Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals by Oliver Sacks, photographs by Christopher J. Payne

Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals by Oliver Sacks, photographs by Christopher J. Payne

Sacks, Oliver, photographs by Christopher J. Payne. Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals. MIT Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0262013499 209 pp. $

I grew up in the shadow of Danvers State Hospital. It closed the year of my high school graduation; some in my circle of friends were prone to facetiously answering “Danvers State!” when asked where they were attending college. The place, with its looming red brick Gothic architecture, was a favorite clandestine meeting place of youth inclined to illegally imbibe–or ghost hunt–at midnight on weekends. It has not an alluring place for me. In truth, I have only been to the grounds once, while dropping off a classmate who lived in the newly constructed houses on the grounds. The energy there is palpable and disturbing, and haunted. And sometimes I feel the hospital is haunting me: in college, a local artist developed a disturbing installation with artifacts gleaned from the halls, such as an ancient wheelchair wrapped with barbed wire, and I was forced to attend a curated tour for class credit. At the library where I worked, a co-worker’s husband developed a series of paintings of the buildings. And now, this book shows up in the mail, eager for my input.

Photographer Christopher Payne captures the desolate beauty of over 100 abandoned mental hospitals in Asylum. His arresting images serve as a metaphor for their former inhabitants: a strong shell, a lovely façade–with shattered core. According to the preface, in 1948, 1 in 263 people was housed in such institutions These complexes served as self-sufficient communities for their fragile inmates who took in fresh air and sunshine in arched courtyard; gardened, milked, butchered and prepared their meals, practiced trades such as smithing, and created art, theater, music, and crafts between exercise, work, and recreation.

An excellent foreward by Dr. Oliver Sacks gives a little background to the heyday of insane asylums and lends an air of authority to the work, while Payne’s introduction discusses details of the Kirkbride system. A picture is worth a thousand words throughout, and the images speak for themselves, with captions detailing only subject, hospital, and location. Each collection of photos is prefaced with a sparse introduction. Images in color and black and white are loosely arranged by function, sweeping from architecture to living quarters to recreational spaces to patient and institutional upkeep, and concluding with cemeteries and crematoriums.

In addition to scanned memorabilia such as postcards, the majority of book is comprised of stunningly composed interior and exterior images from at least 100 buildings, carefully lit to evoke mood. A lonely red office chair sits and waits at a window in patient ward where red brick is showing through the paint peeled restful aqua and cheery lemon yellow walls. An iron twin bedframe with a torn mattress looks more like a jail cell than a bedroom. Multicolored toothbrushes with yellowed bristles and a half-squeezed tube of toothpaste have a sense of interruption and flight. Shelves of leather suitcases and trunks in the Bolivar (TN) State attic indicate their owners never left.

Among the most notable photos are a starkly illuminated surgical room, a collection of straitjackets, and Medford (MA) State in autumn, surrounded by skeletal trees, wisps of leaves, and grass intruding on cement walkways. Payne successfully transforms the mundane items, like stacks of chairs in a hallway, and discarded athletic shoes in piles on the gymnasium floor, are into provocative subjects, inviting the viewer to contemplate not just their context, but the lives of the people who walked the halls, used the objects, and found sanctuary in these places.

The photographs terminate on a powerful note: a patient poem painted onto a basement wall at Augusta (ME) State, inviting “Some of the people who write the books and make the rules/ [to:]… spend just a few years walking in our shoes.” Payne’s afterword discusses the stigma of putting together the book, and his witnessing of the walls of Danvers State tumbling down, as the grounds (save for the preserved facade of the main building) were dismantled for development. I still shiver when I drive by it on Rte 95. Recommended for larger collections.

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