Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times by Barbara Taylor

The Last AsylumBarbara Taylor is a well-respected historian and writer, and is a Professor at Queen Mary, University of London. She is the author of several books, including an award-winning work on socialism and feminism called Eve and the New Jerusalem, and a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft. She has been an editor of the History Workshop Journal for more than thirty years. She is also a former in-patient at one of Britain’s most iconic psychiatric asylums, Frien Hospital – or, Colney Hatch, as it was once known. The Last Asylum is both a memoir of what she calls her “madness years”, and an examination of the changing ways in which psychiatric patients have been treated in Britain since the second half of the 20th century.

The first part of the book mainly deals with Taylor’s descent into madness. (‘Madness’ is a difficult word, at which some people take offence. I use this word here because Taylor does.) Born in Canada to revolutionary, left-wing parents, she grew up convinced that to be her parents’ child was her greatest accolade:

I am a child of History in the heroic register; I am a daughter of the greatest parents ever; I am the luckiest girl in the world… For thirty years, they blanketed my moral horizon. Being Dad and Mum’s daughter was the most important, most worthwhile, the only worthwhile, thing about me. My reverence for them occasionally lifted a friend’s eyebrow, but I paid no heed. Nor did the gulf between their political values and their personal behaviour disconcert me in the slightest.

Unsurprisingly, it becomes apparent that she is far from the ‘luckiest girl in the world’, and her childhood and upbringing is actually at the root of many of the problems Taylor goes on to experience. The disparity between her parents’ values and their behaviour, referenced above, is illuminated as the book goes on, and some of it makes for shocking reading.

By her early thirties, Barbara Taylor was in London, having had some success with her scholarship and writing. She was active in the 1970s wave of feminism, involved in the History Workshop, and teaching at a small college. She was also starting to spiral out of control. She was, by now, taking part in psychoanalysis, seeing her therapist – ‘V’ – virtually every day. The psychoanalysis became extraordinarily difficult, and the transcripts of conversations with V that she reproduces from her journals into The Last Asylum reveal a therapeutic relationship that from the outside looks nothing less than completely tortured. I’m sure it was pretty tortured on the inside too. Her drinking and drug-taking grew to dangerous levels, and she was plagued by terrible dreams full of unimaginable sexual violence. Some of these dreams are recorded in the book and are horrifying to read.

Finally, having reached rock bottom, she was admitted to Frien Hospital in London. She had three stays there: the first two relatively short, but the third lasting for eight months. This moves us into the second part of the book, which explores what it was like to stay in this extraordinary asylum just at the time that the psychiatric system in Britain was being radically overhauled. Indeed, by the time Taylor was an inmate, the hospital had already been marked for closure, and many wards and treatment rooms had already been closed down and cordoned off.

Colney Hatch, as the asylum had originally been known, was “the emblematic institution of the asylum age”. Opened at almost exactly the same time as the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, it represented a new age in caring for the mentally ill. While older asylums relied on physical restraint and cruel treatment, Colney Age was a product of the move towards ‘moral treatment’ of the insane. It was architecturally beautiful, and prided itself on the entertainments laid on for patients to get involved with (although less was said about the fact that tickets were sold to the wealthy public, allowing them to observe the lunatics at dances and so on). By the end of the 20th century it was not fit for purpose, like much of the mental health system. That said, it was still Barbara Taylor’s “stone mother”, and while the building was dilapidated and the ward on which she stayed occasionally violent and terrifying, she maintains it did crucial good work in her road to recovery. It was, literally, her asylum from the torment of her outside life.

The third and final section of the book deals with afterlives. We see her finally finish her psychoanalysis in 2003, 21 years after it began. We follow her through psychiatric hostels, day hospitals, and day centres. All of these facilities helped her get back on her feet, and begin to function “normally”. Many of these facilities no longer exist, and where they do, the care is either patchy depending on which part of the country you’re in, or prohibitively expensive. The Last Asylum is, in some ways, a lament for the asylum age. Not that Taylor advocates a return to it – it had many, many failings – but the problem remains that there has been no real alternative. Community care is only as good as the community you are a part of; what happens when you have no one? In Taylor’s own words:

The story of the Asylum Age is not a happy one. But if the death of the asylum means the demise of effective and humane mental health care, then this will be more than a bad ending to the story: it will be a tragedy.

The Last Asylum is not easy reading. At times, my heart ached for Barbara Taylor and the pain she has experienced. It is, though, a rewarding book, and a rallying cry to remember the humanity in even the most troubled psychiatric patients.

Barbara Taylor – The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2014). ISBN 9780241145098. RRP £18.99.

2 comments on “The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times by Barbara Taylor

  1. Jackie
    February 26, 2015

    This sounds like a harrowing read & I don’t think I could handle it, though it would be intriguing.And the author is very brave to revisit that part of her life & to put it before the public. I’m sure that a personal story of the changing nature of such institutions would be far more relatable & have more impact than sheets full of numbers and statistics.
    I also commend you for having such empathy, which shines through in your review. It speaks well of your character.

  2. Kirsty
    February 27, 2015

    Thank you Jackie, that’s really kind!

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