Author Archive

Review – Forbidden Places: Online Photography Exhibit of the New Jersey State Hospital for the Insane

Forbidden Places is an on-line collection of photographs by an artist named Slyv, who describes his passion for urban exploration as developing out of childhood trips to empty factories; he suggests that “abandoned and futureless places are part of our cultural heritage.” And he urges browsers to investigate and document these places before they deteriorate further or disappear altogether. The New Jersey State Hospital near Morristown, New Jersey, known as Greystone, is among the decrepit sites he has recently surveyed.

The photo essay begins with historical postcards of Greystone, and continues with some compelling and original images of the interior of the hospital.  One of the best shows a corridor, halfway below grade, with piles of clean white snow beneath cracked windows, the dark silhouette of a wheelchair, and a menacing grid of overhead pipes.  The most successful photographs are the ones in which he lets the space speak for itself: when he tilts the camera to create false drama, the overall effect is weaker.  There’s enough drama in a vacant psychiatric hospital without the artist’s contrivances.

There are several evocative photos on this website, and these might in turn pique the interest of folks who know little about the history of asylums, the treatment of the mentally ill in the nineteenth century, or the preservation of old buildings.  This is a potentially hip way for historians to reach non-academics.

Architectural historians, like myself, sometimes complain that our students sit motionless behind their computers and iphones, encountering culture as two-dimensional fare inside a blinking screen.  As a teacher, I even devise special assignments that force my students to walk around our city looking at actual structures.  So I should be glad: here is a young artist and his young audience.  They are adventurous and curious, and they even go outside.  (I am guessing Slyv’s age based on one photograph of his naked back and the audience’s age based on the language in the comments.)

So while I hate playing the schoolmarm (“kids today!”), I can’t wholeheartedly support this project, particularly the asylums.  While the artist claims he does not recommend trespassing, the comments are sprinkled with barely literate questions that amount to “how do I get past the cops?”   The other explorers are attracted to Greystone because of its creepy, forbidden quality, which apparently equates to counter-culture fun.  Is this generation of people so doused in vampire blood that sadness is a game to them; does morbidity bounce off them?

Curiosity about the patients doesn’t erase stigma; it perpetuates stigma. Sneaking around asylums diminishes the lived experience of the patients who suffered in there.  It’s not OK to lie in someone else’s coffin, or wear someone else’s straitjacket.

If readers of H-Madness are interested in a serious and deeply-sensitive artist’s approach to state hospitals, they will appreciate Asylum by Christopher Payne (MIT Press, 2009), a beautifully produced book of photographs with a foreword by Oliver Sacks.  Payne is an outstanding photographer who knows the conflicted and troubled history of this subject well.  (He also got permission for every site visit.)

Carla Yanni is Professor of Art History at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.  She studies the relationships among architecture, science, and medicine from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present. The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States, was published by the University of Minnesota Press in spring 2007.  In 2000, Johns Hopkins University Press published Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display.

Fall Colloquium on the History of Psychiatry and Medicine (Harvard)

Department of Postgraduate and Continuing Education, McLean Hospital


Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine



David G. Satin, M.D., DLFAPA Director

Open to students of history and those valuing a historical perspective on their professions.

———-Fall, 2010———-

September 30


“How Physician Healers Turn to Murder and Genocide:  What We Know About the Making of a Torturer From Nazi Germany to Abu Ghraib”

Michael A.Grodin, M.D.: Director, Project on Medicine and the Holocaust Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies, Boston University; Professor of Bioethics and Human Rights, Boston University School of Public Health; Professor of Family Medicine and Psychiatry, Boston University School of Medicine

(location:  Ballard Room)

October 21

“Reforming Mental Health Via Hollywood:  ‘The Snake Pit’ (1948) and Its Audiences”

Benjamin Harris, Ph.D.: Professor of Psychology and Affiliate Professor of History, University of New Hampshire

(location: Minot Room)

November 18

“German-speaking Psychiatrist and Neurologist Émigrés to the U.S. After WWII”

Frank W. Stahnisch: Associate Professor, AMF/Hannah Professorship in the History of Medicine & Health Care, Department of Community Health Sciences and Department of History, University of Calgary, Member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute

(location: Minot Room)

December 16

“Asylum:  Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals”

Chris Payne

(location: Minot Room)

4:00 P.M.—5:30 P.M.

room as indicated, fifth floor, Countway Library of Medicine

Harvard Medical Area

For further information contact David G. Satin, M.D., Colloquium Director,

phone/fax 617-332-0032, e-mail:

One Woman’s Encounters With Psychoanalysis

New York Times contributing writer Daphne Merkin has just published a piece in the New York Times magazine, chronicling her encounters with numerous psychotherapists – primarily psychoanalysts – over four and a half decades.  As Merkin puts it,

To this day, I’m not sure that I am in possession of substantially greater self-knowledge than someone who has never been inside a therapist’s office. What I do know, aside from the fact that the unconscious plays strange tricks and that the past stalks the present in ways we can’t begin to imagine, is a certain language, a certain style of thinking that, in its capacity for reframing your life story, becomes — how should I put this? — addictive. Projection. Repression. Acting out. Defenses. Secondary compensation. Transference. Even in these quick-fix, medicated times, when people are more likely to look to Wellbutrin and life coaches than to the mystique-surrounded, intangible promise of psychoanalysis, these words speak to me with all the charged power of poetry, scattering light into opaque depths, interpreting that which lies beneath awareness. Whether they do so rightly or wrongly is almost beside the point.

