Rethinking Madness in U.S. History

Solicited by the OAH Committee on Disability and Disability History Endorsed by the OAH-Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians' Collaborative Committee and S-USIH

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

Type: Lightning Round

Tags: Disability Studies; LGBTQ History and Queer Studies; Science, Medicine, and Public Health


This lightning round brings together snapshots of new research on histories of madness and mad people in the United States and its imperium. As the field of mad studies asserts, psychiatric differences are “historical formations that have justified all manner of ill-treatment and disenfranchisement” (American Quarterly, “Mad Futures,” 2017). Building from this analysis, this panel contends madness and mad people are indeed everywhere in U.S. history. Far beyond asylums and clinical settings, psychiatric difference has been mobilized in settler colonial state-building, carceral biomedicine, and racial-sexual formations in varied time periods and regions. Mad people also have drawn on their knowledge and experience to mobilize social movements during crisis and upheaval. Further, these presentations emphasize how non-canonical sites and communities can inform a critical reexamination of canonical frameworks of pathology, ability, race-gender-sexuality, and the modern nation-state. This session includes diverse participants. The six presenters and chair represent diverse ranks, institutions, and training, including the fields of disability history, queer/trans studies, African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Native American and Indigenous Studies, and history of medicine. In dialogue with each other and a broader audience, presenters also will consider these questions: How does our research contribute to or shift conceptions of madness, mental disability, or neurodiversity in U.S. history? How do we choose words and terms to write about the past, whether (previously) pejorative or re-signified language emerging from disability activism, antipsychiatry movements, and mad studies, such as “mad,” "neurodiverse,” “sanist,” “patient,” “mental illness,” “psychiatric disabilities,” and “mental disabilities”?

Papers Presented

Beyond the Asylum: Writing Histories of Race and Community Mental Healthcare

Over the past ten to fifteen years, there has been tremendous growth in historical scholarship on psychiatry and mental illness in the United States that uses race as a category of analysis. Much of this scholarship focuses on institutions or processes of deinstitutionalization/trans-institutionalization, essentially situating the study of race, mental illness, and psychiatry within a framework of carcerality. Although there have been a handful of studies of mental health clinics and child guidance centers that served Black communities, histories of African Americans and the community mental healthcare movement are few and far between. While there is undoubtedly still a need for institutional histories of racialized people and psychiatry, what kinds of questions about the relationship between these two emerge when we shift our focus to non-institutionalized settings? For instance, was there consensus within communities around what mental healthcare should look like and if, not, what were some of the fault lines? Did deinstitutionalization contribute to the emergence, or strengthening, of an ethic of care within Black communities or produce a politics of NIMBY-ism? And should we even posit the carceral nature of institutionalization against the decentralized nature of community mental healthcare as a dichotomy to begin with, or did forms of carcerality persist in this new model of care? This paper will explore these questions, and more, through very brief histories of multiservice centers that operated in Black neighborhoods in Boston and Washington, DC in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Presented By
Martin Anthony Summers, Boston College

Antipsychiatry and the Mad-Queer 1970s

The postwar period has been traditionally narrated as a time when queerness and madness were disarticulated from each other – the central chapter of this narrative typically being the DSM revision campaign that declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973. At the time however, not only did many queer communities move to embrace and elevate madness – rather than disavow it – but also the social and intellectual backdrops of antipsychiatry, insane liberation, and radical psychoanalysis provided key resources for queer activists to develop militant anti-normative models of sexual politics. Madness, in other words, often provided a lens through which queer politics was initially theorized by grassroots activists. In this pitch, I briefly detail some of the cross-pollinations between 1970s queer and antipsychiatric organizing and intellection, and sketch out some of the ways that these political interfaces generated mad-queer imaginaries that in respects, put pressure on certain canonical arguments made by today’s preeminent theorist of sexual modernity, Michel Foucault.

