The problem with people who write about haunted asylums

A writing professor has a Psychology Today blog, and she’s using it in her practice of bringing psychology into literature. Okay. I don’t suppose there’s a lot wrong with that endeavor in and of itself, but my view is that its better have your fiction grounded in historical fact rather than getting lost in the bog of material you have absolutely no knowledge about. This is the problem with Carolyn Kaufman’s The Problem With Haunted Asylums blog post.

She is reacting to NAMI campaigning against such exploitation.

“Haunted” places are popular Halloween attractions, but seasonal haunted asylums in particular draw fire from mental health advocacy groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI argues that such attractions “contribute to the stigma by encouraging false stereotypes and barricading the path toward an educated society” and asks the sites to remove the displays.

The reasons why a person wouldn’t exploit an abandoned asylum for crass commercial purposes have been boiled down to a couple of lame platitudes. She throws out those overused clichés, stereotype and stigma. These clichés have become ways of not seeing what’s right before your own eyes.

Let’s look at both sides.

On the one hand, asking a highly popular, entertainment-oriented, money-making attraction that’s already in full swing to tear it all down in hopes that people will realize that the depictions were unrealistic may be overly optimistic, at least for this year.

On the other hand, haunted asylums do play up scary stereotypes: that the clinical staff uses patients for ugly experiments; and that people who need to be hospitalized are radically different from everyone else, completely out of control, and savagely dangerous.

Dr. Kaufman apparently needs a lesson straight from the horse’s mouth.

One of the worst periods of times when it came to mental health treatment in this nation was in the early part of the twentieth century. The practices of shock treatment and lobotomy, in fact, came out of this dismal period in our mental institutes. People labeled “mentally ill” were being sterilized as people who were deemed unfit to breed. It was feared that having “mentally defective” peoples breed would have an unfavorable effect on the survival capacity of the species. This practice, begun in the USA, was readily adopted by the Nazi Reich in Germany. Sterilizing gave way to exterminating, and the German Reich had found the population to practice on in preparation for going after the Jews. This process of deleting certain targeted segments of the population from the gene pool in a misguided attempt to “improve” the species, with all its pseudo-scientific pretensions, was referred to as Eugenics.

The facts shouldn’t be glossed over. The Victorian monstrosity of the mental hospital was and remains a place where many bad things took place. The community treatment that comes of deinstitutionalization is a vast improvement over those bad things. The mental hospital is, after all, the rug that certain people get swept under when other people don’t want to deal with them. You need go no further than the state hospital cemetery to see how this is the case. What will you find there? If there is any marker, it’s going to bear a number rather than a name and dates. Why? Because it would reflect poorly on the family for folks to find out that one of their members was out of his or her head, and that he or she had died in an institution. I certainly don’t think that the fact that a person had a corporeal existence should become a matter requiring utmost confidentiality. The patient is not being protected by having led an existence only as a hidden and secret record.

Mental asylums should be remembered the way concentration camps are remembered. Nobody would dare make Halloween entertainment out of Auschwitz. For people who have been there, for people who have done time in a state hospital against their will and wishes, for psychiatric survivors like myself, the state hospital system is to be remembered as our holocaust. We want the mental hospital to become a relic of the past. It would be better to make museums out of them, so that people would never forget, than it would to make a child’s diversion of them. Horrible things went on in these institutions. Some of these things are still going on. Let’s do things differently in the future. We need to show people the absurd kind of therapeutic treatments being used in the past. We need to show people that we are above resorting to these tortures today. We don’t want people to ever forget, for if they do, it could happen again.

4 Responses

  1. NAMI does indeed want to gloss over inconvenient history by calling psychiatrists who practiced ECT, insulin shock therapy and lobotomies as “false stereotypes.” These “false stereotypes” are far from false. They just don’t agree with NAMI’s sunny revisionism. NAMI wants you to forget them, although NAMI still quietly peddles the therapeutic values of ECT, or whatever the shrink says is the right thing to do.

    You say that nobody would dare make Halloween entertainment out of Auschwitz, but please recall that great Mel Brooks romp from a few years back, The Producers. Certain sensitive, erstwhile souls were offended. Mr. Brooks, on the other hand, understood that the greatest victory over the enemy is the ability to mercilessly mock him. The enemy took himself so seriously. He considered himself so just in his cause. But in the end, he lost and the victors are allowed to do whatever they want with his memory, as long as they never forget.

    I think NAMI has taken their cause a bit too far. Their request on the Cedar Point Insane Asylum didn’t get much sympathy in the comments on the Sandusky Registerarticle. I think it’s important to get the word out to the general population that this organization does not speak for us and that the survivors have the ability to heal themselves and to laugh at people who take themselves and their cause way too seriously.

