looser, and probably less intellectually responsible than it is. Given, though, how extravagantly ideological and partial academic speculations sometimes are, Moran's reticence is in the end wise. This is particularly true in the fields of asylum studies and psychiatric history where meliorist and revisionist camps were until recently so immovably entrenched and where, as Edward Shorter's History of Psychiatry tells us, "To an extent unimaginable for other areas of the history of medicine, zealot researchers have seized the history of psychiatry to illustrate" how the usual suspects¨capitalism, patriarchy, and psychiatry itself¨have involved themselves in elaborate stratagems to stifle dissent. Moran's circumspection should open the way to a truer understanding of the history of nineteenth century asylums and psychiatry in Canada, and ultimately contribute to the broader histories of both psychiatry and Canada as a country.

Indeed, Moran's research uncovers much suggestive peripheral material. It is curious to find the rising future Father of Confederation John A. MacDonald and the aging former rebel Wolfred Nelson involved in debates over the treatment of criminal insanity, and to note that Nelson, pardoned and successful again after exile, is the benighted and uncharitable party. Moran's whole study of criminal insanity is fascinating, not least because the rapid emergence and disappearance of this notion is reminiscent of the recent emergence and fading away of controversies surrounding the psychological and legal significance of belated recollections of trauma. It is interesting too to note how old-fangled the idea of the insanity plea is, and shocking to consider the disparities between the relatively humane handling of "criminally insane" women and the degrading, homicidal neglect of "criminally insane" men. From those men's dank cells with only shit-buckets for furniture, the larger achievements of the nineteenth-century asylum movement¨"that noble monument of national benevolence"¨appears a precursor of the state-governed medicine that is such a centrepiece of twentieth-century Canada. ˛

Douglas Brown lives in Montreal and teaches English at John Abbott College. He is an award-winning poet and has published articles on a wide variety of subjects. At present he is completing a manuscript of poems, and a study of W.H. Auden's collaborations with Christopher Isherwood and with Chester Kallman.

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