Toward a “Just” Memory of the Asylum

February 8, 2021

Sarah Bell is a 3rd year PhD student at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown.  Her research focuses on architecture, memory, and the visitation of abandoned spaces in both the ancient and the contemporary worlds. 

The YouTube video looks like a found-footage horror film, grainy and sickeningly unsteady. But the “set” where the action is taking place—a group of teenagers breaking into an abandoned asylum—isn’t built on a Hollywood backlot.  The empty corridors that extend off into the distance, littered with wheelchairs and hospital beds smothered in thick blankets of dust and plaster from collapsing ceilings, the operating rooms still filled with derelict and abandoned medical equipment, the morgue autopsy table, its drainage channels stained with blood-colored rust, are the remains of an actual institution.  As the person holding the camera rounds the corner into a room covered in broken white subway tiles, their light falls upon the wall and illuminates a few words scrawled in red and black paint. What is written here is everything there is to say about this place and the position that it holds in the public imagination: “A collective of the forgotten, the feared, the hated and the misunderstood.”  

This was Norwich State Hospital in Connecticut—or at least what was left of it after years of state neglect—and if “psychiatry is a discipline haunted by its past,” then this haunting was certainly evident there, where cultural memory met the material remains of a poorly understood history, and where the hollowed-out ruins of institutions that were once considered emblems of civic pride became fodder—until they were razed to the ground—for a collective imagination (1).  The graffiti that covered these walls—writings that reified, reenacted, and reinforced the cultural trope of the asylum as a place of abuse and pain—is the proof of what the memory of custodial care for the mentally ill has come to mean in our cultural moment.

Images of the graffiti from the walls of abandoned asylums like Norwich, and of artifacts curated and rearranged into carefully staged sets by urban explorers, have an incredible presence on social media and on urban exploring, ruin photography, and ghost hunting websites. These images are powerful, dripping with a sensual aesthetic that combines the beauty and affect of ruined spaces with the trauma and tragedy of dark tourism.  The visceral response that they generate gives them incredible power—power to communicate, and thus perpetuate, very specific narratives about a fraught past.  This power is amplified by the fact that, at times, the contemporary insertions into these spaces are so enmeshed with the perceived past that it becomes difficult to tell what is “authentic.” Are images of bloody handprints on the side of a bathtub, and the words “Help me!” scrawled on the wall “evidence” of what once happened in state hospitals, or are they later interventions that only purport to be left over from the time when Norwich State Hospital was functioning? From the point of view of cultural memory, does it make any difference? Why do the public continue to be fascinated by these structures and what they perceive to have happened there?

And does any of it matter?

As an archaeologist who works on architecture and memory in the contemporary world, I strongly believe that it does.  For many of us, our commitment to public humanities stems from the belief that we, as academics (and as members of the public ourselves), have a responsibility to both recognize and work towards redressing societal problems that are the result of poorly understood and unjustly forgotten pasts. Public interaction with abandoned asylums reveals that the stigma and the fear surrounding mental health care, particularly custodial mental health care, remains strong.  This persists despite the fact that the need for such care for the mentally ill did not evaporate when state hospitals, like Norwich, closed their doors in the wake of a federal push for deinstitutionalization. In fact the contrary is true: we now find ourselves in the midst of a worsening mental health care crisis—where stigma, underfunding, and lack of coverage contribute to abysmally poor access to both out-patient and long-term care. The onset of the coronavirus pandemic has contributed exponentially to this problem, and declining mental health is predicted to be one of the biggest issues relating to the pandemic that we will face in 2021 (2). 

In this cultural and political moment we have become very concerned with what is “real” and what is “fake”.  The interventions at Norwich asylum described above, although they may not be accurate, do not tell lies.  On the contrary, those engaged in this kind of mark-making and curation, and those who make images of these engagements available to others, are telling incredibly important truths about how society remembers, and the role that media and the public play in the creation of histories—histories that unavoidably impact on the present and on the future.  Cultural memory is formed through social communication—something which has been made exponentially easier with the advent of social media—but also through the purposeful silences that continue to surround these sites. By these means the history of the asylum has been imaginatively interpreted, “strategically forgotten’ by some and “selectively remembered” by others, appropriated and exaggerated to the point where it is no longer possible to definitively say where history ends and where cultural memory begins (1).  In the absence of more just counter-narratives, the image of the asylum as a place of pain and shame has become what is arguably the most prevalent image of mental health care in our collective consciousness.

In the face of all of this, the place that the asylum holds in the public imagination—in film, in images on social media, in posts on urban exploring websites—could easily be seen as a barrier to our ability to find new solutions to the ageless problem of chronic mental illness.  The work of public humanists may allow for a more promising pathway forward—a bridge between where we stand now and the future. We need what Viet Thanh Nguyen calls a “just remembering” of the fuller history of these institutions—the reasons behind their construction, their initial successes, their ultimate failure, and the many local, global, social, and administrative pressures at work behind the face of all of these moments in their development (3).  We must also work to understand how the image of the asylum as a place of abuse became so firmly entrenched as a cultural trope, how it is being perpetuated, and why it has retained its power.  The physical remains of the asylums that are left to us are vitally important to this work—allowing us to study both the stories that the material traces of these histories tell, and the ways in which the public continues to interact with them. 

  1. Lambe, Jennifer. 2019. “Memory Politics: Psychiatric Critique, Cultural Protest, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.” In Literature and Medicine 37(2):298-324.
  2. Rogers, Kristin. 2021. “Mental Health is one of the Biggest Pandemic Issues we’ll Face in 2021.” Accessed January 31st, 2021.
  3. Nguyen, Viet Thanh. 2016. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press.