Does Alcoholics Anonymous Work? How Would We Know?

Since its founding in the U.S. in the 1930s, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has proven to enjoy the support of a wide range of individuals, authorities, professionals, and civic organizations.  According to AA, it was estimated in 2007 that worldwide there were over 116,000 AA groups, with more than 2 million members.  Yet for all its popularity, relatively little is known about how and the extent to which AA actually works.  The organization’s insistence on anonymity has made research about members difficult, and estimates of its success rate have ranged wildly, from 5% to 75%.

Wired magazine and the blog offer up two articles, attempting to explain the draw of Alcoholics Anonymous. Brendan I. Koerner’s “Secret of AA: After 75 Years, We Don’t Know How It Works” examines the history of AA in a critical, yet balanced, fashion, discussing both the successes and shortcomings of the group’s approach. Mark Flanagan’s “Hard Drinkers Meet Soft Science” is interested in addressing the question, “Why do so many science-based medical providers recommend AA?”  His answers: it’s free, it’s convenient, and it comes with passionate anecdotal evidence to support it.

The Pharmaceutical Industry Leaving Psychiatry?

As noted by Vaughan Bell over at the blog Mind Hacks, Science magazine correspondent Greg Miller has just published a piece entitled “Is Pharma Running Out of Brainy Ideas?” Miller notes that GlaxoSmithKline has announced it is getting out of drug development in some areas of neuroscience, including pain and depression. At the same time, AstraZeneca has announced it is closing facilities in the U.S. and Europe and ending its drug-discovery research on schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety. According to Miller,

These cutbacks by two of the top players in drug development for disorders of the central nervous system have raised concerns that the pharmaceutical industry is pulling out, or at least pulling back, in this area. In direct response to the cuts at GSK and AstraZeneca, the Institute of Medicine Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous System Disorders organized a meeting in late June that brought together leaders from government, academia, and private foundations to take stock. But the biggest problem, researchers say, is that there is almost nothing in the pipeline that gives any hope for a transformation in the treatment of mental illness. That’s worrying, they say, because the need for better treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders is vast. Hundreds of millions of people are afflicted worldwide. Yet for some common disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease, no truly effective treatments exist; for others, like depression, the existing drugs have limited efficacy and substantial side effects.

Miller also discusses the topic in the magazine’s podcast here.

Dworkin: The Rise of the Caring Industry

Ronald W. Dworkin – Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law and Philosophy at New York University and Jeremy Bentham Professor of Law and Philosophy at University College London – has a piece entitled “The Rise of the Caring Industry” in the June 2010 issue of Policy Review.  The essay can be accessed online here.  The author of the 2006 book Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class considers how the growth of the helping professions (particularly those concerned with mental health) represents not simply an institutional change, but a shift in ethos.  As he puts it:

In this way the caring industry exercises a double fascination — on the one hand as a sounding board for lonely, unhappy individuals, and on the other as emblematic of a new ethos of civilization. The age of caring is a more skeptical age, but also a more tolerant one, expressing a distrust of authority and an antipathy to old enthusiasms that wavers between laughter and disgust. It would be wrong to say that people today deny the world; they simply prefer to ignore it, presenting a blank wall of indifference to how people live and what they believe. They prefer meeting their psychological needs through a therapy session rather than through a community of blood brothers.

The topic has been of particular interest to observers in the United States, and, over the past fifteen years, a number of scholars and writers have written on the subject, including Ellen Herman (The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts, 1995), Eva Moskowitz (In Therapy We Trust: America’s Obsession with Self-Fulfillment, 2001) and Barbara Ehrenreich (Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, 2009).

BMA on Conversion Therapy and Homosexuality

The British Medical Association has approved a motion that supports calls from a number of other professional organizations and gay and lesbian rights activists in rejecting so-called “conversion therapy” of homosexuals.  The organization calls on the NHS to “not fund ‘discredited’ conversion therapy for homosexual people,” according to the BMJ website.  The American Psychological Association has also taken a stand on these kinds of interventions, citing some of the prominent research on sexual orientation, pastoral counseling, and ethics.

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