by Jay Neugeboren
Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals
By Jay Neugeboren; Photographs by Christopher Payne with an essay by Oliver Sacks
(The MIT Press, 209 pages, $39.95)
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Payne selects and arranges tenderly: multicolored straitjackets displayed as if for sale at an elegant boutique; a single hanging straitjacket — crisp, clean, and eerily divorced from its function; a plain wooden box, much like a Joseph Cornell construction, in which dozens of toothbrushes with brightly colored handles hang neatly. A small stack of dirty paper cups on a shelf, stray toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes, and cracked, peeling paint on the wall behind the box remind us that these brushes, paste, and cups once touched the teeth, mouths, and tongues of people we used to call lunatics.

From photos of exteriors that make these institutional complexes seem enchanted worlds, we move to the more and more personal (work, food, clothing), and, at the end of the book, to morgues, stone grave markers (stacked and numbered for future use), cemeteries, and to a storage area filled with floor-to-ceiling shelves of what appear to be glossy, orange-colored cans of paint. We learn, however, that they are unclaimed cremation urns containing the remains of patients.

Payne’s photos evoke the tangible textures of lost worlds and the lost souls who inhabited them — places now inhabited, when inhabited at all, mostly by ghosts. He enables us to see what was too often denied or lost by inspiring us to imagine the individuality and complexity of the people who lived in these places, while also helping us to imagine the helplessness, hope, pain, confusion, and isolation that marked the lives of people for whom such places, whatever else they may have been, were home.

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