Reviews for Madness : race and insanity in a Jim Crow asylum

Library Journal
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Peabody- and Emmy-winning journalist Hylton (cohost of the podcast Southlake and Grapevine) documents the history of Crownsville Hospital in Anne Arundel County, MD. The author conducted her own investigation and scanned archival documents for 10 years to deliver this book that shows how the Jim Crow-era mental health facility, deemed a house of horrors, first came to exist after 12 Black men were forced to clear the land, build the asylum, and become its first patients. In its heyday, Crownsville Hospital had nearly 2,700 patients at a time. Hylton writes a scathing exposť on the bigotry that led to the mistreatment of hundreds of Black patients and the attempts to cover it up. Her book is also a call to action to reform the systems that treat people diagnosed with mental illnesses. The author dives deeply into sources that have been lost or held behind bureaucratic red tape to uncover the injustices that occurred at Crownsville Hospital. VERDICT This well-researched title is an important chronicle of the treatment of Black Americans and their mental health during the Jim Crow era. Beyond promoting systemic change, Hylton compels readers to look within to assess how they treat and view the people around them.—Mason Bennett

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

A thoroughgoing, often shocking exposť of segregation in the treatment (or nontreatment) of mental illness. NBC News reporter Hylton documents the history of Crownsville Hospital in Maryland, founded in 1911 as the Hospital for the Negro Insane. Getting to the story was not easy: The archives were incomplete because “the state had destroyed or lost most of the files preceding the year 1960, and others they had allowed to become contaminated with asbestos.” Unsurprisingly, the more controversial the past episode, such as the murder of a patient or systematic abuse, the likelier the documents were to have disappeared. Even so, in digging into the archives and seeking out those with firsthand or secondhand memories of the place, the author uncovered profoundly unsettling stories. One concerns an educator who, upon entering Crownsville after a case of typhoid fever had affected his mental health, “was just another inmate.” He was also effectively enslaved, and though Maryland was not in the Confederacy, it did permit slavery until 1864. In the Jim Crow era, Crownsville’s population swelled, its inmates growing tobacco and food crops under the supervision of white overseers; inside the walls of Crownsville, whites also governed the lives of Black people who were less treated than incarcerated. “Crownsville’s founding took vestiges of chattel slavery—from the style of the rolls to the financial recordkeeping format used on plantations—and translated them to a clinical setting,” writes Hylton, and the administration of the hospital remained remarkably consistent even after Maryland ordered the desegregation of state mental hospitals in 1962. Meaningfully, Hylton closes by examining the racialized discrepancies in mental health care today as they played out in the New York subway murder of Jordan Neely in 2023. An excellent work of journalism and a strong contribution to the literature of both mental health care and civil rights. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.