Gracefully Insane

The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital by Alex Beam

by Jeremy Hart


Fun with Mentally Ill Rich People

Expectations are everything.  Good expectations going into a bad movie, for one, always seem to make a bad movie just that much worse—I can’t say for sure why, but my best guess would be that it’s because you, the eager viewer, have already invested emotional energy into the film before even setting foot in the theater.  Feeling that the initial investment was wasted makes watching even a mediocre movie seem worse (which is probably partly why I don’t ever want to see Star Wars Episode I ever again).

cover art

Gracefully Insane

Alex Beam

The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital

(Public Affairs Books)

The same goes for books.  If your favorite author in the world—the writer you most wish you could just sit and talk with for a while, just the two of you—comes out with a new book and it happens to not be brilliant . . . well, you get the idea.  Expectations going in can make or break a book.

Now, to get to my actual point: sad as I am to say it, Gracefully Insane is one of those books.  I don’t mean to say that author Alex Beam is one of my favorite writers or anything, but rather that I had high hopes that the book itself wasn’t able to meet.  I was taken in by the title, which seemed to promise a behind-the-scenes look at the way a mental hospital is run, or maybe an indictment of the psychiatric system in this country, as well as (by the brief bits I caught while flipping through the book before really reading it) stuff about James Taylor, John Nash, and other semi-famous people.  How can a book about mental hospitals and wacky rock stars/geniuses be anything but interesting?

I was wrong on several counts.  The mental hospital about which the book was written, McLean Hospital, isn’t your average asylum. More like a country club for the slightly off-kilter than the evil, institutional stereotype given to us by the popular media, McLean is a sprawling estate situated on the outskirts of Boston.  It’s a beautiful, tree-covered expanse where (in the past, at least) patients roam freely, taking in the sunshine and fresh air, playing spirited games of golf, or doing basically whatever else they feel like.  The hospital’s not just straitjackets and heavy doses of Thorazine (although in recent years, the hospital has apparently been shifting towards a medication-based regime); since 1817, McLean has been a model of what’s known as “milieu” therapy, a treatment that basically consists of making life really comfortable and pleasant in the hope that patients’ mental illness will, at the very least, lessen.

To his credit, Beam does give a fairly comprehensive history of the hospital, from its founding as a place where Boston’s upper-crust could stow the errant family loonies to its current, seemingly uncertain state.  As I mentioned above, the hospital today relies more on medicating its patients than it did in years past—a trend, Beam points out, not exclusive to McLean, but rather symptomatic of psychiatric treatment as a whole in the U.S.

Beam really seems less concerned, however, with the current, modern McLean, than he is with the “old” McLean, and who can blame him?  A posh pseudo-spa for the rich and eccentric is a lot more entertaining than locked doors and sterile white rooms.  Instead of delving more deeply into McLean itself, Beam concentrates on some of its more noteworthy “alumni,” people like James Taylor, Susanna Kaysen (author of Girl, Interrupted and the daughter of JFK’s deputy national security advisor), Sylvia Plath, Ray Charles (who was only there by court order, and briefly), and poet Robert Lowell.  In between, there are also somewhat sinister rich men interned for murder, wealthy “guinea pigs” for every treatment under the sun, and people who probably aren’t any crazier than you or I.

Unfortunately, it’s when Beam goes into the lives of some of the people who “graduated” from McLean that he loses me.  I’ve never lived in Boston, which is a shame, because I think that if I had, a lot of the names and places would have been more familiar, and perhaps allowed me to form more of an attachment with the people and stories that Beam relates.  He himself states, near the beginning of the book, that McLean is less a hospital than a “museum of the grand Boston culture that was, for a century or more, synonymous with American culture.”  He pokes fun at the Boston “brahmins” who sent their crazy aunts and uncles off to McLean, and while I can see the humor in that, I’ve spent the last sixteen or so years in Texas, and the history of the northeastern part of this country just doesn’t mean anything to me.  Maybe readers from Boston will have better luck.

The other unfortunate aspect of Beam’s examination of the lives of the McLean residents is that he only focuses on a handful of them, and to my mind, they’re not necessarily the most interesting.  The book itself seems to promise something else, mentioning a number of intriguing-sounding people. However, James Taylor doesn’t get a whole lot of attention and John Nash (about whom the recent film A Beautiful Mind was made) barely a hint. It almost reads as if Beam ran out of time and wasn’t able to tell their stories. Personally, I would have relished a broader overview of the patients at McLean, beyond a few select members of the Boston elite.   As it stands, the main thing I took away from the book is that I really need to read more Robert Lowell.

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