Commitment Issues

The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times BY Barbara Taylor. University Of Chicago Press. Paperback, 320 pages. $20.

The cover of The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times

Ph.D. students famously despair that the academic dissertation, as a literary genre, is inherently boring to the point of unreadable, while joking that the difficulty of writing one is enough to drive a person insane. The number of those who actually do go insane is small. For Barbara Taylor, the trouble began when she got it into her head that her dissertation was going to be, in a literary sense, really good. Then a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Sussex in England, Taylor was writing about the Owenites, a minor group of nineteenth-century English utopians. As a socialist, a feminist, and a Canadian, she felt an affinity for these obscure and decent people. However, she didn’t know just what to say about them, which caused her great anxiety. This situation lasted for months, with the anxiety getting worse. Finally, in a scene reminiscent of the Muses inspiring a poet, her idea came to her, with dazzling suddenness; in her memoir, The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times (University of Chicago, $20), Taylor dates the epiphany to a November evening in 1977, “at about eleven.”

From the start, she was all too conscious of the brilliance of her new idea. In truth, she felt a little strange. She was unable to sleep, and her heart beat funny. Galvanized on booze and pills, she found it tough to get out of bed. By 1981, when she received her Ph.D., two things were clear: Her dissertation was amazing (it would soon be published as a book, Eve and the New Jerusalem, and win an important prize); and she felt crazy. Mixed up with this feeling of craziness was the guilty fear that she was somehow faking it, so Taylor did what any miserable successful person might have done in the early ’80s: She entered psychoanalysis.

Taylor calls the analyst she ended up with, a man, “V.” He was dour, ideally bearded, and by the book; he had a couch (“the couch”), which she lay on. Like many British Freudians, he was specifically an object-relations theorist, which, in practical terms, meant a lot of urgent questions about her mother (“I hear you. Could your mother hear you?”). These the patient answered with gusto, yet under V’s tutelage, it must be said, she did not make steady progress. Indeed, she was inert. She crashed her car, twice, and quit her job teaching at a “nice, friendly college.” She antagonized her housemates, drank a lot of vodka, and went to bed with various bad men, two of whom shared V’s name. When Taylor told him this, V said: “Common name.” She became convinced that he was obtuse. Her analysis was so futile that futility itself soon became the main theme:

Nothing you say makes any difference to me!
Yet you come here every day.
Yes—God knows why! I talk and talk, and you talk and talk, blah blah blah, and nothing makes any difference!
What kind of difference do you want?
I want to feel better! What do you think, you bastard?

Incessant circular bickering isn’t everybody’s idea of chemistry, but perhaps not everybody is meant for psychoanalysis. V and Taylor kept seeing each other for twenty-two years, often five days a week—in all, “some 4,000 times.” They didn’t even forgo their sessions when, in 1988, she checked herself into the Friern lunatic asylum in London. “I think there’s still scope for improvement,” V said, a bleak understatement that made Taylor laugh. V, a Freudian, did not laugh. This humorlessness was in fact his most heroic quality. He took Taylor’s craziness seriously, and that meant going a bit crazy himself.

Taylor does not deny the unreason—even the madness—of her relationship with V. Nonetheless, she credits him for her sanity today. She thinks her decision to go crazier in order to get better was the right one. “The person I am, I became through my madness,” she writes: “not by ‘recovering’ from it, which implies a return to a previously healthy state, but by entering into it and travelling to its roots.” These assertions do not agree with those of modern psychiatry, whose neurobiological models of madness Taylor dismisses as naive. In three hundred pages she does not offer anything like a medical diagnosis of her manic-depressive behavior. The problem wasn’t, she thinks, her brain. It was her parents, those unhappy people, who had from girlhood filled her mind with a terrible purpose: “I must write books.” For literary ambition there is, alas, no pill.


Going crazy is much different in the twenty-first century from how it was a hundred years ago. It is less brutal (no more lobotomies), but also less picturesque. There is a verbal aspect to this. Lunatic, for instance, a nice-sounding term derived from certain old ideas concerning the psychoactive powers of moonbeams, is no longer in clinical use to describe mentally ill persons, because this is scientifically ridiculous. However, some people are not so impressed by modern science. Taylor uses lunatic often, for its poetry yet also to make a point. Her madness may have occurred “in our times,” as her subtitle has it, but like her word choice it wasn’t really of our times. “Darling Barbara!” said a friend who visited her during her nine months at Friern. “What a privilege for you, as a historian, to be present at the demise of one of the last great Victorian institutions!”

Taylor tried to see things this way, with detachment. The advantage to being a writer, though also maybe the trouble with being one, is that bad experiences make good material. As if reflexively, she found herself narrating her adventures among the insane in the cool style of a cocktail-party anecdote. “This was deliciously on-script,” she thinks on day one at Friern, after a half-bald blond woman approaches her with delusions of being a Russian princess, “and I could hear myself telling friends about it.” Much about Friern was on-script. Founded in 1851, it was literally “a B-movie image of a looney bin,” having been featured in several films (see Beyond Bedlam, 1994). To the craziness of some of its denizens there was also a generic quality. One inmate told Taylor she was Satan; another, that he knew where Satan lurked (the basement). Friern’s most famous feature, also its most maligned, was its central corridor, a third of a mile long. “Friends traversing it for the first time, en route to my ward, arrived wide-eyed with dismay,” Taylor writes.

That Friern ended up a place scary to normal people is ironic, because it was built to highlight what they and the insane had in common. Its founders were advocates of what is known as moral treatment, which postulates that the way to cure madness is to take it seriously. The thinking is that unreason, contrary to appearances, can be reasoned with. An agreeable way of doing things, moral treatment did not survive the nineteenth century, but the principle of human connection lingered on at Friern, sort of, in that all the crazy people did a lot of hanging out. It was like a prison, but also like a summer camp (it would close in 1993, eventually becoming condos), and it changed Taylor’s life. She lost her detachment, and started to tell herself a different kind of story.

For instance, Fiona. Tragically, Fiona had been raped, three times, and in delayed reaction to these traumas often tried to kill herself, she said. She showed Taylor her scars, and Taylor accepted her story as truth, until one day, Fiona also described her friend the Spaceman, who journeyed in other galaxies. Taylor did not know what to think. Her heart broke for her friend, but the question of how bogus was it all seemed unanswerable. And then she had her epiphany: “I realized that I didn’t care whether the stories Fiona told me were true,” she writes. “For the truth of Fiona was not in her words but in her suffering, whatever its causes.” Some things are not fact-checkable. As Wittgenstein wrote, “Just try—in a real case—to doubt the fear, the pain, of someone else.”

Taylor’s memoir, an inside account of being out of one’s mind, poses its own epistemological problems. Like the Victorian doctors she admires—like V—she must reason with unreason, be above facts but emotionally true, use hyperbole to achieve realism and parlay self-absorption into human connection. “Accurately remembered madness is oxymoronic,” Taylor writes; “if you can really remember it, you are still mad.” Prose is a peculiar medium in which to investigate insanity, because the challenges of writing it so often mimic the experience. Both involve commitment to a reality not shared by other people. Taylor spends many pages evoking insanity’s “polar privacy”—a phrase she has taken, tellingly, from Emily Dickinson. This account of her breakdown is also her reckoning with years of writer’s block. Madness may be creative, but the Muses can behave a lot like the Furies. After Eve, Taylor didn’t publish again until 2003—also the year she finished with V. This brave and brilliant memoir is her third book. Both crazed and saved by writing, it shows the uncertainty in which writers exist. That voice you hear in your head might be the start of your next book. Or not.

James Camp is a copy editor at Bookforum.