Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Aslyum* (for Asylum*)

Um, as lies go, most asylums are probably not all they're cracked up to be. The Opal (1851–1860) was the newsletter of the State Lunatic Asylum in Utica, New York, and was a fascinating attempt to shed light on this often maddening subject from the point of view of the patients themselves, who did much of the writing and editing. "Devoted to Usefulness," the newsletter published poems, essays, news articles, correspondence, and editorials; covered local and national events of interest; and addressed topics of a political, religious, literary, and social nature, sometimes in a humorous or satirical way. It also discussed current attitudes and theories concerning mental illness. The Opal's historic and ongoing legacy can be found in the mission of The Opal Project, which is dedicated to "ending psychiatric oppression" in all its forms. Some mental patients are indeed paranoid, but they may not have been the only ones. In 1875, Commissioner Norris of the Kings County Lunatic Asylum stated, with regard to reports of abuse: "This sort of thing is very common among lunatics; they are always imagining themselves in great danger of being killed by their keepers." Well, perhaps so. And perhaps their keepers were always imagining, in some cases anyway, that the inmates weren't running the asylum. Call me crazy, but I'm pretty sure I witnessed three cases of Aslyum* in OhioLINK this morning, and 40 more in WorldCat.

(Cover of The Opal, vol. 1, no. 1, from the New York State Archives collection.)

Carol Reid

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