Alcoholism, narcotics and psychoanalysis in memoir form.by Lisa Appignanesi / February 20, 2014 / Leave a comment
The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in our Times by Barbara Taylor (Viking, £18.99)
While writing her PhD in the late 70s, Barbara Taylor, then a promising young feminist historian, was overcome by “a lightless misery,” accompanied by fatigue, unremitting insomnia, and a rising sense of panic. After having successfully sat her viva, the symptoms grew worse. Her GP prescribed pills. She found drink—a lot of it—helped. She also went into psychoanalysis. She explored her past and re-lived versions of it. The person she eventually encountered on chair, then couch, was “so bloody with rage and hate” that she broke down. A host of loyal friends looked after her. But by 1988, they no longer felt they had the professionalism to deal with her boozing, her destructive affairs, her sequence of phobias, her self-centred, suicidal carelessness. Taylor was admitted to Friern Hospital—formerly Colney Hatch, Victorian England’s largest asylum—then a psychiatric institution on the verge of closure in that movement towards community care sparked by idealism, but enacted with only a pragmatic eye to cut-backs.
This is a bold, riveting memoir. Its bravery lies not only in its self-exposure and the lucidity with which Taylor, a fine historian, charts her own experience while recapturing the process of analysis. Taylor also importantly shows how her mix of unfashionable treatments—daily psychoanalysis plus confinement and care—is what made her journey out of madness possible and lasting. Mapping the changes in minddoctoring over the last century, Taylor asks whether the current mental health regime with its emphasis on choice and independence, its diagnosis-and-drugs model, really marks any improvement at all.