Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Pg. 69: "Gracefully Insane"

Alex Beam is a columnist at the Boston Globe and author of Gracefully Insane: The Rise and Fall of America's Premier Mental Hospital.

I asked him to put his book to the "page 69 test;" here is what he reported:
Gracefully Insane was intended to be a biography of an interesting place, the McLean psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. McLean is the second-oldest mental hospital in America, and is probably best known for its celebrity patients like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and the songwriting Taylor family, most especially James and Livingston. It has been a place of refuge for the "worried well" of the New England elite, from the time of Ralph Waldo Emerson to the present day.

Page 69 of Gracefully Insane is part of Chapter Four, "The Country Clubbers." A quote from Dr. Robert Coles, who was a young resident at McLean, leads off the chapter: "It was a country club, in the best sense of the word. What's wrong with having a country club?" On page 69, I describe a 1940 research paper written by two McLean staffers, entitled "The Incidence of Manic Depressive Psychosis in Certain Socially Prominent Families:"

The authors announced, 'We have studied up to now 20 families which might legitimately be called socially prominent' -- all of them at McLean. 'The reasons for this selection are obvious, when one considers that ... the psychotic members of distinguished families of New England have found this the most convenient institution for the care and treatment of their condition.' The authors stop short of naming names like Adams, Lowell and James, but just barely: 'There have been several governors of Massachusetts ... a great many Federal judges, including chief justices of the Supreme Court ... philosophers of international importance,' and so on and so forth.

At the bottom of the page, the two staffers note that almost every time a Brahmin blueblood shows up at McLean, he or she claims to be the first member of the family to suffer mental illness. "'The first thing we discovered was that the statement "family history negative" has fundamentally no meaning,' the researchers report."

In other words, I concluded: "When it comes to mental illness, even the best people lie."
Many thanks to Alex for the input.

Click here to read an excerpt from Gracefully Insane, and click here for a revealing and sensitive explanation for why the author chose the subject for his book.

Among the praise for Gracefully Insane:
"Beam…goes behind the gracious façade to examine the often-harrowing history of mental–health treatments used at McLean and other American psychiatric institutions."
--Washington Post Book World

"Touching, humorous, illuminating—in short, irresistible."
--Chicago Tribune

"Alex Beam succeeds in telling several stories simultaneously, weaving an account of changing attitudes toward mental illness, the methods employed in its treatment and the shifting context of the larger culture into an entertaining narrative that centers on the hospital and its history."
--New York Times Book Review
Robert Birnbaum interviewed Alex at length about Gracefully Insane.

Where did the book title come from? Anne Sexton, admiringly, of Robert Lowell: ''You are so gracefully insane.''

Alex Beam has published two novels about Russia, Fellow Travelers and The Russians Are Coming! and has written for the Atlantic Monthly, Slate and Forbes/FYI.

Click here to read his review (titled "Eh?") of the Oxford Dictionary of Canadian English.

Last month Alex wrote a column on McLuhan's page 69 gimmick: click here to read it.

Previous "page 69 tests":
Nicholas Lemann, Redemption
Jason Sokol, There Goes My Everything
Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile
Josh Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few
Anne Frasier, Pale Immortal
Michael Lewis, The Blind Side
David A. Bell, The First Total War
Brett Ellen Block, The Lightning Rule
Rosanna Hertz, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice
Jason Starr, Lights Out
Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom
Stephen Elliott, My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies
Sean Chercover, Big City, Bad Blood
Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind
Stanley Fish, How Milton Works
James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry
Margaret Lowrie Robertson, Season of Betrayal
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig
Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue