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Gracefully Insane


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About the Author

Alex Beam is a columnist for the Boston Globe and the author of two novels. He has also written for the Atlantic Monthly, Slate and Forbes/FYI. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts with his wife and three sons.


"The insane asylum seems to be the goal of every good and conscious Bostonian," Clover Adams wrote in 1879. The asylum she was referring to is the now legendary McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., and in this fascinating, gossipy social history, Boston Globe columnist Beam pries open its well-guarded records for a look at the life of the storied institution. McLean is best known today for its parade of famous patients like Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Ray Charles and all three Taylor children. But these notable "alumni" followed in the footsteps of generations of privileged clientele drawn primarily from Boston's most elite families. From its 1817 inception, McLean's trustees aimed to provide a discreet and appropriately opulent setting for the convalescence of the upper classes. The 250-acre grounds a scattering of Tudor mansions among scrub woods and groomed lawns were planned by landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted (later a McLean patient himself). The hospital offered private rooms, tennis courts, a bowling alley and the latest cures. Beam traces the hospital's place in the history of psychiatric treatment, from the early days of ice water therapies and moral management through the introduction of modern psychopharmacology. He discusses McLean's current condition neither individuals nor insurers can afford McLean's long-term care, and the downsized hospital faces an uncertain future. More than a history of a psychiatric institution, the book offers an unusual glimpse of a celebrated American estate: the Boston aristocracy that produced, for nearly two centuries, an endless stream of brilliant, troubled eccentrics and the equally brilliant and eccentric doctors who lined up to treat them. B&w photos. Agent, Michael Carlisle. (Jan.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

This quirky work of social history recounts the story of McLean Hospital, a trendy mental institution affiliated with Harvard University, from its genteel beginnings in the early 19th century to its downsized status today. Through interviews and analyses of archival sources, Beam, a Boston Globe journalist and author of two novels (Fellow Travelers; The Americans Are Coming!), provides an oddly entertaining narrative that reads easily and supplies fascinating details about business, pop music, and literary figures. Casual readers may be drawn to tales that inspired the film Girl, Interrupted and Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Name-dropping is rampant, reflecting one former patient's view that staying at McLean was comparable to attending a progressive college. Less successful is Beam's attempt to generalize about the history of mental healthcare from such a unique case. He subtly criticizes the mental health establishment that permitted care to be so heavily influenced by socioeconomic status and whose treatment paradigms shifted so wildly from hydrotherapy and lobotomies to "talking cures" and psychopharmacology. Recommended for large public and regional libraries as well as specialized history of mental health collections. Antoinette M. Brinkman, M.L.S., Evansville, IN Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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