Presented By
Abram J. Lewis, Grinnell College

Whiteness, Insanity, and Therapeutic Medical Incarceration: The Work of Dorothea Dix

The ideologies of asylum advocate Dorothea Dix permeated the planning, funding, building, staffing, and programming of insane asylums as they rapidly expanded across the U.S. in the nineteenth-century. This research uses a robust array of archival sources authored by Dix (1802-1887) to analyze the rise of medicalized incarceration, the relationship between asylums and settler colonialism, and the long-term consequences of Dix’s racist and racial differentiation of medicine. I make three arguments. First, analyzing Dix’s single-issue focus on the therapeutic medical incarceration of insane whites is core to this project. She believed insane white people medically malleable: worthy and capable of benefiting from medical rehabilitation and expertise if contained and incarcerated. She believed medical resources spent on curing non-whites a folly due to their racial inferiority. Secondly, in the 1850s, Dix devoted herself to lobbying the U.S. Congress to dedicate substantial landholdings, all confiscated from Indigenous nations, to funding a network of state asylums. She imagined former tribal landholdings as virgin territory rich for use as state asylums. These efforts considered the racially differentiated management of insane citizens, and the medicalization of insanity, as a vital step in settler-colonialism and state formation. Finally, Dix and others theorized and then implemented large-scale, architecturally built, medicalized, locked environments; and large-scale institutions became the dominant medical and governmental response to people with many kinds of disabilities. As a result, a diagnosis of madness and the resulting medical treatment often included either the threat or reality of incarceration.

Presented By
Kim E. Nielsen, University of Toledo

Madness and the Japanese American Redress Movement

Hidden in plain view, a major psychiatric event resulting in mass disablement was the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. With the stressors of forced removal, racialized imprisonment, and resettlement, inmates and their children experienced mental disabilities, madness, suicide, alcoholism, depression, and anxiety. Thirty years later, in what became known as the Redress movement for government apology and restitution, grassroots organizers made such “psychological injuries” and “mental suffering” a significant cornerstone of Redress claims. At the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians Hearings (CWRIC) held in ten U.S. cities in 1981, people of diverse ages, generations, class backgrounds, and citizenship status testified in public about their and their loved ones’ mental disabilities, despite the stigma and shame often attached to these conditions. This paper discusses how post-war trans-generational struggles with disabilities in the 1950s–1970s created a structure of feeling that brought unlikely survivors –- mad people and psychiatric survivors –- into the spotlight for political justice. Further, I briefly consider how and why Japanese American incarceration and Redress have been absent from mad and disability histories, and how they can put productive pressure on a genealogy of madness and antipsychiatry.

Presented By
Adria L. Imada, University of California, Irvine

Psychiatry, Civil Rights, and Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the School to Prison Pipeline in the US South

Psychiatry, Civil Rights, and mass incarceration: rethinking the school to prison pipeline in the US South Much attention has been paid to the way that Black children’s (usually normal) behavior is pathologized and criminalized, leading to what has become known as the School to Prison Pipeline. In this talk, I demonstrate the role that psychiatry has played in this process through an examination of institutional Civil Rights court cases from Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. These cases reveal the atrocious conditions that prevailed for institutionalized Black youth, but also demonstrate the way that social and family problems were rendered as individual psychiatric diagnoses. Once diagnosed, children could easily be shifted from one institution to another within a broad network of confinement aimed specifically at Black disability. Civil and disability rights activists sought to challenge these practices, but could not shift the fundamental racist ideology of psychiatry itself which continues to contribute to the misdiagnosis, over-medication and forced institutionalization of young people with disability today.

Presented By
Kylie M. Smith, Associate Professor, Emory University

Native Narratives Against Settler Structures of Carceral Care

This talk contextualizes Native narratives of madness and neurodivergence through the pathologizing rhetoric targeting Native women and youth in the mid-twentieth century before the enactment of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Ablesanist rhetoric and policies impacting Native women and their families in the mid-twentieth century build on a long federal legacy of discrediting Native women and children who do not comply with assimilation goals. I examine how social science research from the mid-twentieth century, in addition to the practices of federal programs such as the Indian Adoption Project, carries out colonization through undermining Native kinship structures with ablesanist tactics. Finally, and most importantly, I discuss how Native literature and memoir disrupts the pathologization of Native women and youth, offering possibilities for expansive understandings of kinship and care beyond carceral structures.

