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Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., 1924

December 17, 2012

BOOK PREVIEW

A Mind That Found Itself
by Clifford Whittingham Beers (1908)


“A pen rather than a lance has been my weapon of offence and defence; with its point I should prick the civic conscience and bring into a neglected field men and women who should act as champions for those afflicted thousands least able to fight for themselves.”

The curious title A Mind That Found Itself is what caught my eye as I browsed through free ebooks on the internet. The book was listed under Biography/Psychology. I have read biographies and autobiographies but never psychology. The closest I have come to reading about this science is Irving Stone’s The Passions of the Mind (1971) based on the life of Sigmund Freud. I never finished it. Anyway, I was about to head back when the blurb held my attention. It read: 

“In 1900, after suffering a mental breakdown, Clifford Whittingham Beers was confined to an asylum for three years. After his recovery he wrote this biography, which aroused a storm of protest and public concern about care of people with mental illness. In the eyes of many the modern mental health movement can be traced to this publication.”

It sounded like a true story. And it was.

In his 150-page life story Clifford Beers details his years of incarceration and torture in a mental hospital which forced America to sit up and acknowledge that mental patients were humans too. The publication of Beers’ memoir and his graphical description of ill-treatment at the hands of the hospital staff resulted in the founding of the mental hygiene movement whose modern-day avatar is Mental Health America.

“I am not telling the story of my life just to write a book. I tell it because it seems my plain duty to do so. A narrow escape from death and a seemingly miraculous return to health after an apparently fatal illness are enough to make a man ask himself: For what purpose was my life spared? That question I have asked myself, and this book is, in part, an answer.

Clifford Beers was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on March 30, 1876, one of five children, all of whom suffered from mental illness. Beers, himself, was afflicted with depression and paranoia. A graduate from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, Beers was as intelligent as he was insane. Although he recovered, Beers and his siblings later died in mental institutions. Apparently, mental illness ran in his family with his mother and an aunt also stricken with insanity, or so psychologist Norman Dain reveals in his biography, Clifford W. Beers: Advocate for the Insane.

The original Grace Hospital building on West Chapel Street,
Connecticut
, where Clifford Beers was institutionalised. He recalls,
“There was a chapel connected with the hospital—or at least a room
where religious services were held every Sunday.”
Photo: Historical Library, Cushing/Whitney Medical Library

The autobiographical account of his hospitalisation and the horrible abuses he suffered during his so-called treatment led to a storm of protest across the country and eventually resulted in sweeping reforms in the field of mental health and illness. Founded in 1909, Mental Health America is the country's oldest and largest nonprofit organisation addressing all aspects of mental health and mental illness.

“The biographical part of my autobiography might be called the history of a mental civil war, which I fought single-handed on a battlefield that lay within the compass of my skull. An Army of Unreason, composed of the cunning and treacherous thoughts of an unfair foe, attacked my bewildered consciousness with cruel persistency, and would have destroyed me, had not a triumphant Reason finally interposed a superior strategy that saved me from my unnatural self.”

Clifford Whittingham Beers died in 1943 at the age of 67, apparently, in seclusion and of a suspected brain tumour. By then, his mental illness had already led to the mental wellness of millions of Americans.






You can download the ebook at ManyBooks and read more about the author at the Clifford Beers Foundation, The Social Welfare History Project and Wikipedia.

4 comments:

  1. The care given to the mentally ill used to be an abomination, then it got better. Today in the US there is very little care. There is forced drugging of some and the rest are released into society. It's an outrage.

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    1. Charles, mental healthcare in India was almost non-existent and the mentally sick used to be treated like pariahs. Now there is more awareness and there are also dedicated psychiatric wards in hospitals. However, families, especially in the rural belt and small towns, are still known to disown and abandon the mentally sick in their midst.

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  2. Your opening quote reminded me of a line from THE WIRE when someone counseled another to avoid making enemies at a newspaper. "Never pick a fight with someone who orders ink by the barrel."

    Very thoughtfully reviewed. Thanks. I was reminded of William Styron's short book on his own severe depression: DARKNESS VISIBLE.

    I'm curious that mental illness does not figure as a subject in the many novels I've been reading from that period.

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    1. Ron, thanks for your appreciation and sharing the quote from THE WIRE. I have heard much about William Styron and his books though I have never read anything by this brilliant writer. I don't recall reading novels with mental illness and its associated hardships as the subject-matter but, I think, artistic people are more prone to mental afflictions as we have seen over the years. I have seen this trend played out in films, most notably LUST FOR LIFE where Kirk Douglas acts as the mentally-ill Vincent Van Gogh. A plausible explanation may lie in too much passion for their art and inability to cope with failure and frustration.

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