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Sally Swartz’s Homeless Wanderers: Movement and Mental Illness in the Cape Colony in the Nineteenth Century Launched at The Book Lounge

Deborah Posel, Sally Swartz and Lance van Sittert

Sally Swartz’s Homeless Wanderers: Movement and mental illness in the Cape Colony in the nineteenth century was launched at The Book Lounge with Lance van Sittert and Deborah Posel recently.

The launch was a remarkable evening that offered readers, academics and students of psychology, history and sociology a fascinating insight into an engaging topic.

Swartz is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cape Town where her research focus is on psychotherapy, psychoanalytic practice in South Africa, and the history of psychiatry, psychology and colonialism.

Sally SwartzHomeless WanderersAlison Swartz moderate the discussion. She works in UCT’s School of Public Health and Family Medicine and, with the disclaimer that the book was written by her mother, she said it was beautiful. “Sally does a good job of tapping back and forth between the macro-scale of colonial policies of 1880 to 1910 affecting the mentally ill and the micro-scale of families and communities, as well as tapping into what was going on in the minds of individuals,” she said.

Describing it as moving and poignant, Deborah Posel said the book really “got to her”. She said it raised questions about how one wrote about “insanity”, the “lunatic” and the mentally ill. Posel said, “Swartz is writing at an anxiety-provoking border where you’re dealing with those who are considered mentally healthy, and on the right side, and those who are considered in some or other way unhinged.

“Probably the most familiar way of writing about serious mental illness is the professional medicalised, scientific way that psychiatrists and psychologists use in their case notes, presenting the symptoms that are noted and classified in case histories. The personal story is specific to that individual and his or her circumstances. Very little effort or interest goes into exploring the context of the bigger landscape of the society, history or culture in the case history,” she said.

Posel emphasised that there is a way of looking at madness with a broader scope. She referred to Foucault’s writing on the topic in The Birth of the Clinic and his invitation to look at madness as a category that was invented under particular historical conditions at a specific place in time. She said, “Foucault invited us to think of madness as a discourse. The picture that is painted of psychiatric institutions is a pretty totalising one. Foucault’s emphasis is on the mechanisms of control, surveillance and confinement. It’s a picture of hyperbolic control.”

Posel observed how this way of writing about insanity tended to homogenise the phenomenon, taking a step back from individual experience as it is not particularly interested in the individual’s account. In her view, the great accomplishment of Homeless Wanderers was to bring those two modes of writing together.

“With consummate skill Sally has woven together an understanding of the general context, the discursive context, the structural environment and the objective material condition within which the mental asylums emerged in the late 19th Century in the Cape Colony. Simultaneously she gets into the interstices of the individual experiences and lives.

“She has managed to pull off the difficult craft of bringing together the detached analytic skills of the historian and the intelligent empathy of the psychotherapist. From a historical point of view, there is much that explains how these institutions of psychiatric surveillance emerged – particularly Valkenberg, the Robben Island asylum for ‘natives’ and the psychiatric wing of the Somerset Hospital. These are linked to the dominant scientific discourses about race and madness, some emanating from Europe and finding their way to the Cape.

“She focuses on how the archives make some forms of mental illness more visible and more interesting, than others. The archives speak much more strongly and confidently about the discursive stuff. Beyond that, she goes to great lengths to find much wispier pieces of evidence, finding the fragments that tell the individual story. There’s great poignancy in the narratives.”

Reflecting on the metaphor of the institutional fabric, Posel spoke of the warp and a weft underpinning it: “In the warp is a cast of characters. The book evokes a range of people of varying hues, sizes and shapes who are implicated in the story of the emergence of psychiatric institutions. There are patients, rich, poor, male, female, black, coloured, European, Jewish and Afrikaans. All manner of differences in the patients whose own personal circumstances are part of the fabric that are woven. There are families, compassionate and cruel, remote and proximate, wealthy and destitute.

“There are doctors, nurses, and porters of the institutions, with very different biographies and different responses to their patients; and then there is the whole litany of officials, the bureaucrats who do the classification and the surveillance, the colonial officials who make policy decisions about the institutions.

“And then there’s the weft: the evocation of a series of conditions in Cape Town into which the lives of this cast of characters is inserted. Sally writes about a particularly fascinating period of history in Cape Town, what historian Christopher Bayly calls ‘the great acceleration’, a period in the world of accelerated migration brought about by the steam ship.”

Posel explained the population growth of the Cape Colony happened in this context, saying, “It was also a time when what would become a more rigid, hierarchical racial order was starting to make its presence felt in a colony that was becoming quite obsessed with boundary making and classification that kept everybody in their place. It was also an important time in the development of bodies of knowledge, with notions and signs of race.”

The book, said Posel, pulled these disparate elements into a conversation with each other, producing an immensely textured account of how an institution like Valkenberg came into existence and something of what it must have felt like to have been contained and confined in that space.

Lance van Sittert from UCT’s Department of Historical Studies said he wished to draw attention to the interdisciplinary nature of the work that Swartz had undertaken. He reflected on the risky nature inherent in this trend, which is currently a buzzword in academia. “To leave your disciplinary safe space is to risk disapproval. People begin to wonder about you, and don’t know what to say to you. It takes a great deal of courage. Historians tend to move out if you move into the borderlands between disciplines that evoke suspicion.”

He said Homeless Wanderers was an incredibly brave and timeous book: “It is an auspicious moment to do this because the disruptions of the last six months continue to reverberate far beyond where we’re sitting now with respect to the universalistic and objective claims of any one discipline.”

The book invites the question of how psychiatry and psychology came to be in this town. “The question takes courage to ask, and to go out and answer it, takes more of the same,” Van Sittert said. He wished to echo and underline what Posel had said about the beauty of the language, and read aloud an extract from the end of the book. He said he hopes the book will be widely read by historians and psychiatrists.

Swartz expressed her enormous gratitude to Posel and Van Sittert for their insights and affirmations of her text and process. She spoke about the considerations with which she accessed the archives, and the cautions about examining the private spaces of families back in time. Reading letters that were written by patients and their families was one way in. She considered the genetic loading that travels through generations of families and the blame that is sometimes apportioned for suffering. She spoke about the challenges of teasing out the various strands of her research and the reality of the racial element that impacted on treatment.

The author spoke about being in-between disciplines as a “fantastic way to pass as neither one thing nor another … a wraith!” She said it had got her very far: “Here I am. I’ve done this thing”. She thanked all who have lived with her over the ambivalent space of writing the book. “My friends and family and colleagues have carried me over the finish line,” she said.

The evening concluded with a question and answer session for members of the audience, and those who bought the book queued for the author’s signature. If anything is a testimony to the utterly fascinating conversation that took place about Homeless Wanderers, it is that The Book Lounge sold out! Some guests went home disappointed and empty-handed, though not for long. The Book Lounge has stocked up again, and the book is available countrywide in good book stores.

Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted from the event using #livebooks:


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