Winston interviews Geoffrey Reaume

Winston interviews Geoffrey Reaume
Winston interviews Geoffrey Reaume

Geoffrey Reaume is an Associate Professor in the Critical Disability Studies Graduate Program at York University. His landmark study, Remembrance of Patients Past: Life at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane, 1870-1940 (University Of Toronto Press) inspired a major visual art exhibition by Workman Arts, a play by The Friendly Spike Theatre Band as well as countless academic researchers and creative writers. Amidst his preparations for “Words On The Wall,” a TINARS event celebrating the second edition of his book, Reaume took a few moments to speak with Winston.

W: What inspired you to write Remembrance of Patients Past?

R: People whom I met when I was a psychiatric patient in Windsor’s Regional Children’s Centre (1976) and St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital (1979), as well as when I was an out-patient in Windsor from 1976-83. Their (our) way of relating to one another had no reflection in history books and I wanted to tell these stories in historical context of what psychiatric patients’ lives were like in the past, as real human beings with all the vicissitudes we all experience and not as a collection of diagnostic labels. When I read the files of the men and women from Queen Street patient records in the Archives of Ontario, their struggles were, and remain, immensely moving and I felt this great obligation to reveal as much as I could about them. I admit this wasn’t enough as I had to be selective and couldn’t tell everything I wanted to and it is also fraught with ethical issues – after all, they didn’t ask me to tell their life stories and I am invading their privacy. In doing so, I want to try to personalize a history that heretofore was so very clinical and devoid of the humanity of people confined in psychiatric facilities. I was also inspired by my maternal Grandfather, Francis Udall (1892-1974), who was a psychiatric patient on and off after World War I when he experienced shell shock after three years on the western front. When I was a boy our family used to visit him in a psychiatric ward at Westminster Hospital in London, Ontario where he lived most of the last two years of his life in a big room with a couple of dozen other elderly veterans. It was a pretty grim place for these former soldiers to end up and I wondered how much we could have learned from them if we only took the time to listen…. And of course my parents, Josephine and Nelson Reaume, to whom my book is dedicated, as they inspire me no end, for without their love and support throughout all these years this book could never have been written. I think that part of the history is essential as well, to talk about family and friendship supports that existed and where it didn’t exist for many people and the impact that this had on them.

W: How does your account of patient life at The Toronto Hospital For The Insane (now called the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health - CAMH) between 1870 and 1940 differ from other historical research about psychiatric hospitals?

R: When I started reading psychiatric history, it was almost all from the doctors’ points of view and mad people were usually portrayed as this anonymous group of people who had no supportive relationships with one another, had nothing meaningful to say and whose labour and contributions were all but ignored. They were either portrayed as violent or child-like, an absurd and insultingly inaccurate mischaracterization. Now, it has to be said that in the 1980s, Roy Porter (1987) was one of the few historians who did study madness from the perspectives of people who lived these experiences, as did Dale Peterson (1982) before him, but their works were mostly from the perspectives of more privileged mad people who had the resources and access to education to leave first-person published accounts. These accounts are immensely important and tell us a great deal but they are not representative of the far greater number of poor mad people who didn’t have the money, and in many cases, education, to leave first-person accounts and yet who made up the majority of patients in public asylums. I wanted to understand their lives, the life of people like Audrey B. or Winston O., most of whom were from ordinary working class and farming backgrounds and whose contributions have been too often lost to posterity. This book is one way of focusing on them so that they take the centre stage of a history that is properly theirs to begin with.

W: Remembrance of Patients Past is now into its second printing, and has inspired both a play and a visual arts exhibition. Why do you think it has struck such a deep chord with so many people?

R: Yes, it has been wonderfully gratifying to see this response over the years. I could never have staged a play or put on a visual arts exhibit (or put on the upcoming TINARS event at the Gladstone either) so I can’t emphasize how much it has meant to see the work done by people in Friendly Spike Theatre Band and Workman Arts in publicly portraying this history in such creative and beautiful ways. It is their history right here in Toronto, after all, and this re-interpreting the words and lives of asylum patients speaks volumes about how relevant the past is to the present for a lot of people. I think this work has struck a chord is because it involves the act of remembering people who were previously forgotten in a way that we can all identify with, even if our lives are so different from people who were confined in the asylum for, in some cases, decades on end. These stories of the women and men could have been any of us had we been born at an earlier time – indeed, quite a few people who have been moved by the stories have themselves been patients in Queen Street or elsewhere and/or know someone who has been, or is now, a patient. They know what it is liked to be silenced and discriminated against as psychiatric patients so this past is not a distant country for them – it is right here in our neighborhood! Telling this history is a way of telling our own stories, isn’t it? More than anything else, it is the humanity of the people in the book that I think touches people. Also the idea of giving voice to the patients who were silenced so very often, of taking their views seriously from confiscated letters to their dismissal as being pathologically untrustworthy, and turning this around with respect and dignity, that has a lot of connection with people who can empathize with this effort to end the silence and derision of people who were psychiatric patients. With ongoing prejudices towards people with a psychiatric history, these stories have a resonance in the everyday lives of people today. It is a combination of both the past and the present coming together, but now history is being used to challenge prejudices here and now.

W: Who is your favourite Sesame Street character? Why?

R: I am afraid I don’t have a favourite character as I never watched Sesame Street. I was instead a fan of Mr. Dress-up, Friendly Giant and Captain Kangaroo. Of these, Finnegan the dog on Mr. Dress-up was my favorite as he had little to say but a lot of presence. Casey was a close second as I liked her stringy hair and high-pitched voice which was complementary in Finnegan’s wake, so to speak…

W: What is your involvement with the Psychiatric Survivor Archives, Toronto (PSAT)?

