Subjectivizing Madness: Bodies, Senses, and Experiences in the Long History of the Asylum

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on Disability and Disability History and the Women and Social Movements in the U.S., 1600–2000

Thursday, April 2, 2020, 12:45 PM - 2:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Disability Studies; Social and Cultural; Social Welfare and Public Health


The historiography of U.S. mental institutions, despite Roy Porter’s charge to reposition “the patient’s view” at the center of medical history, continues to represent institutionalized residents as a monolithic patient group. This panel seeks to destabilize such silences, elisions, and simplifications by first mobilizing the insights of disability historians within an intersectional and postcolonial frame, and then circling back to the familiar archives of madness. Focusing on the network of institutions established in New York state, the panelists chart a course from blackface minstrelsy at the antebellum asylum to the entanglement of colonial projects and suicide prevention at the turn of the twentieth century, and concludes with the somatic therapies popularized on the eve of deinstitutionalization. In doing so, they attend to the diversity of lived experiences in these spaces, as well as to the dynamic and complex subjectivities that were made, remade, and unmade below the homogenizing discourses of asylum records.

Hyoseol Ha discusses the New York State Lunatic Asylum’s female minstrelsy group, “Blackbird Minstrels,” which epitomized identity crossings within the institution. Performing as “colored” subjects animated by “crazier” antics, patient-performers veiled their own othered bodies, masquerading instead as those who were un/equally oppressed and perpetually othered. Ha argues that the Blackbird Minstrels’ appropriation of Blackness gestured toward a juncture where boundaries between race, gender, and mental illness were redrawn, social pathologies re-hierarchized, and disability made hypervisible. The Utica archive informs the second paper, as well, in which Kathleen Brian interrogates the colonial dimensions of nineteenth-century therapeutics. Building on recent work that underscores collusions between American psychiatry and the U.S. state, she argues that accounting for asylum medicine means accounting for Anglophone colonial projects—and that suicide is a particularly revealing lens through which to do so. By attending to the opioids, iron bars, and rubber feeding tubes meant to prevent self-accomplished death, she shows that coloniality mattered not only for the experiences of institutionalized indigenous and African-American persons, but for the very functionality of the institutions themselves. Finally, Shuko Tamao shifts toward Bellevue Hospital to interrogate twentieth-century experiments in electroconvulsive therapy that were carried out on children. This therapeutic experience generated two very different narrative currents: Dr. Lauretta Bender’s medical documents, and the traumatic memories of her child-subject, Ted Chabasinski. Examining the emergence of these competing narratives, Tamao argues that they foreground the role of class dynamics in psychiatrist-patient power struggles.

Even as they traverse this broad historical terrain, the panelists create a complex portrait of the the quotidian struggles that, within the asylum, played out at the level of bodies, senses, and subjectivities. Such excavations, they suggest, function as points of entry into larger historiographical problems such as the negotiation of intersectional identities, the multiple connections between institutional intersubjectivity and institutionalized relations of power, and the ableist assumptions embedded in historical practice.

Papers Presented

“Colored” and “Crazed”: Blackface Minstrelsy and Identity Crossing in the New York State Lunatic Asylum

Founded in 1843 as the New York State Lunatic Asylum, Utica Psychiatric Center was one of the first psychiatric institutions in the United States In 1847 a group of female patients who were inspired by visits of traveling minstrelsy groups formed their own blackface performance group, Blackbird Minstrels. Though the remnants of their performances are few and far between, how their fellow inmates appreciated them can still be found in The Opal, the asylum’s patient-edited journal, published from 1851 through 1860. While historians, such as Benjamin Reiss, who looked at The Opal and the meanings of Blackbird Minstrels’ performances draw our attention to the power struggle and class dynamics in the institutional environment, the ways gender and race intersect to create more complicated human dynamics in the asylum has not been fully explored. This paper examines the ways Blackbird Minstrels embodied the convoluted moments of racial and gender crossings within the institutional walls. Onstage, performing the “colored” subjects who spoke, smiled, and sang in “crazier” ways, the already “crazed” patient performers were enabled to mask their own pathologized, incarcerated, and ultimately othered bodies and instead masquerade as those whose bodies were equally, and quite unequally, oppressed, negotiated, and perpetually othered—African Americans. This paper argues that Blackbird Minstrels’ appropriation of blackness gestured toward the juncture where the boundaries between race, gender, and mental illness are drawn and redrawn, the social, sexual, and pathological labels rehierarchized, and their disability made hypervisible in subversive ways.

Presented By
Hyoseol Ha, University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Madness, Materiality, Coloniality

This paper recalibrates the familiar terrain of nineteenth-century asylum medicine through an interrogation of the material and colonial dimensions of suicide prevention. It argues that to account for this discipline as it functioned within U.S. geopolitical territory, we must situate it within the pharmacopoeial extractions, governmental alliances, and global markets that characterized the Anglophone world—and that suicide is a particularly revealing lens through which to do so. Historians such as Martin Summers and Susan Burch have called for greater attention to the ways, historically speaking, U.S. psychiatric programs have buttressed, and been buttressed by, state power. Placing medical files, annual reports, and architectural plans alongside newspapers, legislative documents, and the meeting minutes of professional organizations, this paper responds by extension: it goes afield of racialized patient groups and diagnostics within federal institutions to pursue the sensual materiality of therapeutics and suicide prevention at New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica. The optics it develops—an optics of opioids, iron bars, and rubber feeding tubes—reveals the extent to which coloniality mattered not only for the experiences of institutionalized indigenous and African American persons but also for the functionality of the institutions themselves. The paper thus asks how attention to the materiality of suicide prevention might open broader questions about the psy-disciplines and the state, local markets as embedded within larger mobility regimes, and, not least of all, the trace impressions of empire.

