Insane asylums. What is it about them that draws our interest? Is it the spookiness of the sprawling Gothic buildings once filled with the mentally ill? Many of these places used bizarre "treatments" such as lobotomy and electroshock therapy, including the use of drugs like Laudanum to calm patients. Some historical institutions even housed famous residents such as Zelda Fitzgerald and Sylvia Plath.
Mental institutions have been used as haunting settings for countless movies and novels, including a recent novel, Blue Asylum, by Kathy Hepinstall. The story, which takes place during the Civil War and is about a young woman who is admitted into Sanibel Luntatic Asylum for being insubordinate. What did Iris Dunleavy do exactly? She stood up to her husband, a plantation owner, who is mistreating and abusing slaves. But Iris is anything but insane. Throughout the course of the novel, Iris stands by her beliefs towards human and civil rights. At Sanibel, she meets a young Civil War vet, Ambrose Weller, who has post-traumatic stress disorder. Through the power of her convictions and love, Iris hopes to help heal Ambrose.
Of her latest novel, Hepinstall says:
I had been wanting to write a love story set in an insane asylum for a while. It was one of those ideas that just kind of sat as a sentence fragment wrapped in low fog in the back of my mind -- kind of a story, kind of a mood. Perhaps it's because asylums have their own inherent drama, their own urgency and tension. They are like airports that way except people in an asylum aren't going anywhere.
I went to Sanibel Island to write another novel, a completely different story set in modern times. Something about that island -- perhaps its combination of calm, blue-green water and menacing history, evoked that asylum love story again, and I abandoned the first novel and went to work on what eventually became Blue Asylum.
Hepinstall conducted extensive research by reading books on how the mentally ill were treated during the 19th century, and the kinds of treatment and the institutions where they were kept. At this time, 'moral treatment' was administered by doctors. They treated patients with kindness, gave them structure, painting classes, carriage rides, and nice furnishings to get them better. Hepinstall used all of this research for the creation of Sanibel.
As for her main characters, Iris and Ambrose are both strong in their own way. Both have a will to survive and leave the island and return to some semblance of normalcy. Iris is a woman ahead of her time. As Hepinstall says, she's opinionated, stubborn, ferocious and perhaps a bit mad. She continues:
Iris is characterized by a consistent desire to escape. She wants to escape her boring home town life, then the oppressive plantation, then the insane asylum. Running through that desire, though, is a determination to save. She wants to save the doomed baby, the doomed slaves, her haunted lover.
She further explains:
In trying to do so, she learns her greatest lesson -- that inserting herself in various narratives may or may not have any effect. In the course of the novel, she is humbled, as many women have been, when they discover they cannot save everyone.
On the other hand, Ambrose is a psychological mess. Under his doctor's advice, he focuses on the color blue to calm himself. We learn through flashbacks the horrors of war. As Hepinstall says:
He's one among the legion of casualties of the Civil War.
Blue Asylum is Hepinstall's fourth novel, including The House of Gentle Men, The Absence of Nectar, and The Prince of Lost Places. She started writing poems as child and later turned to short stories. She eventually went into advertising and copywriting, which she says helped her write fast and conceptually. Hepinstall has worked with companies, such as Nike, Starbucks, Lexus, T-Mobile, Toyota, and Ritz-Carlton and uses her advertising experience to help market her novels.
As for Blue Asylum, what she hopes readers will take away with them after reading is this:
I believe, or hope, that a certain gentle wistfulness pervades the novel. I hope that feeling resonates.
In her spare time, Hepinstall takes pleasure in hiking, kayaking, rescuing dogs, seeing movies, dinner parties, adventures and the occasional tequila shot.
What does she like best about writing fiction?
I like living there, in whatever place I create. And I like being able to communicate with others on the level of words and rhythm and mood. I like the process and I love the generosity of all the different people who bring a novel into being.
Want to learn more about historical and infamous insane asylums? Check out Asylum.com -- now housed at HuffPost Weird News.
Blue Asylum was released on April 10th.