McGrath, Patrick: Asylum

The Book Group met in the Morningside home of one of its members.

Apart from being best known as a desirable residential suburb of Edinburgh, Morningside
In_The_Madhousee is also home to the original Edinburgh Lunatic Asylum, established in the grounds of the estate known as “Craighouse”. Originally developed as a private clinic it opened its doors to pauper patients in 1842. It was renamed the “Royal Edinburgh Hospital” in 1922. As treatment for mental illness developed, institutional care became less prevalent. Patients were increasingly accommodated in villas purchased in the Morningside area as annexes by the Health Board for the purpose of integrating these patients back into the community. In addition, more modern facilities were developed at a different location in the heart of Morningside leading, in 1990, to the closure of “Craighouse”. The new hospital is currently being further developed to provide all acute psychiatric and mental health services for the Lothians.

It follows that the Morningside area’s long association with mental health treatment made it a particularly fitting location to consider and discuss McGrath’s “Asylum”. Indeed it has become increasingly difficult to differentiate between the patient and the resident in the village that is Morningside.

McGrath was brought up on the Broadmoor estate: the location of a high security psychiatric hospital in England, where his father was the medical superintendent. His early experiences of listening to discussions and debates over options for the treatment of inmates left an indelible impression on him and provided him with a rich source of material for future reference. Born in 1950 he was the oldest of four children, His parents were devout Roman Catholics and he was educated at Jesuit Boarding schools, firstly in Windsor and then Stoneyhurst.

He did not enjoy school life. He considered it repressive and at the age of 16 he ran away to London. He was not scholastic doing “dismally’ at ‘A’ levels. He failed history, and gained an “F” for French and an “A” for English. Leaving school he attended Birmingham College of Commerce, which he described as “the last hope for dead-enders like me”. On graduating his father found him a job as an Orderly at Ontario State Mental Hospital. That was in 1971 and he has lived mainly in the USA since then, only returning to the UK periodically to escape the worst of the New York summer. He married the actor Maria Aitken in 1991 and he credits her with establishing New York as their home.

McGrath is described as a “Gothic novelist”. While he dislikes this label he reluctantly admits to having a “Gothic” imagination. It is about the past and focuses on “interiors”- the interiors of the soul. He has written eight novels, three of which – “The Grotesque”,“Asylum” and “Spider”- have been made into films. “Asylum” was first published in 1996 and the film, directed by David Mackenzie, was released in 2005 to very mixed reviews. The story is of a doomed love triangle where Stella, the wife of the Asylum’s Superintendent, falls in love with one of the inmates and runs away with him. It is narrated by a psychiatrist as an example of a catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession.

In the absence of a blogger each of the book group members present agreed to provide a short note of their views on the book and extracts from these notes are reproduced below.

“One of our number indicated that at one time he had been a Home Office official with close working links with Broadmoor Special Hospital. He had known the author’s father, also Patrick McGrath, the then Superintendent, and recognized the author’s Asylum as an accurate description of Broadmoor. It was not just the topography of Broadmoor that the author had picked up as a boy and young man living there. The novel provided a very good analysis of staff relationships and tensions as well as convincing accounts of certain types of mental disorder. Edgar Stark was a good example of acute personality disorder; his attitude to his lover of the moment was convincing. Similarly his account of Stella’s behaviour and descent into mental illness was equally convincing. Again the author had drawn upon his knowledge; relations between staff and patients are not unknown and the suicide of filicidal women is very common.”

“The novel was excellent. It was a page turner that was gripping and shocking.”

“I enjoyed reading the book very much. The setting initially within a psychiatric hospital in the 1960’s was intriguing, having worked for 6 months within such an establishment in the 1970’s. Once the scene was set, the plot developed quickly and held my attention, leading me on eagerly to find out the next stage. The style narrated by a psychiatric friend of the main character, Stella, who was also a colleague of her husband, was cleverly written and one wondered how he knew so much. It later became pretty clear.”

“The main characters apart from Stella’s son were well developed. I felt that I didn’t know too much about this lad Charlie. I also wondered about Edgar’s friend Nick, who was rather a mysterious character and we never got to know his surname.”

“I enjoyed reading about the management of psychopaths, sexual obsession and later Stella’s depression and disassociation disorder. Stella’s sexual infatuation was realistic and quite titillating. The story line towards the end was a little predictable and the narrator gave frequent clues about the outcome. It was a good read despite the somewhat morbid content.”

“ Asylum was an interesting insight into a strange world! On a first read it was fairly absorbing and seemed to be based on a sound knowledge of the “system” although the characters were rather stereotyped. I found the downward spiral of Stella’s life fairly shocking – her end being all too predictable. The second read was disappointing as the book had lost its drive once you knew the story.”

“There are very few novels dealing with life in a mental institution. The other one we could think of was Ken Kesey’s “One Flew a Cuckoos Nest”, later adapted for the cinema by Milos Forman. Of course there are others: for example “The Bell Jar”, a semi autobiographical account by the American writer and poet Sylvia Plath, wife of Ted Hughes.”

“Anyone who has visited a mental hospital may understand why these places and the people who live inside them have provided little inspiration for the writer. Psychosis is associated with irrational violence and chaotic behaviour, patterns of communication and human relationships which defy analysis. Uncontrolled and fanciful impulses or numbing depressions are hard to write about; yet most of us, at some time in our lives, will have them and quite a few of us will require treatment. Perhaps we would rather not be reminded of that fact.”

“Moreover, mental illness is one of the last taboo subjects, seldom spoken about, best left to the professionals, best kept behind closed doors. The novel opens the doors and forces us to think about two kinds of mental illness, and how they are dealt with (or not). It also demonstrates the fine lines between sanity and madness, between love and hate and between tenderness and violence. We wonder how a mother can let her child drown (The Medea Complex). We are reminded of the limitations of both psychiatry and psychiatrists – much depends on human judgement and the database of evidence, on which judgement is based, is not large.”

“Despite the challenging subject matter the author manages to weave humor into his writing and this added to my enjoyment of the book.”

“While I found the book to be an enjoyable read I was rarely surprised by the twists and turns of the plot or, indeed by the actions of the main characters. It all seemed entirely predictable. This may be a product of McGrath’s device of using an “unreliable narrator” to tell the tale or alternatively it may be a consequence of living in Morningside for almost 40 years!”

“Like others I found that the novel did not benefit from a second reading. While I appreciate that McGrath is regarded as a “Gothic” novelist I saw very little “Gothic” in Asylum. This categorization owes much to his earlier works, particularly “Grotesque” published in 1989. Since then his writings appear to have an increasingly diluted Gothic content.”

“His fascination with mental illness and adulterous relationships, presumably products of his early family life in Broadmoor and his experiences as a young man dealing with his demons and exploring his options, have combined with a command of English and concise writing to deliver an easy read which is both enjoyable and thought provoking.”

In summary everyone considered the novel to be a good read. More so, those reading it for the first time. Those who had read it before thought it lost the element of surprise on second reading. While everyone considered Stella’s suicide to be entirely predictable, the death of the child was unexpected, and really shocking. McGrath’s descriptive powers of place were greatly appreciated and his character development impressive. We look forward to reading his next book, which we understand will reflect his Americanization.