SO FAR DISORDERED IN MIND: Insanity in California, 1870-1930 by Richard W. Fox

SO FAR DISORDERED IN MIND: Insanity in California, 1870-1930

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Are they crazier in California? Professor Fox (History, Yale) considers this and more profound questions regarding the definition and politics of mental illness in his lucid social history of insanity in the Golden Gate state. Rejecting over-simplistic models of social control, he argues along with Foucault (Madness and Civilization) that in bourgeois society the insane come to be defined as those ""irresponsible [and] willfully negligent, a threat to the public order."" Records of commitments to asylums from the San Francisco Superior Court (which comprised 1/4 to 1/3 of total state commitments), along with documents from other city, county, state, and even federal agencies, provide an excellent data source for this major city in one of our largest and, in mental-health-care delivery terms, most progressive states. Significant changes in ideology (from ""railroading"" to ""therapy"") as well as specific developments in treatment (sterilization, the rise of urban psychopathic wards) are clearly organized and presented. Throughout, one is struck by the ease of commitment--often against the individual's will--during most of this period: among the many examples is the case of a 37-year-old woman recommended for commitment by her sister because ""at age 18 she began to act silly, lost interest in all things which interest women,"" and ""could no longer crochet correctly."" Fox's analysis explodes several popular myths. Asylum commitments did not, in his view, represent the oppression of one class (bourgeois officialdom) over another (the working and laboring classes); rather, family and community actively participated in the commitment process, often benefitting directly from it. Similarly, despite current feminist contentions (Phyllis Chesler, Women and Madness), women in this period at least were not more frequently declared mad than were men, although why and how each sex was committed--along with other variations by age, nationality, and class--provide for interesting reading and suggest parallels in contemporary patterns of treatment. While Fox declines to take that further step, the reader, roundly informed, may.

Pub Date: Feb. 26th, 1979
Publisher: Univ. of California Press