The Asylum of the Heart: An Interview with Maud Casey

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Maud Casey’s latest novel, The Man Who Walked Away (Bloomsbury, 2014), is the real life-inspired tale of the nineteenth-century Frenchman Albert Dadas who, in the first documented case of fugue, wandered Europe in a mysterious state of amnesia. After Casey’s character Albert Dadas meets the imaginary asylum doctor (named “Doctor”), the novel becomes an irresistible study in contrasts. The Man Who Walked Away has been praised by The Washington Post and NPR.  Casey will read along with authors D. Foy and Joseph Riipi at the Ivy Bookstore’s Starts Here! reading series at Artifact Coffee on Monday, April 28th at 7:00 pm.  
Starts Here! cohost Sandy Fink talked with Casey about The Man Who Walked Away and the connections between pathological wanderlust and the search for “home.”

Sandy Fink:  It is a pleasure to welcome you to Starts Here! on April 28, 7:00 at Artifact Coffee in Baltimore.  You teach at the University of Maryland, so I assume you’ve been to Baltimore…

Maud Casey:  I lived in Baltimore for three years, from 2002-2005.  I was writer-in-residence at Gilman School for a year, and then was hired by the University of Maryland to teach in the MFA Program.

SF:  That is a fantastic position.

MC:  Yes, it’s been great.  I feel really lucky.  Before I started teaching full time, I had a lot of different jobs for a lot of years, which has made me even more grateful for the job at Maryland. One of those was a long-term temp job working in the Whole Body and Unclaimed Dead Program at the University of California San Francisco Hospital.  I answered the phone, which meant talking to people who wanted to donate their bodies to science.  It was pretty wacky but also really moving at times, and informed my writing.

SF:  I am looking forward to reading your other books.  The Man Who Walked Away is such a beautifully written, ethereal book.  How would you say this book compares with your other books?

MC:  This is the first book where I’ve had as comprehensive and active a conversation with history.  The novel is inspired by a nineteenth-century psychiatric case study, which I read about in Ian Hacking’s extraordinary book, Mad Travelers:  On Transient Mental Illness. Hacking’s book features the case of Albert Dadas, a man who walked in a trance-like state throughout Europe, often fifty miles at a time, waking up in this public square and that one, sometimes countries away from home.  In the back of Hacking’s book, he has translated case notes, including sessions of hypnosis.  It was the language Dadas used to describe his travels that really stayed with me.  “I woke up,” “I found myself,” “I discovered myself…” He was someone who was clearly anguished by what was happening to him but the way he told the stories of his travels, it as if he was narrating someone else’s great adventures.

SF:  The asylum in the book was a very humane place; was that actually Dadas’ experience?

MC:  In a way.  But I also got very interested in a movement called “moral medicine,” which existed at that time.  This movement was interested in using beauty, art, and music as a means of healing.  There was also an emphasis on the humanity of the patients, versus some of the grimmer versions of psychiatric institutions.  In my novel, I create a contrast between the two types of treatment — the asylum where my imaginary Albert washes up and the amphitheater (loosely based on the amphitheater where Jean-Marie Charcot, the famous neurologist who resurrected the diagnosis of hysteria, held court) in Paris where my imaginary Doctor goes to observe.  I was also really interested in exploring the connection between love and safety.  The asylum in the book is a space where peculiar, idiosyncratic personalities who have trouble functioning in the so-called real world are made to feel safe and taken care of, and are surrounded by beauty.

SF:  How does your writing fit into your greater political identity, if it does?

MC:  That’s a good question.  I can speak to the way it fits in to my thoughts on psychiatry.  In this novel, I wanted to go back to the beginning of psychiatry but with an eye to addressing contemporary issues also.  The whole idea of diagnosis can be really troubling. It is a necessary reduction; it allows people to have insurance, and make decisions about their lives, but it is also reductive.  There is a rush to medicate.  We don’t look at the stories behind peoples’ lives sometimes.  Diagnoses can be very political, and clouded with cultural perceptions and misperceptions.

SF:  I think that anyone who reads the book will appreciate its depiction of a kind, whole person approach to the treatment of mental illness.

MC:  That’s great to hear.  I am really interested in the relationship of love, kindness and empathy in the treatment of mental illness.

SF:  Did the issue of families inform your writing in this book; I noticed that many of the families had issues with loving relationships or, as in Albert’s case, were disrupted by the mother’s untimely death.

MC:  I do feel that the asylum in the novel functions in some ways as a family.  So does the relationship between Albert and his psychiatrist.  It sounds funny but I think of the Doctor and Albert as a kind of clinical love story.  They have a deep connection; they change each other.  They recognize in each other qualities of themselves.  In a sense, that is what the best kinds of families can do.  I’ve always been interested in the variety of families that exist besides the conventional nuclear family.  Families that include friends, or different types of relatives.  In fact, my last book Genealogy was about an American family and its dissolution and reconfiguration, so that might be a connection between the two books, although they seem very different.

SF:  What are you working on now?

MC:  I’ve started a few things, and, since they are in the beginning phase, I can’t say too much.  The research I did into the beginnings of psychiatry in Europe got me interested in a lot of other case narratives from that time, including those of the women who were diagnosed as hysterical, so that’s one place I might spend some time.

Don’t forget: On Monday, April 28 2014, the Ivy Bookstore’s Starts Here! reading series continues with Maud Casey, D. Foy, and Joseph Riippi at Artifact Coffee at 7 pm. For more information, visit our website

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