Northern Michigan Asylum by William A Decker: a review

This is Dr. Decker’s followup to Asylum for the Insane, his book about the Kalamazoo State Hospital. This book examines the history of the Traverse City asylum, and makes some effort to put it into context.

This book’s better than the Kalamazoo book. There’s less emphasis on buildings, for one thing, and the author does a far better job of identifying and describing the political context which led to the construction of Michigan’s state hospitals and in which their staff members worked. The improvements seem to stem largely from two circumstances–Decker had learned not to repeat some of his first book’s mistakes, and he didn’t know this material nearly as well as he knew the Kalamazoo history.

That lack of familiarity cuts both ways, of course. Because his sources for this book are heavily concentrated in the early twentieth century and the 1970s, those periods get more attention than they probably deserve. Moreover, the research-material gaps occasionally result in speculative reconstruction of matters one might have preferred to see documented. On the other hand, his inability to fill in all the missing details freed up room for discussion of the changing political environment, something he handles surprisingly deftly and objectively. All in all, this book has a better arrangement than the earlier volume.

As with the original volume, this book’s chapters devoted to treatment are surprisingly interesting, and justify the book’s existence. This is clearly material the author’s known and pondered upon for his entire adult life.

Despite the improvements, this effort shares many of the Kalamazoo book’s weaknesses. There’s an annoying amount of repetition. There are unexplained issues just taken for granted–for instance, the apparently-inexplicable numbering system imposed on the campus buildings is not adequately discussed. And two late chapters are just unstructured fragments which add little or no value.

This book ends with an argument that the decisions behind the 1970s restructuring of the state’s mental health programs–in particular, the near-total deinstitutionalization of those efforts–was a poorly-considered mistake. There’s a similar chapter at the end of his first book, but this effort is more explicit.

I’m hoping his third volume–on the Newberry facility–discusses the strengths and weaknesses, and successes and failures, of Michigan’s state hospitals. Decker’s clearly got the data–and the knowledge–to present that information. I’d really like to see it.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.