Beyond the Book
Did you know?
- The events in The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox are based on a
real British policy which deinstitutionalized thousands of psychiatric
patients beginning in 1990. Margaret Thatcher's Care in the Community
program sought to end outmoded, Victorian-era mental institutions by
releasing such patients back into their homes, their illnesses controlled by
medication and individualized treatment rather than confinement. The program
ended in 1998 after a series of highly-publicized crimes by former inmates.
The British health secretary recalled many patients who were living without
supervision and placed them back into residential treatment centers.
- Mental institutions were a humane advance in the early 19th
century, when the treatment of mentally ill people evolved from brutal
imprisonment and restraint to the creation of a homelike environment within
a health-care setting. Yet the 19th century also took a step
backward in its treatment of mental health; patients were involuntarily
committed not just for illnesses but for behavior which simply didn't fit
within mainstream society. For instance, in Great Britain and Ireland,
prostitutes were locked up in Magdalene Asylums, which were Roman Catholic
institutions established to reform women's immoral behavior. Patients were
forced to undergo hard labor, periods of silence, and corporeal punishment.
Gradually Magdalene Asylums were extended to unwed mothers, developmentally
challenged women, and abused girls, all of whom could be committed at the
request of a family member and held against their will. The last Magdalene Asylum closed in 1996, but most mental hospitals had begun to change their admissions policies as early as the 1910s and 1920s, when the treatment of mental illness by custodial care gave way to the scientific exploration of the biological basis for mental illness.
- The word "Bedlam" became a popular name for the
Bethlem Royal Hospital in South London, the world's first psychiatric
hospital, which has admitted mentally ill patients since the early fifteenth
century. The term has since come to mean, according to Webster's, "a state
of uproar and confusion."
- In the USA, the criticism of insane asylums began during the Progressive
Era, when muckraking journalist
Nellie Bly faked lunacy in order to be committed to the notorious
Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island. Her exposé of the inhuman
conditions at Blackwell's was published in Joseph Pulitzer's New York
World and later made into a book, Ten Days in a Mad-House.
About the Author
Maggie O'Farrell was born in Northern Ireland in 1972 and grew up in Wales
and Scotland. She remembers composing her first short story at age five and says
that she always wanted to be a writer. She studied poetry at university with Jo
Shapcott and Michael Donaghy, and later worked as a journalist in Hong Kong and
as the Deputy Literary Editor of The Independent on Sunday. She began
writing her first novel, After You'd Gone, at age 24, and published it
four years later to wide acclaim; it won the Betty Trask Award. She has also
written My Lover's Lover (2002) and The Distance Between Us
(2004 in the UK, not published in the USA), winner of a Somerset Maugham Award. Her work has been translated into 16
languages. She lives in Edinburgh with her husband, author William Sutcliffe, and family.
This article was originally published in October 2007, and has been updated for the
June 2008 paperback release.
Click here to go to this issue.
This article is available to non-members for a limited time. You can also read these articles for free. For full access become a member today.
- "Beyond the Book" backstories
- Free books to read and review (US only)
- Find books by time period, setting & theme
- Read-alike suggestions by book and author
- Book club discussions
- and much more!
- Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
- More about membership!