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In 2015, a Harvard senior finished her History of Science thesis on race, mass incarceration, and the history of psychiatry. Nine years later, she’s back on campus with a book on the same subject.
On the evening of Thursday, Feb. 1, the Harvard Book Store welcomed author and journalist Antonia A. Hylton ’15 for a discussion of her debut book “Madness: Race and Insanity in a Jim Crow Asylum.” The event was hosted at the Cambridge Public Library and Hylton was joined on stage in conversation with Harvard professor Jesse McCarthy. As a Peabody and Emmy-Award winning journalist and co-host of the hit podcasts “Southlake” and “Grapevine,” Hylton has covered the issue of systemic racism throughout her entire career.
Her debut book — which made its inaugural appearance on the New York Times bestseller list mere hours before the event — follows the development of Maryland’s Crownsville State Hospital, a mental institution that forcefully admitted Black psychiatric patients from 1911 to 2004. The earliest patients were forced to build the hospital from the ground up, thus laying the figurative groundwork for decades of patient abuse rooted in racism as well as communal and imposed stigma.
When asked about the origin story of her investigative novel, Hylton shared that it was her senior thesis at Harvard that began her interest and research on the topic of Black mental health mistreatment.
“I’m a freshman here on Harvard's campus and I stumble into a class called ‘Madness in Medicine,’ taught by Professor Anne Harrington. And I fall in love with the history of psychiatry, but my one complaint is that there are no people of color in that virtual primary story,” Hylton said. This led to her research on Black Americans and mental health care in her senior thesis, which she continued after college.
With this research and her family’s history of mental illness in mind, Hylton began to hone in on the Crownsville Hospital Center. Hylton discussed in detail how one’s surroundings and political contexts interface with mental health and her reasons for including this historical backdrop in the book.
“It's a heavy section of the book, but I think that's necessary because I think too often we think of these things as these isolated incidents or scandals and not as a broader terror movement that swept our country for a very long time,” Hylton said.
Hylton also touched on how this recent history is continuing to shape the present moment. Upon sharing with the audience horrifying stories of the physical, mental, and communal abuse that occurred inside of the Crownsville Hospital Center, Hylton reflected on how this research has changed her own perspective.
“I had a lot more empathy for people who still refused to use these systems they grew up with because they know these stories or are connected to these families,” she said.
Hylton met many of those affected families earlier on her tour, when she hosted an event on the historic land of Crownsville. Many attendees were former patients, former employees, and their families.
“I was a little angry when it hit me that this is an unwitting uncover, undiscovered story that was actually always there all along,” Hylton said.
The event ended with an audience Q&A. One audience member asked Hylton how the publication of her book interacts with the recent uptick in statewide bans on diverse education.
“Well the thought has crossed my mind that my book might get banned. And I’ve decided that I’ll take it as a compliment,” Hylton said.
Hylton spoke to the complex relationship between race and mental health. “The research and the data they collected shows that for black children and actually all children of color, one of the primary mitigating factors or protective factors for ever experiencing or developing mental illness in the first place is pride in your history and heritage and a contextual understanding of who you are and why you matter.”
—Staff writer Lola J. DeAscentiis can be reached at email@example.com.
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