7 Best Books About Mental Hospitals Update 05/2022

In 1858, a young novelist who was looking for a story got a letter from someone who said they had been sent to a lunatic asylum by mistake. The letter asked the novelist if he could use his legal skills to change the doctors’ false diagnosis and free a sane person from this prison for the crazy. In this letter, we don’t know how Wilkie Collins responded, or whether the person who sent it was, in fact, mentally ill. This letter was the inspiration for the first great asylum book, The Woman in White (1860).

For money, her husband put her in a mental hospital. Her passionate pleas for sanity are thought to be delusional by the doctors. In the movie Unsane (2018), the heroine, who was once deemed “deranged,” is powerless in the face of corrupt medical advice. This is the same nightmare that has been used in asylum thrillers for years. The research I did for my book The Conviction of Cora Burns (2019) revealed a very different picture of what it was like to live in an asylum in the 1800s. Handwritten casebooks, which keep track of each patient’s condition and treatment, show that medics were as concerned about their patients’ health and well-being as they are now, both then and now. Even though there were no “treatments” from the 20th century, patients often recovered, at least for a short time, after a rest period and a good meal. For the “pauper lunatic” of the 1800s, the asylum often lived up to its original meaning of being a place of safety and refuge. Thriller writers can’t get enough of the conflict between these two visions of what a mental institution or psychiatric hospital should be. The point of view from which a story is told can have a big impact on how a novel thinks about the “asylum,” whether it’s scary, interesting, or therapeutic.

Stone Mothers by Erin Kelly (2019)

Nazareth Mental Hospital is a psychological thriller that starts with the building’s current use as a block of high-end apartments. It then shows us the dark history of Nazareth Mental Hospital. It has loomed over the countryside and the town for years, even if its patients only stayed for a short time. Even those who only stayed for a short time were affected by the hospital. In this case, the structure of the building falls down, killing everyone inside. But the story comes to life when you get a look inside the wards and treatment rooms when they were at their peak in the mid-20th century. When the 1959 Mental Health Act came into effect in Britain, it was too late for the book’s main character, Helen, who was forcibly hospitalized at a time when only the signatures of a family member and a doctor were enough to keep an embarrassing or inconvenient relative locked up for good.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell (2006)

As Esme Lennox finds out in this gripping book based on real-life stories from 20th-century mental hospitals, confinement in an institution could last for a long time. It’s important to Esme’s story to figure out what makes someone mad because, at least in the eyes of her family, she is very different. If she were going to a dance, she’d rather stay at home and read than go. She also refuses violently to get a haircut and starts taking “funny turns” from which she can’t be stopped. When you look at her, you don’t think she should have been kept in a mental institution for 60 years. In the full story of Esme’s admission to the asylum, there are a lot of lies and deceptions that go back several generations of repressed family life in Scotland and colonial India, where Esme was born. A relative who had no idea that Esme was even alive takes care of her when her hospital closes. But Esme’s sister, who played a role in her imprisonment, is now lost in dementia and living in a care home for people with dementia, which is where Esme lives. Esme, even though she has been in a mental hospital, has become the saner of the two. The twists in this gripping book are powered by our love for Esme and the heartbreaking price she pays for being different.

Garnethill by Denise Mina (1999)

Maureen O’Donnell used to be a patient at a psychiatric hospital, but now she can’t get out of the shadow of that place. Having an affair with her shady psychiatrist doesn’t help her recovery at all. When Maureen finds him in her living room with his throat cut, the affair is no longer going on. In the beginning, the police see Maureen as a main suspect in the case. Then, they see her as an unreliable and unstable witness. So Maureen knows that she has to find out the truth about the murder on her own. There is a special unit for sex abuse survivors at the Rainbow Clinic, which was part of the old Levanglen Lunatic Asylum. She has to go back there to finish her quest. “The walls were yellow and covered with posters of puppies and kittens and even monkeys,” says the author. As soon as the room was full of patients, the maniacally cheery room looked like a “joke.” Maureen fights to stay sane and stay safe as she starts to learn about a shocking rape and corruption scandal that she can’t believe.

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (2003)

When US Marshal Teddy Daniels is called in to find an escaped female patient at Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, an outsider gives what seems to be an impartial view of the place. The facility should be completely safe because it is on an island in Boston Harbor. However, as a hurricane nears Shutter Island, the flaws in the hospital’s system are revealed, and Teddy starts to work out his own personal connection to the place. This is how it works: Teddy is still very sad about the death of his wife, who died in a fire. He realizes that the arsonist who started the fire is being held on Shutter Island, where he is being held. It turns into a fascinating psychological labyrinth as Teddy questions the 1950s psychiatrists’ faith in the treatment they use, such as ECT, pre-frontal lobotomies, and mind-numbing drugs. After a while, the reader starts to wonder whether Teddy’s loss of his wife has made him crazy.

Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill (2018)

How would you know if you were crazy? A doppelganger might appear on the other side of town, but everything else might be normal. This is what you might think. This is how Jean Mason, the narrator of the 2017 Giller Prize winner, felt when she read the book she wrote. Jean is a wife and mother who owns a book store in Toronto. It turns out that Jean has a lot of hallucinations, and as they become more clear, she starts to compete with other narrators for the title of literature’s most unreliable person. When Jean is obsessed with the doppelgänger, a crime writer called Ingrid or Inger Fox, she goes crazy. Emergency brain surgery comes next. However, when Jean’s neurologist, Dr. Morbier, watches Jean as she gets better at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, he becomes a new source of Jean’s paranoia. Author Inger Ashe Wolfe, who writes crime thrillers under the name Inger Ashe Wolfe, has a sense of humor about this complex book’s ideas about shadow selves and other worlds.

Asylum by Patrick McGrath (1996)

In Patrick McGrath’s novel, the family of a doctor who works at a high-security psychiatric hospital are the main story. Because his father worked at a hospital for criminally insane people, he grew up right next to the hospital. Charlie, the ten-year-old son of a doctor who works at a hospital like the one in the book, enjoys roaming the grounds and making friends with the patients. But when his mother starts having an affair with one of them, a murderer who killed his wife and mutilated her body, the boy is drawn into the dangerous chaos that comes out of it, too. During the 1950s, a woman has a lot of problems with her family, and the 1950s-style hospital where she lives is very safe. Her volatile, paranoid lover adds a lot of tension to the book. In the end, though, the most dangerous thing is right in your own neighborhood.

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (2009)

Lia, the teenage narrator of this powerful young adult novel, lives under the terrifying shadow of “hell on the hill New Seasons,” a treatment center for people who have anorexia. A woman must stay above 104 pounds in order to avoid being sent to live with her parents in the hospital. It gets worse when Lia doesn’t save her best friend Cassie from a horrible death alone in a motel room. The story is written in a unique way that takes us inside the seductive, twisted logic of anorexia and into the girls’ death-defying competition for thinness. At New Seasons, Lia says, “My pink mouse stomach likes to be small and empty. I don’t like when food is forced into me.” That’s not the only thing that has made Lia a liar. She’s lied to her family, the ghost of Cassie, and herself. It turns out that her only chance of survival is a third stay at New Seasons, even though Lia’s father will have to re-mortgage his house to pay for her treatment. This book is heartbreaking, but it also shows how desperate and determined parents are to save a child who has become her own worst enemy.

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