After the Asylum: The History of Madness in Canada. Après l'asile: L'histoire, de la folie au Canada by Megan Davies (review)
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Reviewed by
After the Asylum: The History of Madness in Canada. Après l'asile: L'histoire, de la folie au Canada. Megan Davies et al. http://aftertheasylum.apps01.yorku.ca/en

This is a website created by a number of Canadian scholars in the field of the history of mental health treatment, including Megan Davies, Chris Dooley, and Marie-Claude Thifault. Mantained at York University, it was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Erika Dyck's Canada Research Chair. If deceptively brief on its home page, After the Asylumis an in-depth, complex, and bilingual website. Its topics include policy and practice, peer support and activism, community initiatives, and early deinstitutionalization cases.

Because it is a website, I did not approach it like a standard book to be reviewed. Rather, I engaged with various aspects and points to be found while surfing through it. (Is surfing still a thing? Why did they ask a boomer to do a millenial's review?) The important point here is engagement, and, after a slow start, I was eminently engaged with the thorough and easily navigable website. I was especially struck by the introduction, which describes how deinstitutionalization scattered patients to boarding houses, group homes, nursing homes, jails, and the streets. Of course, this has much in common with pre-institutionalization, as the Poor Law's mentally ill and mentally challenged were scattered in like fashion.

There is a deinstitutionalization postcards section, which maps out selected asylums. When you click on one, it opens to a comprehensive account of the institution's history, a timeline, and the deinstitutionalization period. I say selected asylums because neither the Asylum for the Insane in London, Ontario, nor the Homewood Retreat, is listed. Would Maurice Bucke and Walt Whitman not have made an interesting discussion, not to mention the experiments in female sexual surgery?

While I am not a millennial, I do teach them, and I asked my undergraduate students–the website's directed audience–to have a look and offer their thoughts. Overall, their comments were very positive, such as "this website is incredibly easy to manoeuvre and explore . . . the language used was both academic but easy for anyone to read . . . and informative for new learners and experts alike. Overall I really liked it and believe it is user friendly and will be useful for a lot of history students and even just people searching the web." Another student commented: "The website does not look like an academic source. I think this is because most academic sources or websites are designed pretty poorly and are honestly very boring to look at. This is [End Page 836]not that. It's not difficult to access at all . . . I do like the acknowledgements at the bottom of the page in terms of sources used."

There were a couple of critical opinions, such as (and I agree with this): "The only thing about the website I really disliked is the background. I understand that the brick background is for effect, and is supposed to simulate an asylum wall, but it is SO distracting, and will probably be really hard on some people's eyes." The last critique was from a mature history student with a double major in media studies, who offered useful aesthetic advice:

My general impression is that these are written strictlyfor the academic. Very few Joe-public people would find them interesting. The website looks like a hastily constructed Wordpress site, with little visual interest. The background and logo look childish, and do not convey a clear message or brand idea that would appeal to either laypersons or academics . . . There is an opportunity to put the audio and video files on a separate tab at the top of the page to make it easy to access, and highlight the media. [The designers might] use some of the images that are embedded within the articles as "slider" images, or on the individual pages, to provide visual interest.

Perhaps After the Asylumwould not appeal to Joe-public, but it will be very useful to introduce students of mental health history to some of the leading issues and historiography. As...


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