I’ve just read Barbara Taylor‘s brilliant book The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times which blends her own experiences as a patient in one of the last remaining asylums with an incisive look at the changing face of mental health care since the Victorian era.
Taylor is a renowned historian but the book is not what you’d expect. It’s scandalous, searingly honest and often a exquisitely observed look at herself and others as they made shaky orbits around the mental health system.
Through severe mental unwellness, the state mental health system, and a searching course of psychoanalysis, Taylor is an exceptional guide and she is provides a lot of cold hard truths, as well as a lot of warm, overlooked ones.
You might think that this is a book in the same vein as Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind or The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Sacks – accounts by brilliant women who recount the challenges of developing their careers while walking on the shifting sands of the mind.
But Taylor’s book is quite different. She has become a renowned history professor but the book ends well before, when she gets her first steady job after a long period of disability. Actually, most of the book describes her dysfunction in the face of wanting to fulfil her ambitions.
In this sense, the book is more like an explorer’s journal than the post-voyage story of success. It carefully captures the day-to-day atmosphere and characters of a world she never thought she’d be in.
Wrapped around this are Taylor’s descriptions of how her experiences, and the experiences of many others like her, were situated in the mental health system of the late 20th Century. It captures the course not only of her madness, but madness as a part of a changing society.
By the way, the ‘last asylum’ in the title is the sprawling Friern Hospital née Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, which we’ve discussed previously on Mind Hacks as one of the many Victorian asylums which have become don’t-mention-the-past luxury flats.
Link to more info on The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor.