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Response to Review of The Man Who Closed the Asylums: Franco Basaglia and the Revolution in Mental Health Care

It was a pleasure to read Peter Barham’s review – in part because he is a real expert in the field, and in part because he really understood the book. As an expert, he is able to draw out exactly what I was trying to do and why I saw it as important – but also the difficulties and complicated nature of the subject matter which I was covering and the stories I was trying to tell. Barham is also right to point to some areas where the book didn’t succeed. He is absolutely correct to highlight the difference between the titles of the Italian and English editions. I much prefer the Italian title as an indicator of the contents of the book. This work started out as a kind of biography of the Italian radical psychiatrist Franco Basaglia, but it turned into something different – a cultural history of a wide-ranging and multi-faceted movement. But Basaglia’s fame is such that publishers would like him in the title itself. In Italy I managed to keep him to the subtitle, in the UK and the US this was a battle I lost. My plan is to continue working on these themes, given the vast amount of material I collected which wasn’t in the book, and the global outcomes of the movement against the asylums and in favour of alternative mental health care. There will be more to come.

One of the great commonplaces of the story I recount in my book is that the patients were ‘abandoned’ and that their families often ‘took up the slack’ after the closure of the asylums. This is a commonplace which first emerged as the asylums were closing and which remains extremely powerful today – and not just in Italy. My projects for the future would like to take on the commonplace and measure it against the reality and the evidence of the post-asylum system. In short, what happened to those 100,000 people who were in Italian psychiatric hospitals in the 1960s and 1970s? Did they go back to normal life? Or were they lost in the outside world? We do not know the answer to these questions. I would like to find out – and tell these stories just as I have told the stories of liberation and closure in this book.