Mad Perspectives in America: A Narrative Examination of Mental Health and Illness in the 19th and 20th Centuries

AHA Session 212
Disability History Association 3
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Riverside Ballroom (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Martin Summers, Boston College
“Hopelessly Insane over Christian Science”?
Alexandra Prince, State University of New York, University at Buffalo
In a Continuum between Ordeal and Therapy: Two Narratives from Bellevue
Shuko Tamao, State University of New York, University at Buffalo

Session Abstract

This panel uses an interdisciplinary approach to interrogate the ways in which race, gender, class and religion shape histories of madness to argue that the 19th and 20th century historical narrative of madness in America is a story of constant battles among different interpretations each actively grappling with the fluid concept of madness.

This panel draws inspiration from the various ways in which historians and other scholars have interpreted madness since the 1960s. Since Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, mental health/illness has been a contentious scholarly subject, and the history of madness in America remains fractured among different viewpoints. Some scholars have approached madness by tracing the evolving actions of medical professionals in treating their patients, while others have focused on shifting diagnostic labels. Still other scholars have argued that the emergence of asylums in the 19th century was motivated by a societal urge to control unwanted segments of the population. Finally, the emerging fields of disability/mad studies have instead approached madness through the voices of mad folks, regarding it as neither inherently pathological nor even strictly medical.

This panel draws on these approaches to argue that madness is the evolving product of a complex and shifting dialogue between physician/inmate, media/medical, male/female, and black/white actively informed by interacteractions with non-medical historical actors, such as inmates, patients, reformers, and the media. Courtney Lacy’s paper analyzes the blueprints of the Kirkbride asylums to demonstrate how religious reformers and asylum architects in the 19th century used these buildings to mold female asylum inmates into ideal citizens. Alexandra Prince’s paper is a case study of religious insanity at the turn of the twentieth century, analyzing how physicians and the media framed the new religion of Christian Science as a source of insanity among American women in order to deny them legal rights. Shuko Tamao’s paper draws from interviews with a former subject of psychiatric experiments held at the inpatient psychiatric unit for children in Bellevue Hospital in the 1940s to demonstrate how two completely different viewpoints of a single experiment could emerge between the child patient and the physician who conducted the experiments. Ayah Nuriddin’s paper examines the records of the Crownsville State Hospital in Maryland and the Lafargue and Northside Clinics in New York to show how African American physicians and activists in the 20th century used the discourse of “black eugenics” as a tool of racial uplift in order to promote better collective mental health of African Americans.

Overall, the panelists argue that madness is a fluid notion necessarily informed by a wide array of conflicting voices ranging from the media to reformers to physicians to inmates/patients. Collectively these papers contest whose interpretation of madness should be adopted in historical considerations while also cautioning against any singular deterministic approach to examining madness. In doing so, the panelists dissect and complicate the narratives revolving around madness by using the concepts of race, gender, class and religion as methods to better analyze the ever-changing discourse of madness.

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