Dr. Geoffrey Reaume’s Center of Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Wall Tours
By Jen Rinaldi
On October 3, 2009, the stories behind the wall built around the perimeter of the Center of Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), located at 1001 Queen St. W, came to life. During Nuit Blanche’s all night showcasing of contemporary art throughout the city of Toronto, an art installation was held in the (soon to be demolished) Workman Theatre at Queen and Ossington, organized by Lisa Brown of Workman Arts and six artists who use services at CAMH. On the stage of the theatre there were artistic representations of the experiences of patients who use the services of CAMH.
The artists responsible for this installation remounted their sculptures for the Rendezvous with Madness film festival (November 5-14, 2009), in their exhibit entitled ‘InSanity: The Story Behind the Wall.’ This art was based on the activist and academic work of York University professor Dr. Geoffrey Reaume, who has worked tirelessly to raise awareness about social justice issues in relation to mad persons.
CAMH has a long-standing history as it has served as an institution for people with psychiatric disabilities. In 1850, the building was first known as the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, and has housed people with disabilities for over 150 years since.
Until Reaume, historical accounts of the establishment have focused on physicians’ perspectives.
For the purpose of his doctoral thesis, Reaume applied under the Freedom of Information Act for access to patients’ records between 1870 and 1940, a period of time that saw the institution under various names, including the Toronto Hospital for the Insane. His purpose was to glean personal stories and pieces of conversations from the records that would help shape the everyday life for patients who lived there at the time. His thesis was published as Remembrance of Patients Past: Patient Life at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane, 1870-1940 (2000), and it was republished in 2009. His work has inspired the artistic representations displayed at ‘InSanity,’ as well as other art in association with the history of madness.
A historian and associate professor in the Critical Disability Studies program at York, Reaume identifies as a person who has experienced madness, and openly discloses having been in a psychiatric hospital during his adolescence. He thus pursued his thesis topic on the grounds that historians have been dismissive of patients’ narratives and have instead focused on what Reaume would consider physicians’s stereotypical accounts of patients. Knowing full well that patients had important stories to tell, he dedicated his work to finding and telling these stories.
For example, Josie B. (Reaume cannot disclose full or actual names but uses pseudonyms in the interest of confidentiality), who was institutionalized at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane from 1906 to 1915. She died in the asylum at the age of 35. Josie B. worked in the laundry, and comments about her demanding to be paid for her work were documented in her clinical record on January 17, 1913, two years before her death. Her physicians recorded that this demand was a symptom of her madness.
Also, after Mary A. left the asylum in 1911, she tabulated the exact dollar amount for the work she was owed after 17 years of toil doing laundry. She wrote to the hospital demanding fi nancial compensation, but never received any.
Reaume has recounted these stories while holding tours at CAMH throughout the years, for he offers free, outdoor tours around the CAMH facilities to anyone interested. Visitors from outside Toronto include Hamilton, Port Elgin, Guelph, Windsor, and even as far as Germany. This past year, he has given 22 tours, and has given 62 overall since 2000. The last tour of the season took place this past November 1, but tours will begin again in the spring. His audience has consisted of a mix of university students and community members, including psychiatric survivors and residents of CAMH who have felt comfortable sharing their own stories during the tours.
The centerpiece of his tours is the brick wall that stretches across the perimeter of the grounds of CAMH. This nineteenth century wall was built on the south side in 1860 and re-built on the east and west sides in 1888-89 by psychiatric patients who were hospitalized at this location. During the tour, Reaume tells patients’ stories at various points along the wall. He encourages tour participants to touch the wall, and feel how sturdy it is after well over 100 years. He points to writing scribbled along the wall- -letters that are inscribed in stone because letters to loved ones at home written by hospital patients were often never sent by hospital staff. He shares stories about escape attempts and generally what life was like within the confines of the brick enclosure.
The labour involved in constructing this barrier was entirely carried out by psychiatric patients, but just as Josie B. and Mary A. struggled to have their work acknowledged and compensated, no pay was ever allotted for this work. Therefore, the wall symbolizes how people with disabilities have been exploited throughout history. It is also an artifact paying heed to how mad persons have been historically marginalized, confined, and separated from society by stone and concrete.
However, the wall also represents something very positive for the mad community. During his tours, Reaume claims that this structure is a testament to the hard work that mad people are capable of accomplishing, despite their longstanding history of being systemically excluded from employment and institutionalized on the grounds that they could not serve as contributing members of a society. The monument thus counters the underestimation of, and discrimination against, psychiatric patients and survivors.
It also stands for a history that mad persons can claim as their own, which Reaume has demonstrated is important insofar as mad people’s history has for so long been understood through the eyes of physicians and psychiatrists.
Reaume’s work extends beyond academia, and has reached into Toronto’s activist and artistic communities. Throughout his career, he has sought to raise awareness about the history of mad persons and to call attention to still-prevalent social injustice and discrimination that mad persons experience.