R: I have been involved since it was co-founded in 2001 by Mel Starkman, Don Weitz, Janet Bruch, and myself, and has since been supported by many psychiatric survivors, consumers, mad activists, and allies. The idea is to preserve our history which may otherwise not be preserved and to make it accessible for more people. We have been successful on the first part with thousands of documents donated from people in the US and Canada held in safe storage by PSAT, mainly thanks to the support of Gerstein Crisis Centre and Sound Times Support services which have provide space for free, but we are still in need of a reading room that is accessible for researchers so there is plenty to do before these documents can be truly accessible for the wider community.

W: The Queen St West site of CAMH is currently undergoing a massive re-development. Why does PSAT regard the patient-built wall as an important monument that should be preserved?

R: Since its founding in 2001, PSAT has sought to be involved both in collecting documentary artifacts about our history, as well as involved in public history preservation and interpretation. The patient built walls at Queen Street are immensely important to our history as it is the most visible reminder of the exploitation of patient labour in the Toronto Asylum, and also of the abilities of the people who built these walls and who lived, worked and died behind them. It therefore tells essential history to the wider public and to people who live and work at CAMH which had previously been ignored. And a community without a publicly recognized history is all the easier to dismiss and discriminate against. Preserving these brick walls on the south side, dating from 1860 and the east and west sides, dating from 1888-89, counters prejudices that psychiatric patients have no history worth telling and nothing to contribute. How does it do this? Well, by its sheer physical presence of being a constant reminder of a past we don’t want to repeat but must also acknowledge to change attitudes for the better towards the people whom these walls represent today as in the past. Walls of exclusion are now walls of inclusion by being a vivid memorial to all the unpaid labour psychiatric patients have had to do, both men and women. The walls are also tangible answers to anyone who claims that people with a psychiatric history can’t do good work, a major ongoing problem for people seeking employment. People can go at any time of the day or night and look at and touch these brick walls and then think about why they exist, who built them, their longevity since the 19th century and why this history continues to matter now. The walls are thus both a memorial to patients past and a place that has much relevance to psychiatric survivors/consumers/clients today. PSAT has sought to ensure that the patient built walls are preserved for these reasons, and the support of the CAMH Empowerment Council, Archives and Administration in preserving and publicly interpreting these walls is a laudable goal from which everyone will benefit for years to come.

W: Your walking tours of the Wall at CAMH are very popular. What’s the most memorable thing you’ve encountered during them?

R: The most memorable memories are from people who know this history from their own life. For example, one time a man came up to me at the end of the wall tour and said that hearing about people who had been patients in the past had made him feel better that particular day. He was an in-patient at CAMH and said he said he’d been down about a lot of things that day but hearing the stories of the men and women patients at Queen Street encouraged him when knowing what people went through before on the very grounds he was now staying… Another time I was giving the wall tour and a man who was an in-patient told us about the type of bricks that were used and construction techniques – he was a mason and could provide more insight into wall-building then I could ever offer. Another time a women who was a patient in the 1950s at Queen Street told us about what it was like for her and others then. It is when people re-claim this history as their own, where they can connect to the stories of the people or to the physical structure of the wall and how it was built by unpaid labourers, that is what is most memorable to me.

W: Of the current trends in the field of history, which one would you like to put on ice for five years or so?

R: Interpretations of history which spend too much time trying to fit data into particular theoretical concepts and too little time researching and explaining primary source material. I am not a fan of theory over-taking the voices and experiences of people in history as that can be, at its worst, another form of silencing. I have to admit to particularly disliking interpretations that confuse theoretical jargon with good analysis – post-modernists are especially guilty of this and it can leave potential insights obscured by a fog of inaccessible terminology. History, if it is to connect with people in the wider community, should be clear and accessible based on an analysis of primary source research first and foremost, and not covered up by a coded language that overwhelms material to the point of obscurantism.

W: What books are currently on your bedside table?

R: None – I don’t read in bed (tried this once 32 years ago and didn’t like it). I read in chairs, benches, couches, waiting in line, etc., but never in bed. Instead, I read up until going to bed, preferably with a hot pot of tea. Outside of work related readings which have taken up most of my time in recent months, my before bed reading has recently included: A Fair Country by John Ralston Saul; The Somme edited by Robert T. Foley and Helen McCartney; Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning; Joseph Goebbels by Toby Thacker; A Time to Dance, A Time to Die by John Waller and The Bible (King James Version), as well as the Guardian Weekly which isn’t a book but might as well be since I read it as if it is one.

W: If you were going to assemble a soundtrack to Remembrance of Patients Past, what five songs would you put on it?

R: Beatles – Yesterday (for admission)

Schumann – Kinderszenen, Dreaming (for daily relationships)

Shostakovich – Symphony No. 7, first movement (for labour)

Mozart – Ave verum corpus (for mourning the dead)

Haydn – St. Nicholas Mass, end of mass: Dona nobis pacem (for remembrance of all patients past)

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Gladstone Hotel Ballroom, 1214 Queen St West, Toronto

Wed Apr 21: 8:00pm (Doors 7:30pm) $5 (Free With Book Purchase)

Event Itinerary

• Silent Auction Viewing Begins 4pm, Gladstone Hotel Ballroom

• Wall Walking Tour 6pm, Main Entrance, CAMH, 1001 Queen St West

• Interview / Auction 8 pm (Doors 7:30pm), Gladstone Ballroom