    • Doctors are how the NAZIs started exterminating mental patients. There have been many Nurse Ratchets in the world. On top of this, mental health staff and workers have been responsible for rape, sexual abuse and brutality at one place or another, and when they get found out, they get away with little more than a knuckle rapping. They get away with a knuckle rapping while the patient gets a notation on a record that can be used against them in any and all courtroom situations. What’s more, these staff are actually the warders in psychiatric prisons, no other branch of medicine holds people in prisons called hospitals against their will and wishes for punishments they are calling “treatments”. Turning a blind eye to this abuse, and the power disparity behind it, is to be in a state of complete denial about it, if not in collusion with it. NAMI and certain other organizations have a tendancy to gloss over this, as you so aptly put it, “inconvenient history”, and that gloss, conscious or not, constitutes a lie, a great untruth, an utter falsehood.

      The Producers was a parody more about the entertainment industry and play-making. This ridiculous idea of a play, that turned into a hit–the drama is a drama within a drama–had less to do with the third reich than it had to do with the entertainment industry. I think, in that instance, Adolf Hitler only served as theater prop. Part of the enjoyment of this production comes from the derealization of Hitler as the terrible, and terrifying, political demagogue that he was. Had the script dealt with the reality of NAZI Germany, it would have certainly detracted from the humor, and THAT wasn’t what the play was about. The movie was about a scam that backfired. I suppose this could be seen as a form of triumph over Hitler, but it could also be seen for what it actually was, a spoof of the entertainment business.

      Auschwitz is a museum. We need museums dealing with the history of mental hospitals and mental health treatment. People don’t know about eugenics. THEY NEED TO KNOW. People don’t know about dunking chairs and Utica cribs. People don’t know about metrasol and insulin shock treatments. People don’t know about Trenton NJ’s Dr. Henry Cotton who did surgery extracting organs in the mistaken belief that “mental illness” was caused by bacteria. People don’t know about Dr. Walter Freeman and his icepick lobotomy factories. People don’t know the origin and history of shock treatments. People don’t know about entire lives reduced to numbers on stones. We need to make museums of some of the places people have been brutalized in. What we don’t need to do is make amusement parks out of them AS IF they weren’t what they actually were–places where every day of the week was a horrorstory. Doing so is to trivialize the true dimensions of the tragedy that took place within them. This is a tragedy that has actually not entirely ceased to take place.

      It’s still an inconvenient history because it’s a secret history, it’s a hidden history, and it’s a shameful history. Not only is it history, but its current events. We need something besides a lie to please family members who want to think they are doing what’s best for their more troubled family member. This best is, of course, not always the case.

  2. One of my gripes with psychiatry is over homosexuality. It used to be treated with insulin shock therapy, lobotomies, ECT, all the nasty stuff. And then one day in an abrupt sea change, they decided it wasn’t a condition to be treated. They made absolutely no attempt to make reparations to the people they had harmed. No apologies. They just wanted to forget about it and “to put the past behind us.” This ahistoricism and lack of responsibility are more than a little irritating.

    I can’t say for sure, but I think the most famous quarrel between psychiatry and another group boils down to how they treated the gay people. I mean, every time I see a photo of L. Ron I have to scream, “Ascots are for professional use only, Mary!”

    Any way, that’s just me.

    • Psychiatry’s intrusions into the realm of sexual preference and/or deviance neither begins nor ends with homosexuality. Psychiatrists are looking at potential inclusion of Hypersexual Disorder and Paraphilic Coercive Disorder into the next issue of the DSM. PCD would offer a potential “illness” defence for rapists and abusers. Gender Identity Disorder has been pathologized by the DSM, and I don’t know that it is in any danger of being removed.

      Another concern is the treating of pedophilia as a “disease”. Convicted child molesters are being imprisoned in mental hospitals, rather than being released into the community, after their convictions have run out. Authorities have been able to get troubling pedophiles commited for life (I’m calling indefinitely here, life) due to a fear of re-offending. This blurred of the line between criminology and psychopathology I have always found disturbing.

      On a related matter, you have all these personality disorders listed in the DSM. Having an unpopular personality could probably get you locked up for a personality disorder. It is debateable as to whether “personality disorders” should be considered “mental illnesses” at all. When a “personality disorder”, such as “narcissus personality disorder”, or “antisocial personality disorder”, is merely a means of demonizing suspected criminals, you have to question the use of such labels a little. I feel it’s rather like a caucasian soldier calling an asian a “gook” during wartime. The label is offensive, and at a certain level, almost meaningless. Essientially, when it comes to the “bad” guy or gal, we’ve increased the number of synonyms that can be applied to him or her. That’s the plus side, on the downside, it’s just an additional insult, and that, no more justified than a racial or ethnic slur.

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