Presented By
Kathleen M. Brian, Western Washington University

Motherhood, Profession, and Disability in 1940s Child Psychiatry

This paper analyzes two contrasting perspectives concerning medical experiments that unfolded at Bellevue Hospital during the 1940s to demonstrate how two entirely divergent narratives could emerge from the same event based on the power dynamic between the participants. Its theoretical framework follows Joel Braslow’s “therapeutic discipline,” which explains how a psychiatrist might consider a particular practice as a therapy while a patient might consider that same practice as an ordeal. Scholarship has depicted Bellevue’s electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) experiments as two distinct experiences belonging to Dr. Lauretta Bender and her six-year-old subject Ted Chabasinski. This scholarship has focused on an analysis of the experiments themselves rather than the background or experiences of the participants. They have described Bender’s actions and motivations in conducting such questionable experiments without analyzing them deeply other than to mention personal hardship she experienced after losing her husband. Scholars have shown how Chabasinski was traumatized by the experiments and how he became an attorney specializing in disability rights. However, no scholarship has analyzed his experiences in the context of therapeutic discipline. This paper argues that gender, class, and disability each played a role in creating different viewpoints. Bender decided proceed with such questionable experiments to protect her dual identity as a doctor and mother. Chabasinski was diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia largely because he was an adopted orphan of a poor out-of-wedlock immigrant with a psychiatric diagnosis. Sources include interviews with Chabasinski, manuscripts of Bender, novels detailing ECT experiences, and newspaper and magazine articles.

Presented By
Shuko Tamao, University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Katherine Ott, Smithsonian Institution
Katherine Ott, Ph.D., is a Curator at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. She has also been an Associate Professorial Lecturer in American Studies Department at George Washington University since 2007. She was a Distinguished Lecturer of the Organization of American History from 2014 to 2019. At Smithsonian Institution, she directed and curated such projects as “EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America” (2013), “Whatever Happened to Polio?” (2005-2006), and “History through Deaf Eyes” (curator, 2002). She is the author of Fevered Lives: Tuberculosis in American Culture since 1870 (1996), and she coedited Scrapbooks in American Life (with Susan Tucker and Patricia Buckler, 2006) and Artificial Parts and Practical Lives; Modern Histories of Prosthetics (with David Serlin and Stephen Mihm, 2002). Her articles, such as “Material Culture, Technology, and the Body in Disability History” and “Disability Things,” appear in Oxford Handbook of Disability History (Michael Rembis, Catherine Kudlick, and Kim Nielsen, eds., 2018) and Disability Histories (Susan Burch and Michael Rembis, eds., 2014) among others. She received her B.U.S. in Media Studies and Mass Communications from University of New Mexico, and she holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in American History from Temple University.

Presenter: Kathleen M. Brian, Western Washington University
Kathleen Brian teaches in the Liberal Studies Department and Honors Program at Western Washington University, where she works at the intersection of disability, medical, legal, and cultural history. She has held fellowships with the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, and the New York State Archives Partnership Trust. Her research appears in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine and the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, among others. She is the editor, with James W. Trent, of Phallacies: Historical Intersections of Masculinity and Disability (Oxford, 2017), and is finalizing a manuscript that reconceptualizes Anglophone eugenics through the history of suicide. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from George Washington University.

Presenter: Hyoseol Ha, University at Buffalo, State University of New York
Hyoseol Ha is a Ph.D. student and Teaching Assistant in the English Department at University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Her areas of research include nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, intersection of race and gender, and disability studies. Her article, ““I should have gone to Mary’s”: Filling the Void in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,” appears in Gender Forum (Issue 50, 2014). She is a recipient of University at Buffalo’s Presidential Fellowship and Riverrun Research Fellowship, among others. She received her B.A. and M.A. in English from Hanyang University, Seoul.

Presenter: Shuko Tamao, University at Buffalo, State University of New York
Shuko Tamao is a PhD candidate in History at the University at Buffalo (SUNY). She is currently working on her dissertation, Memories of Asylums: A Narrative Examination of Postwar State Hospital Experiences where she explores the subjective experiences of people who were in asylums as patients, inmates, doctors, or as reformers during the postwar period. She has received such fellowships as the Margaret W. Moore and John M. Moore Research Fellowship at Swarthmore College and the American Historical Association Career Diversity Implementation Grant. She obtained an MA in History and a graduate certificate in Public History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. During her master’s, she also worked as an archives assistant at the Special Collections and University Archives where she helped to expand the disability-related archives. Her book review of David Oshinsky’s Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital will appear in the History of Psychiatry journal in March 2019.