This book is probably not what you’re expecting. It’s mostly photos, and it’s about closed “insane asylums.” Are there spooky photos of sweeping, ruined staircases? Yep. Rooms piled high with abandoned, old-fashioned medical equipment? You bet. Peeling paint? Pages of it. Overgrown grounds? Yes.
That is what we’ve come to expect (or at least what I have come to expect) from books about defunct mental institutions, and this one technically delivers that. The difference is the entire tone. In the 10 or 15 dense pages of background in the beginning of the book, Payne reminds us of the definition of the word “asylum.” He quotes from a woman’s journal in which she expresses profound relief at having her madness acknowledged and accepted. He describes the sense of pride and optimism that accompanied these buildings’ creations, and delves into something called the Kirkbride Plan, a famous architectural layout for asylums that is easily recognizable in the majority of the photos.
It’s an unfamiliar lens to look at this subject through. We see beautiful, vibrant photos of abandoned bowling alleys, Christmas decorations, resident-made games. The whole thing is sad and surprising. The fact is that residential care for the “insane” went from these big, sprawling institutions that had a lot of good intentions and succeeded in many ways to overcrowded and rife with inhumanities and abuse to abrupt deinstitutionalism when psychotropic drugs seemed like they would fix more than they ultimately did. This isn’t a book about the chairs patients were strapped into and tortured. Although it doesn’t deny that many of the later changes were a response to unacceptable practices (e.g. patients losing a sense of structure and purpose when their jobs were taken away and all they had left was to watch TV all day, when the intention was to protect them), Asylum really touches on the good that was accomplished and what was lost.