Book Review: Oregon Asylum

Oregon Asylum (Images Of America), by Diane L. Goeres-Gardner

Did you know that “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” was filmed in the Oregon State Hospital, originally known as the Oregon Asylum?  If you are a fan of that particular film, you can find some of the stills from that film as well as photographs of site locations in the asylum used in that film here, and that is perhaps a good enough reason to read this book.  If you, like me, are fascinated by asylums and the pendulum swing of mental health efforts that begin in high ideals and that usually end in overcrowded and unsafe places where tormented souls are abused and neglected and forgotten, then there are plenty of other reasons to read this book.  That does not say that this book is perfect, or even that it is as good as most of the other volumes in this series, for there are aspects of this book that do not allow it to reach the heights of previous volumes, but all the same, this is the sort of book that may appear to be odd but which is very easy to justify reading if you have an interest in its subject matter.

This book is a short one, at less than 150 pages, and it is divided into six parts.  After the acknowledgements and introduction, the book begins with the efforts in Oregon to make a new state asylum, as the state had previously paid a sizable amount of money to a private mental hospital in Portland before building a state asylum, which by law had to be in the Salem area (since that is where the state capital was at the time, and still is today) (1).  An entire chapter of the book is devoted to the lengthy Calbreath era when he was the asylum superintendent for a long while despite occasionally being involved in shady business like buying a new car for himself out of asylum funds despite the purchase being denied (2).  After this comes a discussion of the Golden Years of the asylum when it had its highest budget and largest amount of services for patients (3).  This leads into a chapter on triumphs and tragedies that looks at high numbers and overcrowding and decreased budgets and various health problems that took place during the sixties and beyond (4) before an entire chapter is spent on the tunnel system below the original asylum buildings (5).  Finally, the book closes with a look at the rebuilding of the hospital and its present appearance (6).

For me, the biggest problem with this book is that quite a few of what I expected and hoped to be photographs were spent in ugly looking bar graphs that looked at the marriage status of male and female inmates compared by percentage throughout the decades and interpreted by the author herself.  When reading a book like this one I am perfectly content, if not necessarily pleased, to see material that is not strictly photography in these volumes.  That said, the author herself is a writer on the subject of mental health and it is clear that she is viewing this particular book not merely as a chance to provide a glimpse at the past idealism and frustration of those ideals relating to mental health efforts in Oregon, but as a way for her to pursue some sort of private agenda relating to gender imbalances in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, an agenda that belongs in another sort of work and not this one.  There are thankfully enough photos to make this a worthwhile read, but the author’s attempts to interpret the population of the asylum through the decades is a case where doing more amounts to less enjoyment of a book.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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