My Favorite Bit: Chris Panatier talks about THE REDEMPTION OF MORGAN BRIGHT

Chris Panatier is joining us today to talk about his novel, The Redemption of Morgan Bright. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Hadleigh Keene died on the road leading away from Hollyhock Asylum. The reasons are unknown. Her sister Morgan blames herself. A year later with the case still unsolved, Morgan creates a false identity, that of a troubled housewife named Charlotte Turner, and goes inside.

Morgan quickly discovers that Hollyhock is… not right. She is shaken by the hospital’s peculiar routines and is soon beset by strange episodes. All the while, the persona of Charlotte takes on a life of its own, becoming stronger with each passing day. As her identity begins unraveling, Morgan finds herself tracing Hadleigh’s footsteps and peering into the places they lead.  

What’s Chris’s favorite bit?

Writing a novel that takes place in an asylum puts you on a collision course with history. The Redemption of Morgan Bright is a contemporary gothic about a woman who assumes a false identity and has herself committed to solve the mystery of her sister’s death. Hollyhock House positions itself as a modern, enlightened institution for psychiatric care, but as readers (and Morgan) find out, its feet are planted firmly in the past.

Research then, was front and center as I devised this story. And the discovery process, though brutal at times, was one of my favorite pieces to bringing this novel together. In addition to internet research (visiting historical websites cataloguing the sordid past of psychiatric institutions will open the eyes, let me tell you), I read non-fiction accounts and watched old patient interviews. My takeaway? It was going to be hard to conjure an evil worse than humankind has already proven capable of. (But I tried! Smiley-face-emoji).

My research presented two types of horror endemic to the old asylums: physical abuse common during the 19th and early 20th century, and the psychological techniques employed for women experiencing “schizophrenia” (a very loose term) throughout the 1950s and 1960s. If you want to know what practitioners were doing to patients behind the walls of asylums and psychiatric wards, just use your imaginations: those doctors sure were. During a time when the practice of medicine was largely unregulated and few were paying attention, liberties were taken. Sometimes this was in a genuine, but often careless, effort to treat an affliction, other times, the basis for a given treatment was to further a practitioner’s pet project—a method they’d developed and hoped to make popular. Then, there were those “treatments” which were plainly cruel—even by the standards of the day. Which brings me to the example I’ll share here.

The Utica Crib was invented in 1845 by Dr. M.H. Aubenal, of the Marseilles Lunatic Asylum, and was used in the United States by the first director of the New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica, New York, Amariah Brigham. This “immobility device” was an adult-sized crib with a heavy, slatted lid designed to sandwich the patient inside, preventing them from sitting or rolling over. Other names for the device are “covered bed,” “boxed bed,” or “locked bed.” Patients were commonly kept inside for days. Sometimes, they had a mattress.

An early advocate for the removal of cribs was a physician at Utica named Dr. William Hammond. He described it thusly:

“It is a bed like a child’s crib, with slatted sides, eighteen inches deep, six feet long and three feet wide. It has a slatted lid which shuts with a spring lock. A lunatic put in it can barely turn over. There is not as much space between the patient’s head and the lid as if he were in a coffin. He is kept in the crib at the will of an attendant, the key being in the possession of the latter and not of a physician. Patients have sometimes died in these cribs.”

Another Utica physician, Dr. Mycert, described the crib as “at most, barbarous and unscientific.”

By the 1860s, Utica Cribs were used across the United States to restrain patients who were violent, abusive, or as a punitive measure for those who misbehaved or tried to escape. Strangely, doctors often insisted upon how “comfortable” and “calm” the confined individuals were, which seems an early example of extreme gaslighting considering the inability of said individuals to move.

The Utica Crib was also used as solitary confinement. Sara Halverson, a patient at the Minnesota Hospital for the Insane, was placed in a Utica Crib for at least three years. Naturally, her condition devolved because of this extreme treatment, and after so much time confined to the crib, her records read, “Noisy as ever—lower limbs flexed so that knees are drawn up to chin. Crawls about on buttocks, feet and hands—fierce and noisy.”

People died in the cribs, often because attendants mistook heart attacks or other types of medical emergencies for “mania.” By 1887, enough pressure had mounted, both internal and external, and New York State Lunatic Asylum removed their Utica cribs.

The Utica Crib is only one example of the barbaric methods used to confine those suffering (or not) from mental illness, but I did not know about it before I set out to write this book. Which brings me back to Hollyhock House, the subject institution in The Redemption of Morgan Bright. Though it wears a modern veneer, every asylum has a basement, and maybe not all of them got rid of their Utica Cribs.


Book Link



Chris Panatier lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, daughter, and a fluctuating herd of animals resembling dogs (one is almost certainly a goat). He writes short stories and novels, “plays” the drums, and draws album covers for metal bands. Plays himself on twitter @chrisjpanatier.

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