Wednesday, March 25, 2020



A scathing and original look at the racist origins of psychiatry, through the story of the largest mental institution in the world.

Today, 90 percent of psychiatric beds are located in jails and prisons across the United States, institutions that confine disproportionate numbers of African Americans. After more than a decade of research, the celebrated scholar and activist Mab Segrest locates the deep historical roots of this startling fact, turning her sights on a long-forgotten cauldron of racial ideology: the state mental asylum system in which psychiatry was born and whose influences extend into our troubled present.

In December 1841, the Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum was founded. A hundred years later, it had become the largest insane asylum in the world with over ten thousand patients. Administrations of Lunacy tells the story of this iconic and infamous southern institution, a history that was all but erased from popular memory and within the psychiatric profession.

Through riveting accounts of historical characters, Segrest reveals how modern psychiatric practice was forged in the traumas of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. Deftly connecting this history to the modern era, Segrest then shows how a single asylum helped set the stage for the eugenics theories of the twentieth century and the persistent racial ideologies of our own times. She also traces the connections to today’s dissident psychiatric practices that offer sanity and create justice.

A landmark of scholarship, Administrations of Lunacy restores a vital thread between past and present, revealing the tangled racial roots of psychiatry in America.

Book Details:

Title: Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum

Author: Mab Segrest

Genre: psychology/social science

Publisher: New Press, (April 14, 2020)

Print length: 375 pages


Q: Mab, what’s the story behind the title of your book?

A:  Administrations of Lunacy is a compelling and monumental story of Georgia’s state mental hospital—the largest in the world at some periods and one of the worst.  It’s an often wild, often scathing story of the people committed there over 170 years, what happened to them, who their doctors were, and how other Georgians and the state legislature shaped their fates. Unlike most asylum stories that involve mostly psychiatric and state history, I pull back the story’s frame to show how a particular asylum’s history was shaped by larger forces of southern and U.S. history (slavery, the Trail of Tears, lynching, eugenics) in a profound way that haunts psychiatry still. That 90% of US psychiatric beds today are in jails and prisons, I argue, is a direct result of this infamous history. My hope was to tell this story in such a convincing way that we will not be able to talk about psychiatry in the same way again. I am happy to hear that it is a very readable book—“gripping, compelling.”  That makes me happy.

Q: Do you have another job outside of writing?

A: I am currently a retired college professor—I was a Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Connecticut College from 2002 to 2014 and chaired the department.  Before that, I was a community organizer and writer.  My book Memoir of a Race Traitor: Fighting Racism in the American South is also out now in its 25th Anniversary Edition.  It tells another exciting story—of how we organized against Klan and neo-Nazi movements in North Carolina in the 1980s, against the backdrop of my conservative white southern family’s 19th and 20th century histories. In semi-retirement, I am speaking and teaching on the subjects of my research and writing. 

Q: Where’s home for you? 

A: I live in Durham, North Carolina, where I lived from 1972 to 2002. I moved to New London Connecticut when I went to work at Connecticut College, and I lived in Brooklyn, New York after I retired. I returned to Durham in 2017.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: I grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, where my family on both sides had lived for over a century. I was born in 1949 and experienced the height of the civil rights movement in my childhood and adolescence.  It had a profound impact on my work and my writing.

Q: What’s your favorite line from a book? 

A: I wrote my dissertation on W.B. Yeats, the great Irish poet, largely because I loved about ten of his poems. “Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop” was one: “Nothing can be sole or whole/ That has not been rent.” Tennessee Williams gives Blanche DuBois this last line, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Or Morrison from Beloved:  “You are your own best thing, Sethe.  You are.”  All three works seem to wind up to these great last lines.

Q: Who are your favorite authors?

A: Most of my favorite authors are southern writers or writers who write about the South. I got into the southern asylum story through Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams. Toni Morrison is one of the all-time greats: along with W.E.B. DuBois, she reshaped the narrative of America forever. The writing of Dorothy Allison, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Natasha Trethewey, Joy Harjo: all are powerful. 

Q: What book are you currently reading and in what format?
A: Having finished a 127,000 word book that took over fifteen years from start to finish and almost four years to write, I am taking a break from serious reading. My favorite mystery writer is Jacqueline Winspear, and I love her Maisie Dobbs series. I can listen to one of her books on Audible multiple times. I am not an e-book person right now. I prefer paperbacks and really like being read to on Audible.

Q: Do you have a routine for writing?

A: When I was writing Administrations of Lunacy I would write in the morning from 8 or 9 am up until 2 or 3 pm. I could get in four to five really good hours of writing time—which meant revising prior writing and then drafting new pages. I interspersed that routine with periods of reading, note-taking, and synthesizing. Then I had huge periods of responding to my editor, rewriting, and pulling themes and structures into place.

Q: Where and when do you prefer to do your writing?

A:  I need for my desk to be by a window with a clear sight line to the natural world. The last year of Administrations of Lunacy, I put a plastic bird feeder on the picture windows right above my desk and looked up frequently as birds visited and fed. It really helped my eyes and my brain to have those respites, those celestial visitors.

Q: What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received about your writing?

A: “. . . Brilliant, compelling, and almost finished!” from my New Press editor Marc Faveau. From Dorothy Allison as she read it, she said she was “dumbstruck” and “Lord, girl, you have made a great book.” I really liked it when my favorite southern historian Glenda Gilmore said it was “astonishing” how I had told southern history from a lunatic asylum. 

Q: Where is your favorite library, and what do you love about it?

A: When I was at the National Humanities Center, I had the best support from their two research librarians, Brooke Andrade and Sarah Harris. They could get me articles or books in an afternoon to two days and dug up lots of arcane material I needed to see. So Interlibrary Loan with great librarians was my best library experience.

Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on getting Administrations of Lunacy into the world and in the middle of a pandemic, it seems. I feel that the next material will emerge from that.  I do feel drawn back to Alabama story lines.


Memoir of a Race Traitor

Born to Belonging

My Mama’s Dead Squirrel


Mab Segrest was born in 1949 in Birmingham, Alabama and grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama during the civil rights movement. Her early experience in this apartheid culture shaped her future work as a public intellectual, organizer and scholar. Segrest’s “coming out” as a lesbian into a dynamic, multiracial feminist movement also shaped her life and work. My Mama’s Dead Squirrel: Lesbian Essays on Southern Culture (Firebrand, 1984) located lesbian and queer work in the southern literary canon and in movements for social justice. Memoir of a Race Traitor (South End, 1994) reflected on her white Alabama childhood and her work in the 1980s countering Klan and neo-Nazi movements in North Carolina. It rapidly became a landmark work of white anti-racist activism. It was the Editor’s Choice for the Lambda Literary Awards, was named Outstanding Book on Human Rights in North America by the Gustavus Myers Center on Human Rights, and was nominee for Non-Fiction Book of the Year by the Southern Regional Council. The New Press published a 25th Anniversary edition in September 2019. In addition to organizing against Klan and neo-Nazi movements, Segrest worked for the World Council of Churches helping to map transformative justice movements across the globe, taught ESL in Haitian migrant camps, and taught in both men’s and women’s prisons. Segrest earned a PhD from Duke University in 1979. She chaired the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at Connecticut College from 2002-2014 and is now Fuller-Maathai Professor Emeritus. She lives in Durham, North Carolina and has just published Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum (New Press).

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