Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Last Asylum: Barbara Taylor

This was a remarkable memoir of historian Barbara Taylor. Part memoir, part historical treatise on psychiatric care and services in Britain, it was an extremely interesting insight into one person's very difficult and prolonged experience of psychiatric illness and the various services and treatment approaches she came into contact with, either by choice or otherwise.
While her personal history and illness was tough reading at times, it is an extremely honest and open account, even allowing us into her psychoanalytic sessions with V,, excerpts of whose dialogue is interspersed through the memoir. This was a very clever way of providing us with her background and exposing us to her unrelenting and frightening unconscious, but also showing us how the psychotherapeutic process works, building a relationship of trust so that the unconscious can be explored in a safe space. The challenge of this work is huge, and for the author, extra support was required, and so she was committed to Friern, an ancient asylum, which closed down some years later. Here we learn about life in such an asylum (she had three stints of varying lengths in total in Friern), and the various hardships but also friendships from such an institution.
I found these accounts most interesting and compelling reading. The humanity at the heart of this memoir was remarkable, as well as the honesty and courage in allowing us in to such dark and secret places, though which pertain to us all.
What I found harder to read were the historical descriptions of the various asylums and their closures, and the scholarly accounts of the community care model that took their place. Though I understood why this was important, I was more interested in the author herself, her particular experience which I could relate to more easily than the wider objective lens used to comment on current practice.
However, in all it was a fascinating account of this authors journey through the darkness, and the various supports that helped her through to be able to manage the darkness and support herself to live a fulfilled and meaningful life. Her conclusion was simple but strong: relationship is central to recovery. While more modern systems emphasize independent decision-making and self-management, this is often not what people in crisis need. Her own experience is testament to this, and this book questions the consequences of the closures of asylums, which is a very pertinent consideration for our times.

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