Disability historian explores ‘mad’ people’s history

Not until he was 27 did Geoffrey Reaume come out of the closet. The York critical disabilities and health ethics professor, now 44, disclosed to his thesis supervisor that he had been in a psychiatric hospital during his teens. It added credence to his proposal to do a PhD on life in a Toronto asylum – from the patients’ perspective.

Until Reaume came along, historians had documented life in asylums in Canada based solely on doctors’ points of view. Doctors’ accounts of patients "were grossly stereotypical," says Reaume, who also took offence at fellow historians who dismissed patients’ accounts of their asylum experience as rambling and semi-literate, who ignored their humanity. "It was insulting to call them that when they were just trying to express themselves," says the Faculty of Health professor. "That’s why I felt it was important to tell their stories."

He applied under the Freedom of Information Act for access to patients’ records at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane between 1870 and 1940. As he combed the medical files, he began unearthing the authentic voices of "mad" patients from snatches of conversation doctors and nurses had recorded in their notes, and patients’ letters confiscated by asylum staff. Gradually, he formed a picture of what daily life in an asylum was like from patients’ points of view. It was groundbreaking research and Oxford University Press Canada published his PhD thesis as a book, Remembrance of Patients Past: Patient Life at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane, 1870-1940, in 2000.

Reaume had found his calling as a historian and a social activist: to uncover the experiences and perspectives of people with psychiatric disabilities and in so doing carry on the fight for social justice for this marginalized segment of society.

"I’m doing stuff that for too long has been ignored," says Reaume. "My historical work is a form of social justice. I’m trying to change attitudes and give history back to the community of people that lived it. I’m using history to fight the prejudices that exist today."

About the time his book came out, Reaume and a collective of other psychiatric survivors founded the Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto (PSAT). Dedicated to preserving the history of people who have experienced the psychiatric system, it is the first archive of its kind in the world, as far as Reaume knows. "The need for these archives has grown out of a recognition that our history has been too often ignored or trivialized by mainstream historians, researchers and medical professionals," says the archives brochure. Donations of original newsletters, first-person accounts, news stories, artwork and recordings of talks have arrived from all over the world — Canada, the United States, Holland, Norway, Mexico and Brazil — and provide an invaluable record of psychiatric survivor activism especially since the 1970s. The archives office on Parliament Street is so crowded with boxes that incoming material now goes to an off-site storage space donated rent-free by PSAT friends.

Reaume is a diminutive man with a whispery voice and timid manner. But as he talks about his own medical and academic journey, the tentative lilt in his voice disappears as he talks with increasing intensity and a mounting sense of outrage.

Right: Geoffrey Reaume, right, gives a tour of the wall surrounding the Queen Street Mental Health Centre. The wall was built over 100 years ago by unpaid psychiatric patients. Photo by Graeme Bacque.

When he was 14, Reaume was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Over the next two years, he was twice admitted to psychiatric facilities. Placed on heavy doses of chloropromazine, a sedative that could knock out a horse, he dropped out of high school after only six weeks in Grade 9. Throughout his teens, the sixth of seven children lived at home in Windsor with his parents. For over a year, he worked in a sheltered workshop doing menial jobs such as filling shampoo bottles for a measly monthly disability benefit of about $300. The work was mind-numbing, yet Reaume, an avid history buff, read voraciously in his off hours and closely followed current events.

Like many others in Windsor, Reaume came from a family employed in the automotive industry and was keenly interested in labour and social justice issues. In his early 20s, he was Chair of the local chapter of Amnesty International and worked for the CIDA-funded Third World Resource Centre. 

At this time, Reaume was also weaning himself from his medication. When the resource centre sent him on a five-week educational trip to the Dominican Republic, he decided to leave his pills at home. This was a chance to see if he could get along without his powerful sedatives. He could and did. "My activism has always been, and continues to be, very important to my mental health," he says.

Eventually Reaume decided to enroll as a mature student in history at the University of Windsor. He flourished and, despite lacking a high-school education, he graduated in 1988 with a BA in history, went on to the University of Toronto to do a master’s thesis on Canadian labour history and a doctorate in Canadian medical history. At York, he teaches a course on mad people’s history in the Critical Disability Studies MA Program and the history of health care ethics in the Faculty of Health’s School of Health Policy & Management.

Before he was hired by York in 2004, Reaume accepted a commission to write a history of Lyndhurst, a Toronto physical rehabilitation centre founded in 1945. The book will be published in May by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Beyond the archives project, Reaume has been involved in other community projects. He wrote a play, Angels of 999, based on his first book and was performed in Toronto in 1999 and 2000.

And at an open house in January, York’s Institute for Health Research showcased a two-minute video about another project dear to his heart. It shows him giving a tour of the brick wall surrounding the Queen Street Mental Health Centre in Toronto. The wall was built by psychiatric patients more than 100 years ago. "It’s a myth that people with psychiatric history don’t do good work," says Reaume. He leads wall tours as a kind of "moral therapy" to those who have underestimated the talents of, or mistreated psychiatric patients, and to give psychiatric survivors a sense of their own history. "The wall preserves history. It is a symbol of prejudice, confinement and oppression. By preserving it we can liberate their stories and ensure that the men and women who lived, worked and died behind the wall are remembered and respected as worthwhile human beings."

This article was written by Martha Tancock, York communications officer.