As a Chicago native living in this region, I have come to realize some curious characteristic past times of New England. One I have come across quite recently took me by surprise. It’s not lobstering, clam bakes, or those other silly things Midwesterners like myself picture when we hear of New England social occasions. It’s not quaint or charming and surprisingly, it has nothing to do with seafood.
Instead, it emits a rather chilling feeling: embarking on explorations of former asylums awaiting demolishment.
My initial reaction to an offer to accompany an excursion to these decrepit buildings, which are inhabited by cancer-causing molds and other unfriendly company, was a grimace and a chill down my spine. As this conversation with my friend progressed, however, I realized that there is so much more to uncover in regards to the dying historical phenomenon of mental asylums.
Despite their tragic histories, many of these buildings are architecturally unique and grandiose, reminiscent of the Victorian era. They stand ominous and foreboding, but their strong presence is slowly undermined by natural overgrowth. Many of these buildings sit on acres of untouched land, but appear post-apocalyptic, in a process of decay. Though these buildings and grounds can be appreciated for their aesthetic appeal, there exists a more significant reason to appreciate their presence – they serve as a reminder of the failures of a generation, the horrific treatment of those deemed ‘mentally ill.’ These sites exist as a unique perspective into the past, and their sheer existence holds us accountable for the insurmountable cruelty experienced by hundreds of thousands of the institutionalized.
An era in support of eugenics and institutionalization of the mentally ill spawned countless poorly managed ‘homes’ to house the unwanted. These institutions lie scattered across the map of the United States, and many reside in the New England area. Though their current presence is nearly as daunting as when they were still in a functioning state, very little focus is concentrated on them today. Perhaps a glance from the interstate of decaying window panes behind thick foliage, or a youthful, alcohol-influenced outing is all the attention we grant these places their dense histories. When I first gave serious thought to these institutions I felt remorse, sickness and disappointment. Their demolishment signifies lack of acknowledgment for the people who suffered and died as a result of their incarceration therein. When these buildings are gone how will present and future generations be reminded of them?
A high school psychology course and my own yearning for knowledge on hauntings are the only reasons that I am even vaguely familiar with history of the treatment for the mentally ill. In my experience, this critical history is often unacknowledged as if it remains enclosed within the boarded walls of these old buildings. Education programs often focus attention on other very similar historical atrocities. If concentration camps employing similar procedures are maintained for their educational and memorial value, why isn’t the same true for former mental institutions?
The appearance and history of these buildings is quite akin even to Ellis Island. Though it is a favorite pilgrimage for children and tourists to remember early European immigration to the United States, the original Ellis Island experience was also one wrought with illness, mistreatment and many other challenges. As I was grazing the internet on the subject, I noticed that Wikipedia largely referred to progressive changes in treatment of the mentally
ill, devoting only several lines to describe the cruelty. Remembering these institutions and their significance appears a small sacrifice in comparison to the suffering experienced within their walls.
Historically very minor events could suffice as reason to lock one away in an institution for life. Under a fog of eugenics and an era dedicated to perfection of humanity, an overwhelming amount of people were forcibly institutionalized. Inmates of these institutions underwent horrendous treatment, including neglect, isolation, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, as well as radical treatments such as, electric shock therapy, ‘ice pick’ lobotomies and insulin therapy. Originally these institutions were designed as ‘moral therapy’ but evolved into anything but. Population of the Kings Park Psychiatric Center in New York reached 9,000 patients at one time, and faced with overcrowding and underfunding. Many patients underwent abuse and forcibly underwent crude procedures. Even though these atrocities were eventually exposed to the outside world, it wasn’t until decades later that many of them were finally shut down. The cruelty that existed in institutions served as a smear over the fabric of time, one that is erased with each demolished institutional landmark.
When initially thinking about the deterioration and removal of these places, a quote from a film “The Dreamers” came to mind. Theo angrily remarks “They should be sent to the country for self-criticism and reeducation” in reference to adults. Perhaps former institutions can serve as this countryside he speaks of. Perhaps they can function as food for thought, a space for self-criticism of humanity, and for an educational perspective into the past. Though asbestos, physical hazards due to disrepair and probable lack of funding could deter such a movement, many pros exist to push for the upkeep of these buildings.
These buildings often reside on state-owned land, which could be used as potential park or museum space, offering a location to learn and reflect upon this history. Regulation would open up an opportunity for funding of the repair for these spaces, and offer a safer method of exploration. Such efforts would not only preserve the land and architecture of these spaces; it could preserve an entire generation of history that will soon be demolished.
Kimberly Ovitz is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.