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Practically Paradise
Inside Practically Paradise

Scary Places Insane Asylums

Abandoned Insane Asylums by Dinah Williams. Bearport Publishing, 2008. Part of the Scary Stories series, this is the one title that I recommend waiting until sixth grade and up to share with students. I believe this book should be part of high school sociology classes and English classes where they discuss various viewpoints. I do not believe there is another book like this out on the market which can be used to seriously examine the issue of treatment for the mentally ill. So, yes, this title is well-done and respectful, but, no, I’m not ready to put it in my elementary library for my particular students. 

When I spoke with Adam Siegel, Bearport’s Editorial Director and the editor for Scary Places, about this title in depth, we discussed that this title stands apart because of the amount of background knowledge of mental illness, asylums, medical history, and more needed to comprehend the seriousness of this issue. This is the most sophisticated of the series and is aimed at the upper range of interest in the series.

These places are not scary to me because they treated the extremely ill patients, but rather because the methods of treatment are considered cruel and inhumane in today’s society. The introduction to this title shows the authors’ approach was framed very carefully to be sympathetic to the patients. Mentally ill people were not understood in the past and most medical providers didn’t know how to treat them. The proper care and respect of the mentally ill is so important to me and  I want to say I think the author did a good job of being horrified at the abuses in the recent past. The editor and author aimed to educate the public about the history of these places while raising consciousness of the horrors that occurred. Balanced treatment is attempted with the discussions on electric shock therapy and how medical opinions have changed. 

I do think teacher and parent guidance would be helpful for this book. As I share this with children, I will be sure to point out that all of these places have been closed hence the word abandoned. I will point out that many of these places began to help other people, with activities, and the most current treatments at those times. Many of the reasons treatment went downhill revolve around funding cuts, staff cuts, and poorly trained staff. In order to avoid any places like this in the future, society does need to be educated and aware of the abuses of the past. I still have strong reservations about including this topic in the scary places series. I know there are legends and myths of ghosts in these facilities, hence their inclusion. I know the publishers and editors were not trying to be disrepectful, but I have a personal history and a personal bias against "insane asylums" instead of modern "psychiatric hospitals." Perhaps using that terminology will help distance the good and the bad.
I grew up near the Mental Health Institute (MHI) in Cherokee, Iowa. My grandparents had worked there and my mother used to skip in and out of the kitchens there. They often would bring people home for Sunday dinners so my mother grew up with a very compassionate attitude towards the mentally ill.

When I was in college, I would drive international college students through the grounds and even tour the museum buried deep in the basement. Yes, we even tried on the straight jackets.  We explored the museums because they were testimonies to the history of mental health care and how it had changed over the last hundred years. Not all countries around the world treat their patients in the same manor. (Oops, the facility looks like a manor, but I meant to say manner)

During the Christmas holidays, we toured the grounds looking at lights and discussing the various buildings and their functions – the different kinds of homes and wards, stables, carpentry shops, gardens, kitchens, greenhouses, water treatment facilities, powerplants, dental offices, and more. We appreciated the MHI and it’s role in the history of the town.

With my mother around, we grew up RESPECTING the person and recognizing the illness without the fear of "insane", "crazy" or "mentally ill" people.  I have dealt with  family members being hospitalized for care in modern facilities and seen caring and compassionate health care doctors, nurses, and social workers try their best to help the entire family, not just the patient cope.

There are so many degrees and types of mental illness. Some illnesses are easily treated with medication and combinations of therapies. Others can be more debilitating. Some have short durations, others impact families the rest of their lives.  For teen and adult family members, I still highly recommend the book "Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy". Education and support groups are what enabled me to help my family. There are groups in every community and online to support all types of illnesses. 

What would I need to see available in a classroom that was discussing this title? 

I found the web pages for this series very interesting. Different cultures have varying interpretations of what is appropriate for children. Explore the sites given, particularly the kids site in New Zealand. I think you’ll agree that the crossword puzzle is definitely written for a higher level student. 

So, am I censoring this title based upon my personal beliefs and past experiences? Or am I making a judgment call on the appropriateness of this title for my particular audience? If I taught in high school, I’d buy this. What will you do?


  1. One of my teachers of autistic children just walked by and glanced at the cover. Her immediate reaction was “Can this book be respectful when the cover image looks like a horror film of Jason or Freddie Krueger?” I showed her the inside and how it was layed out. She is now examining the book to give me her opinion which will be very valuable since she has grown up near Byberry and worked there.

  2. Diane again says:

    Okay, I’m back with more updates. I continue to circulate this book and put it in every educators hand that I can. I even sent it home with the OT so she could go argue this with her colleagues today. (I love arguments)

    One of the teachers came in and loved this title’s insides. She hates the outside, but she and her teenage daughters were utterly fascinated with the places listed and enjoyed shivering about which ones they had driven by in their travels. She told me, if only they’d changed the cover. I like to hear fresh opinions.

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