Saturday, September 12, 2020

NetGalley ARC | Administrations of Lunacy: A Story of Racism and Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum


I received a free ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The book makes for some very grim reading, but that reading is important nonetheless. The author dives deep into the history of psychiatry. I would love to say I am shocked at the blatant racism of said origins of the field, but we all know that would be a big fat lie because racism is STILL everywhere. So many institutions that we know today were founded for the nefarious reasons of keeping Black and African-American people "in their place" and it will come as a surprise to literally no one who is a logical person that asylums operated for that purpose.

The author presents a slew of facts and anecdotes in such gripping detail that despite the horrible accounts, the book was hard to put down. The pain and trauma of so many years of abuses by those in power are hard to stomach, but Segrest's scholarship is top-notch.

The Milledgeville Asylum was founded in December of 1841, then called the Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum. Within a century of its founding, Milledgeville housed 10,000 patients and held claim to the title of being the largest insane asylum in the world. Yet few people outside of the state seem to have heard of this place, and Segrest aims to change that.

I had no idea prior to reading this book of the originas of psychiatry - that psychiatry came from successful attempts to ensure that even though slavery was technically illegal, Black and African-American residents would still be held against their will. The author connects this terrible history to our modern world in a succinct and now-obvious way: the majority of psychiatry beds in the US are in prisons and jails. These same prisons and jails house a highly disproportionate amount of Blacks and African-Americans. The correlation is pretty hard to miss.

What's more, it was here at Milledgeville that the foundation would be laid on which the many eugenics theories would be built. Segrest discusses the basis of these policies and practices at length, and how the conversation by the 'experts' of the time gradually changed in order to accommodate the changing country. Slavery was good for the "Negro brain" because the constraints of slavery allowed for fewer cases of "insanity" among African-Americans. Basically, the psychiatrists believed that slaves were unbothered by stress due to their position as slaves. Sure, I am guessing that being a slave was not stressful at all. I would place my standard eye-roll here, but the subject is too horrific and infuriating.

Naturally these psychiatrists determined that emancipation would be terrible for all the "unstressed slaves" and wouldn't you know, in the eras following the Civil War - through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and so on and so on, the conversation gradually became about mental illnesses then passing on to the next generation because it was hereditary and not the trauma after all.

Patient were subjected to all kinds of terrible procedures that had zero to do with healing. Forced sterilizations, lobotomies, the ice baths, it's all here and well-documented. Naturally these procedures were performed almost exclusively on women and African-Americans, because we all know that white dudes NEVER have mental health issues of any kind, and especially did not in the decades that Milledgeville was in operation.

Today roughly 200 buildings still stand on the 2,000 acres of land where Milledgeville was once a bustling and busy place. It is largely abandoned, but there are people working to preserve this history and I truly hope they are successful. These stories can never be forgotten, so that the thousands of nameless men, women, and children who died there are not forgotten either.


  1. This sounds really interesting! I’ve read a few books about the history of medicine. It’s scary to learn about all the unethical things people have done to each other.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

    1. It really is, and I had no idea that this is how eugenics got started. I am definitely going to be reading more on the topic - and would love any recs you have!

  2. this sounds like a book i would love to 'rage' about. seems it would be able to push all those buttons of mine
    sherry @ fundinmental

  3. I bet this is very eye opening book. I remember studying some of this in school. Like Sherry, this sounds like a book that I would rage about.

    1. I am looking for more books on the history of medicine now, it is not a subject I know a lot about. Rage-inducing indeed!


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