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Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital

Beam, Alex

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ISBN 10: 1891620754 / ISBN 13: 9781891620751
Published by Public Affairs Press, New York, 2001
Used Condition: Fine copy in fine dust jacket Hardcover
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8vo, 273 pp. Bookseller Inventory # 058943

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Bibliographic Details

Title: Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of ...

Publisher: Public Affairs Press, New York

Publication Date: 2001

Binding: hardcover

Illustrator: Illus. with photos

Book Condition:Fine copy in fine dust jacket

Dust Jacket Condition: Dust Jacket Included

Edition: 1st edition.

About this title


Its carefully landscaped grounds, chosen by Frederick Law Olmsted and dotted with four-and-five-story Tudor mansions, could belong to a prosperous New England prep school. There are no fences, no guards, no locked gates. But McLean Hospital is a mental institution - one of the most famous, most elite, and once most luxurious in America. McLean "alumni" include many of the troubled geniuses of our age - Olmsted himself, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, James Taylor and Ray Charles - as well as (more secretly) other notables from among the rich and famous. In its "golden age," McLean provided as gracious and gentle an enviroment for the treatment of mental illness as one could imagine. "If the patient did not like the lamb we served for dinner and asked for lobster, we gave lobster," one steward recalled. "They could afford it. Appleton House [the men's ward] was like the Ritz Carlton." But the golden age is over, and a downsized, downscale McLean is struggling to find its place in today's brave new world of psychopharmacologically-oriented mental health care.


Alex Beam's Gracefully Insane is a knowledgeable historical portrait of New England's McLean Hospital, until recently the mental institution equivalent of the Plaza Hotel. Fenceless and unguarded, McLean's grounds were landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted. Amenities included tennis courts, a golf course, room service, and a riding stable. As one director said, "If you don't know where you are, then you're in the right place." Its patients have included James Taylor, Robert Lowell, and Ray Charles. It also looms large in The Bell Jar and Girl, Interrupted, written by former patients Sylvia Plath and Susanna Kaysen. Beam weaves patients' and employees' stories with an informal review of mental health treatments through the years, including lobotomies, insulin-induced comas, ice-water baths, and a ghastly device called the "coercion chair." Gracefully Insane is amiable, lively, and honest. Its many anecdotes (derived from patient records, journals, and interviews) are by turns poignant, humorous, and unsettling. --H. O'Billovitch

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