A review by paisleygreen
Administrations of Lunacy: A Story of Racism and Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum, by Mab Segrest


Administrations of Lunacy is an account of a single asylum in Milledgeville, GA from its founding on stolen indigenous lands to its eventual decline in the 20th century. Through it, Segrest is trying to tackle a lot of threads to ultimately make the case that early American psychiatry's racist past heavily informs our present.

This is a history not only of the New Jim Crow, but also of the first Jim Crow, and before that of chattel slavery itself and the genocides of Indigenous people, and the still-fighting Confederacy, all of whose afterlives we have yet to vanquish."

As someone who wrote her thesis on 19th-century psychiatry and literature, I thought this book was for me, combining my interests and research passions. And to an extent, this book does that. Segrest often nicely contextualizes the specific historical records and lacunae in the broader context of American history--for instance, highlighting the notable lack of attention to very real traumas inflicted on Black Georgians by war, by lynch mobs, and by Jim Crow. (These do not show up as reasons for admission in the records.) She consistently calls attention to the injustices done by the asylum system to Black inpatients, and she vividly tells the stories of, I imagine, everyone that appears for more than a line or two in the historical record.

But my issue with the book is that the writing style is at once too dry and too speculative to really succeed as more than a historical narrative. There are a lot of statistics in this book, and so many patient stories are told that I began to wonder why the story was included at all. It seems like it'd be more impactful to include stories that were emblematic of an issue, but a lot of times it was like "here's another patient who was here in 1872."

As for the speculation, whenever Segrest describes a patient or a person who worked at the Milledgeville asylum, she over-relies on "perhaps" to try to appeal to pathos, but as a text dealing with historical archives, it comes across almost as fictionalizing their stories. For example, Segrest tells the story of Sue Pagan, a white woman who lived and worked as a laundress with a Black family after being separated from her baby and released for the first time from the Milledgeville asylum. She was taken back to the asylum despite presenting "no symptoms of insanity other than insomnia and talking at night." The facts alone are tragic, and Segrest deftly uses them to discuss the intersection of insanity, control, and white Reconstruction-era racial fears. But then she writes, "There is no record of what happened to Sue on the inside. Perhaps her work detail was the laundry, where she could remember the white sheets sailing on the clothes lines back in Shermantown and the two Black women who had treated her well." The perhapses, the fictionalization, galled me because they felt manipulative and detracted from the genre of the book as a historical monograph.

[Shout out to NetGalley for an advance copy to review honestly.]