The arc of Mab Segrest’s work spans forty years and profound cultural shifts, the resolution of which still hangs in perilous balance.
In 1984, the poet Adrienne Rich wrote about Mab Segrest’s first book My Mama’s Dead Squirrel, proclaiming, “Mab Segrest is of a younger generation than I, another kind of family. But her essays speak to the whispers in my bones, and they both remind and instruct me. To understand this country, we need to know the American South from the perspective of those who, like Margaret Walker, like Mab Segrest, have lived real lives there all along.” In 2020, Segrest is back with a reissue of her classic anti-racist text Memoir of a Race Traitor: Fighting Racism in the American South and an epic new volume, Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry from Georgia’s Milledgeville Asylum. This in-depth asylum study is already being hailed as a landmark of scholarship, a “profoundly great book,” and a “gripping” and “compelling” and “monumental” narrative.
Mab Segrest was born in 1949 in Birmingham, Alabama and grew up in Tuskegee where her family on both sides had lived for over a century. Steeped in its white version of southern history, she grew up into the crucible of the civil rights movement. In more ways than one, this movement arrived at her door and kept on knocking. Her childhood experience in Alabama’s apartheid culture shaped her future work as an activist, writer and scholar. As a young woman, she left Alabama for graduate school in North Carolina, carrying in her baggage legacies that included the destruction of Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, attendance at a segregated private school, and the murder by a distant Segrest relative of civil rights worker Sammy Younge in her hometown. Segrest earned a PhD in English literature from Duke University in 1979. More importantly, in North Carolina and across the country, dynamic, multiracial feminist and lesbian movements gave her the context to unpack her bags and sort them through as writer, activist, teacher, and public intellectual.
My Mama’s Dead Squirrel: Lesbian Essays on Southern Culture (Firebrand, 1985) collected her earliest essays from the late 1970s and early 1980s. In them, she located lesbian and queer work in the southern literary canon and in southern movements for social justice. Memoir of a Race Traitor (South End, 1994) reflected on the legacies of her white Alabama childhood that inspired her to work with others in the 1980s countering Klan and neo-Nazi movements in North Carolina that were then the most virulent in the nation. This book rapidly became a landmark work of white anti-racist activism. The New Press published a 25th anniversary edition in September 2019.
In the 1990s, Segrest worked for the World Council of Churches (WCC), an ecumenical organization based in Geneva, helping to map transformative justice movements across the globe. The essays of Born to Belonging: Writings on Spirit and Justice (2002) rose out of the WCC experience and extended the reach of her work globally in a late-twentieth century world experiencing rapid economic and political change.
Segrest returned to her first-love of teaching in 2002 and chaired the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at Connecticut College from 2002 until 2014, serving as the Fuller-Maathai Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies.
In the 21st century, Segrest returned intellectually and creatively to the South for a deep dive into the archives of Georgia’s state mental hospital in Milledgeville, the largest in the world in the 1940s and 1950s and considered an emblem of American asylum psychiatry writ large. She was drawn there to understand the relationship between “the intimate and the historical,” as she had articulated in Race Traitor, and to answer the kind of question that had taken hold of her as an adolescent — how a culture that promoted slavery could decide who was and was not sane. After a fifteen-year grappling, the result is Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum (The New Press in April 2020).
Segrest has been a Mellon Distinguished Professor at Tulane, a Fellow at Emory’s James Weldon Johnson Institute, the Newell Visiting Scholar at Georgia College and State University, and a Fellow at the National Humanities Center. In 2018 after spending five years in Brooklyn, she returned to Durham where she now lives, writes, and organizes.
Administrations of Lunacy
“In a gripping narrative,” writes Glenda Gilmore, C. Vann Woodward Professor of History at Yale, “Segrest retells southern history through the experiences of patients committed to the Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot and Epileptic Asylum.” It is, to Gilmore’s way of thinking, an “astonishing and compelling feat” that gives voice to the 25,000 unclaimed bodies that lie in unmarked graves around the institution’s grounds. Turning away from memoir to the depths and expanses of historical archives, Segrest takes on an epic story and brings it home.
Today, 90 percent of psychiatric beds in the United States are located in jails and prisons, institutions that confine disproportionate numbers of African Americans. After more than a decade of research, Mab Segrest locates the deep historical roots of this startling fact, turning her sights on a long-forgotten cauldron of racial ideology: the state mental asylum system in which psychiatry was born and whose influences extend into our troubled present.
In December 1842, The Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot and Epileptic Asylum was opened on land stolen from the Muscogees in a building paid for by state profits from that theft. For the first quarter of a century, its patients were the white settlers whose psyches were shaped by these wars of displacement and the inherent violence of plantation slavery. After Emancipation, counties sent African Americans into a growing psychiatric fiefdom brutally segregated by race with its modern diagnostic categories blaming the people that Jim Crow most harmed and also marginalizing women, sexual outcasts, and the white poor.
Over a hundred years later, it had become the largest insane asylum in the world with over ten thousand patients, considered by psychiatric historians as “American asylum psychiatry writ large.” Administrations of Lunacy tells the story of this iconic and infamous southern institution, a history that was all but erased from popular memory and within the psychiatric profession. Its revelations are, by turns, infuriating, tender, funny, scathing – and always surprising.
Through meticulous research and riveting accounts of historical characters, Segrest reveals how modern psychiatric practice was forged in the traumas of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. Deftly connecting this history to the modern era, Segrest then shows from a single asylum the factors that helped set the stage for the eugenic theories of the twentieth century and the persistent racial ideologies with devastating consequences in our own times. She also traces the connections to today’s dissident psychiatric practices that offer sanity and create justice.
Being hailed as a landmark of scholarship, a gripping and compelling narrative, and a monumental accomplishment, Administrations of Lunacy restores a vital thread between past and present and reveals the tangled racial roots of psychiatry in America.