Presented By
Jessica Cowing, College of Wooster

Session Participants

Chair: Regina Kunzel, Yale University
Regina Kunzel is the Larned Professor of History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University. Kunzel’s research focuses on histories of gender and sexuality, carcerality, and on the twined histories of sexual deviance and normalcy. Kunzel’s publications include Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (University of Chicago Press, 2008), Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890 to 1945 (Yale University Press, 1993), and articles on queer history, transgender studies, disability studies, the history of prison sexual culture, single pregnancy, and gender and professionalization. Kunzel’s current project explores the encounter of LGBT/queer people with psychiatry in the twentieth-century United States.

Presenter: Jessica Cowing, College of Wooster
Jess L. Cowing (they/she) is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of English at the College of Wooster, and she served as the American Studies Association’s Critical Disability Studies Caucus Co-Chair from 2017-2021. Jess graduated with a PhD in American Studies from the College of William & Mary in 2020. Their research is in the areas of 19th and 20th century literary studies, feminist disability studies, and settler colonialism. Her work is published in The Journal of Feminist Scholarship and Disability Studies Quarterly. Jess lives and works on Kaskaskia and Piscataway homelands.

Presenter: Adria L. Imada, University of California, Irvine
Adria L. Imada was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai‘i and now lives and works on the homelands of the Acjachemen and Tongva people. She is professor of History at University of California, Irvine, where she also teaches Medical Humanities. Her first book, Aloha America: Hula Circuits through the U.S. Empire, received four awards, including the Lawrence W. Levine Prize for best cultural history from the OAH. Her second book, An Archive of Skin, An Archive of Kin: Disability and Life-Making during Medical Incarceration (University of California Press, 2022), analyzes the prolific visual culture of Hansen’s disease, disability, and kinship in Hawai‘i during the longest medical quarantine in modern history. Named an Andrew Carnegie Fellow in 2021, she is researching a new project about ordinary people surviving epidemics in the twentieth century. She currently serves as program co-chair of the OAH 2022 Boston conference. Imada received a Ph.D. in American Studies from New York University.

Presenter: Abram J. Lewis, Grinnell College
AJ Lewis is Assistant Professor of Gender, Women’s and Sexuality studies at Grinnell College, with research interests in the politics of madness and magic in 1970s queer organizing. Some of his writing has appeared in Radical History Review, The Journal of the History of Sexuality, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, and the anthology Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility. AJ is also a founder and collective member of the NYC Trans Oral History Project and Grinnell-based LGBT Oral Histories of Central Iowa initiative.

Presenter: Kim E. Nielsen, University of Toledo
Historian and Disability Studies scholar Kim Nielsen is Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Toledo where she teaches courses on disability history, activism, gender, eugenics, and law. Nielsen is author of the widely used A Disability History of the United States, multiple other books and articles, and co-editor of the award winning Oxford Handbook of Disability History. Her most recent book, Money, Marriage, and Madness: The Life of Anna Ott, analyzes a mid-19th century Madison physician incarcerated for two decades at the Wisconsin State Hospital for the Insane. In addition, Nielsen has received two Fulbright appointments, numerous scholarly prizes, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Iowa.

Presenter: Kylie M. Smith, Associate Professor, Emory University
Dr. Kylie Smith is Associate Professor and 2021-2022 President’s Humanities Fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University. Kylie teaches the history of race and US health care in both the School of Nursing and the Department of History at Emory. Her previous book “Talking Therapy: Knowledge and Power in American Psychiatric Nursing” was published by Rutgers University Press in 2020 and was awarded Book of the Year from both the American Journal of Nursing and the American Association for the History of Nursing. Her new book project called “Jim Crow in the Asylum: Psychiatry and Civil Rights in the American South” is supported by a grant from the National Library of Medicine.

Presenter: Martin Anthony Summers, Boston College
Martin Summers is a professor of history and African and African Diaspora Studies at Boston College. He has particular research and teaching interests in race, gender, sexuality, and medicine. He is the author of Manliness and Its Discontents: The Black Middle Class and the Transformation of Masculinity, 1900 – 1930 (2004) and the coeditor of Precarious Prescriptions: Contested Histories of Race and Health in North America (2014). Summers’s research has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the National Humanities Center. His most recent book, Madness in the City of Magnificent Intentions: A History of Race and Mental Illness in the Nation’s Capital (2019), received the Cheiron Society’s prize for outstanding monograph in the history of behavioral and social sciences.