If walls could talk those of the Ararat Mental Asylum would surely echo harrowing cries of horror, hopelessness, anguish, and excruciating pain. Having visited the asylum just a few weeks ago, I would concur with popular opinion that it is one of the most haunted locations in Australia. The depth and breadth of oppression inside the wards is quite tangible, as unimaginably real as a whiff of perfume or a spray of salty seawater across the face. It even provokes enough vociferous, negatively-charged emotions and reactions from psychically-tuned individuals as to question the ethical and moral principles under which the asylum was functioning in its heyday.
Certainly individuals unlucky enough to be committed here had little to look forward to; the residential amenities included a mundane circle of bland, flavourless meals, repetitive tasks and activities, and twenty-four hour surveillance by administrative staff (i.e. general nurses and wardens) who probably weren’t that exhilarated about their placement. The most lamentable aspect was the inexhaustible executive barriers erected to blunt the possibility of liberation. It appears that two professional signatures were all it took to be incarcerated in Aradale, however a collection of eight were required for discharge. Get the picture? A contemporary individual must always wonder how many people were committed because they stood between a prosperous businessman and an extensive property; how many wives were committed by adulterous husbands wishing to carry on their extramarital affairs imperviously; and how many phlegmatic, gutless parents committed disabled children because they couldn’t muster the love, patience, or courage to rear these unfortunate souls themselves. Whatever the case the asylum’s story is Machiavellian and morose, and substantially darker than volcanic rocks of obsidian.
Ararat Mental Asylum was constructed in 1864 to relieve Melbournian suburbs of their proliferating squad of ‘lunatics’. It was much more than a specialized mental institution; it was an entire village replete with its own orchards, vineyards, vegetable gardens, and piggery. The autonomous fortress stood atop a prominent elevation overlooking a royal forest of beautiful evergreens with the rural town of Ararat visible at a distance. I call the asylum a fortress because the principal reason for its existence was to create a concrete boundary for the separation of the supposed ‘insane’ from the normative population. In the mid-1800s the Australian government wasn’t in the least bit interested in understanding, caring for, and reintegrating these individuals into society. For them, the primary concern was to formulate an effective and cost-efficient strategy of under rug sweeping the mental health problem as to prevent further embarrassment to the elite classes, the cognoscenti, and the government officials. In the end it was decided that the best recourse would be to imprison them inside an iron-clad prison on a hill some two hundred or so kilometres from Melbourne city proper where they couldn’t be seen or heard. The superintendent of the institution ensured that outbound communication was tightly censored, if not severed completely; in examining the authentic patient records stored at the Victorian Archives Office, it was apparent that not one personal letter transcribed by an inmate reached its intended destination. The implied understanding is that individuals weren’t sent to Aradale to be heard, but to be treacherously ensnared inside timeless bottles within whitewashed walls and left there to disintegrate and die.
As a detached, twenty-first century observer whose primary entrance into the reality of such an institution is through archived records of patient files I must say that notes written by the clinical and administrative team leave much to be desired. In barely legible and sloppy writing doctors and nurses frequently refer to inmates as ‘dumb’, ‘stupid’, and ‘imbecilic’ (politically incorrect language by today’s standards), transliterate over previously recorded notes, and make an unapologetic barrage of grammatical and syntactical errors. In short, these books provided an overarching example of everything clinical notes shouldn’t be. In some instances the progress notes would end abruptly and continue some ten or fifteen years into the future; in others the personal and diagnostic details were minimalistic and insufficient; and in others the inevitable fate of the patient (i.e. discharged and recovered, escaped, or died) were entirely absent. Judging from the fact that there is a complete absence of commentary in some files between the years 1919 to 1934, I would surmise that the superintendent managing the institution during that time probably wasn’t a big believer in recording and tabulating the mental and physical condition of the inmates. Either that or he couldn’t write.
We need only invoke the intellectual and cultural milieus of the late 1800s and early 1900s to understand what other sinister events transpired within the asylum walls. Offences of sexual indiscretion like masturbation and deliberate attempts at harming fellow inmates were punishable by solitary confinement and sadistic torture with various mechanical contraptions. Where inmates became chronically manic and subsequently unmanageable the in-house psychiatrists would have resorted to bleeding, electroconvulsive therapy, frontal-lobe lobotomy, and other treatments deemed permissible by the antiquated science of phrenology in an effort to restore their failing ‘sanity’. Operating squarely within the parameters of a defective intellectual and clinical model, the asylum would have failed in most of its attempts to ‘fix’ mental problems and physical ailments. Ararat was in an insignificant and little known corner of the known world, far removed from the philosophical innovations inaugurated by medical practitioners first in Europe and then the United States of America. Psychiatric breakthroughs attributed to Sigmund Freud and the army of psychoanalytic thinkers that followed him, for instance the development of free association tests and dream analysis aimed at identifying feeling-toned autonomous complexes within the recesses of the unconscious which we now know are responsible for the evolution of certain psychopathological conditions, wasn’t officially recognized as a feasible treatment option in Australian medical circles until the 1930s.
Hence the timeframe beforehand must’ve been an administrative exercise of registering and labelling inmates; of shuttling them off into individual wards; and of providing superficial medical attention when complaints amplified beyond the habitual and customary level. At the end of the day such rudimentary care for individuals who were suffering the battering effects of mental degeneration coupled with physical undernourishment wouldn’t have been enough to thwart nature from taking its lamentable course. With a tattered immune system many would have swiftly capitulated to the bacteria-generated killers of the time–tuberculosis, pneumonia, and diarrhoea. This reality is demonstrated in the asylum’s mortality rate; about four to five inmates died weekly, and that’s when there wasn’t a sudden outbreak of contagious disease (i.e. malaria, cholera, typhoid, smallpox, and so forth). In a nutshell, Aradale was tantamount to an Egyptian sarcophagus, a human flesh eater.