Monday, June 10, 2013

The era of instititutionalization

 My interest in how society treats its mentally ill and challenged has endured for decades. Publication of Abandoned Asylums of New England: A Photographic Journey, by John Gray, gave me a chance to reflect again. A highly recommended book, published by the Museum of disABILITY History. Here is my review, which ran in the June 9, 2013, Sunday Providence Journal.

 One of the remarkable things about "Abandoned Asylums of New England: A Photographic Journey" by John Gray is that it makes such a powerful statement about how society treated some of its most vulnerable members without using a single image of a person.

Actually, there are representations of a few people in this extraordinary contribution to the literature of disability: in a cartoon, an old postcard, a few vintage photos, and magazine illustrations taped to walls. But that's it. By focusing on the abandoned buildings where untold thousands of the mentally ill and mentally challenged (and other vulnerable people) spent their lives, often neglected and abused, Gray has paid dramatic testament to forgotten humanity in a way face shots and candids could not. He has made us see something more haunting: the ghosts of people who deserved better.

A 1970 Providence Journal investigation, 'The Outlines of a Public Disgrace,' chronicled warehousing of patients at the now-closed Institute of Mental Health in Cranston.
Years in the making, Gray's book is literally an inside look at 12 institutions around the region that now crumble to dust, or have been razed into oblivion. Their names bespeak their era, which belongs to the 19th and 20th centuries: Danvers State Lunatic Hospital; Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded; the Massachusetts Hospital for Dipsomaniacs and Inebriates; the Lakeville State Sanatorium, for victims of tuberculosis; and eight more.

We see broken windows, collapsing stairs, peeling paint, a piano with broken ivories, an open drawer in an old morgue, a dusty laboratory table with empty vials and jars, mattress-less beds, doors off their hinges, catacomb-like utility tunnels, a tattered Cabbage Patch doll in a funhouse-esque corridor, iron lungs, a wooden wheelchair, the skeletons of birds, and rooms: day rooms, bathrooms, auditoria, solaria, these places once alive with people. And we see many exteriors: the brick and stone walls, the Gothic spires, these massive and towering edifices that contained what were then called lunatics, feeble-mindeds and consumptives.

Remarkably, too, Gray has found beauty amid the ghosts that surely roam these grounds. A consummate artist of the lens, he has given us page after page of black-and-white and color photos that are rendered masterfully, with exquisite lighting and textures - the exteriors especially. His twilight shot of the old Danvers hospital skyline (which, coincidentally, I used to pass every day on my way to high school), is breathtaking, as are many others. That such beauty could have countenanced such ugliness is an inescapable irony.

Gray did not include photos of the two Rhode Island institutions that closed years ago as treatment shifted to community programs: Exeter's Ladd Center, and the handful of buildings that are the last vestiges of Cranston's Institute of Mental Health. But having covered those institutions years ago for The Providence Journal (indeed, I lived inside each of them for several days for front-line reporting), I can assure you that Gray's work speaks for Rhode Island's story, too. And I would note that it was the power of The Journal's many photos, along with articles, that helped build public support for more humane options.

Books like Gray's impress on us the importance of never forgetting. "Abandoned Asylums" is also a reminder that while community care is an improvement over institutions such as Ladd and the IMH, society still has a distance to go in overcoming tired old "retarded" and "lunatic" stereotypes. It still falls short of the mark in providing better care for some of our most fragile people, not a few of whom today wrongly inhabit another institutional system: prison.

G. Wayne Miller wrote and co-produced "ON THE LAKE: Life and Love in a Distant Place," a PBS-broadcast documentary film about tuberculosis sanitariums. Visit him at

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