CR3 #21: Gracefully Insane by Alex Beam

Alex Beam’s book details the rise and fall of McLean Mental Hospital, once the go-to destination for New England’s elite and eccentric.

The book begins with the creation of the original hospital in Charlestown in 1818, and follows it from it’s decaying neighborhood out to the rolling hills of Newton, where donations from Boston’s wealthy allowed for the construction of an asylum that more closely resembled a cluster of beautiful mansions. The grounds were designed and arranged by one of the most famous landscapers of the time (shortly to become a “guest” of the hospital himself) and the staff treated every client as though they’d never left their Beacon Hill mansions.

The story continues, chronicling the history of McLean itself, the lives of several of the more notable patients (many of whom were the black secrets of their rich families), and the evolution of psychology–the changing beliefs that led from dunking, cold sheets, and electroshock to insulin comas, Freudian analysis, and lobotomies, to pharmacology and talk therapy. He discusses the counter-culture of the 60s and 70s, and their effect on the population at McLean–no longer was the place stuffed with batty elderly Boston Brahmans–it was instead filled with their grandchildren, suffering the consequences of drugs, free love, and having the audacity to challenge authority.

Beam includes many tales of McLean’s more famous inhabitants: poets Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, landscaper Frederick Law Olmstead, murderer Louis Agassiz Shaw II, musicians James, Livingston, and Kate Taylor, and Ray Charles,  and Susanna Keysen, who memorialized her time at McLean in the book Girl, Interrupted.

Beam’s book is well researched, and he has interviewed bother former patients and former employees. He also meets with Stephen Bergman, the author who wrote about his experiences as a resident at McLean in Mount Misery. It’s an interesting tale, combining history and science with amusing anecdotes. I’d recommend it to anyone who has an interest in mental health or Boston history.


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