Barbara Taylor was a promising young historian when madness struck. She wound up at Friern Mental Hospital, an institution outside London. Friern was once the largest asylum for the mentally ill in Europe, and it looked the part: “a B-movie image of a loony bin,” Taylor writes in “The Last Asylum,” her engrossing memoir. “Few extant interiors so faithfully mirrored the gothic inner landscapes of madness.”
Taylor takes readers on a fascinating if harrowing journey through her four years as an inpatient and outpatient in the British mental-health-care system and her two decades in psychoanalysis. Her book offers an unflinching view of those whose illnesses beg a safe haven and whom the system often fails.
Taylor is a deft and engaging historian of her fraught life. “Accurately remembered madness is oxymoronic,” she writes. “If you can really remember it, you are still mad.” Yet, from notebooks, letters and audiotapes, she pieces together a vivid portrait of her experience. She also paints a larger context of asylums such as Friern, which were a Victorian invention. Originally known as Colney Hatch, Friern evolved from model institution to “a byword for neglect and misery.”
Taylor’s descent into madness began in her teens with anxiety, compulsions and “vicious despair,” and evolved into reckless affairs, nightmares of sexual violence and an overwhelming emptiness that had her chewing her nails and hair and devouring candy bars, vodka and pills. Her arrival — “drunk, sick, suicidal” — at Friern in the late 1980s coincided with the announcement of its planned closing, part of the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill. There, in “a world of devils and phantoms and wide-awake dreamers,” her own “fantasies and anxieties were merely routine.” Physical violence was always a threat at Friern, but a certain humanity arose out of shared, “remorseless aloneness.” One friend suffered from black depressions but would usually rouse herself to keep Taylor company. “The obligations of friendship trumped madness — and this in itself could be a form of healing,” Taylor writes.
For Taylor, asylum was a “stone mother” that held her for as long she needed. Psychoanalysis was a type of refuge as well, and she came to lean on its formalism “like a rock.” She continued her lengthy analysis before, during and after her days in psychiatric-care facilities. She admits that “the rites of psychoanalysis can look ridiculous” but argues that “the hushed room with the ruminative analyst, the padded couch, the fifty-minute hour” in fact offer “solid supports for emotional chaos.”
Time and much hard, analytic work gradually deliver Taylor from the depths of her mental illness. Her experience leads her to question today’s system, in which symptom lists replace personal histories and therapies aim to change future behaviors instead of understanding those of the past.
While deeply flawed, the mental health system of the 1980s recognized Taylor’s need “for someone to rely upon when self-reliance is no option.” Today’s system offers no such asylum — “offering in their stead individualistic pieties and self-help prescriptions that are a mockery of people’s suffering.”And as for Friern Hospital, the foreboding Victorian asylum has undergone a Disneyland-like transition to posh housing.
Suzanne Allard Levingston is a writer based in Bethesda, Md.
THE LAST ASYLUM
A Memoir of Madness in our Times
By Barbara Taylor
Univ. of Chicago. 295 pp. Paperback, $20