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Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospitalby Alex Beam
People ask me why I undertook this book, and I have a series of responses, depending on how interested they really are. Sometimes I say: Because McLean is a fascinating place, full of great stories about famous writers and artists. To others I say: Because it was a challenge; this kind of a book has never been written. People are much more willing to talk about their experiences in mental hospitals now than they were a generation ago. And with McLean, you have a prodigious written record: Sylvia Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, takes place there; you have the poems of Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, and more recently Susanna Kaysen's McLean memoir, Girl, Interrupted. That satisfies many questioners.
But one afternoon at the Iruna, a down-at-the-mouth Spanish restaurant near Harvard, my friend Rob Perkins asked me why I had chosen to spend several years of my life researching the hospital. Rob had spent almost two years' hard time as a patient at McLean, and had written a book, Talking to Angels, about his experiences there. I couldn't buffalo him the way I could everyone else. "Rob, life is impossible," I confessed. "Who can't understand the need for shelter? And who can't sympathize with the people who seek that shelter? And who could fail to be interested in a place that offered that shelter?" We never spoke another word on the subject, because I think that said it all.
So this is a book about the men and women who needed shelter more than most of us, or who, in some cases, were more honest about their need for protection than we are. And about an institution that provided that shelter, imperfectly, in our imperfect world.
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