Beauty is Therapy

 October 20, 2021

Beauty is therapy was a treatment premise of Dr. James Decker Munson, one of the founding doctors of the Northern Michigan Asylum in Traverse City, Michigan. He served from 1885 to 1924 and was a proponent of moral treatment of patients. Beauty is Therapy is also the title of a memoir by Earle E. Steele who first lived at, then worked at the Traverse City State Hospital for fifty years. This memoir gives readers a history of the hospital, through the eyes of a worker who first came as a boy of nine.

Northern Michigan Asylum

“Look out. There’s the insane asylum,” my brothers would taunt me, pointing to a building in the distance. “They say sometimes crazies break out and shoot people. Better hide.” I pretended to ignore them while inside I trembled. What if they were right? What if someone broke out and started to shoot at cars passing by? I struggled to refrain from hiding in the back of our family station wagon.

Such was my introduction to the then named Traverse City State Hospital, formerly called the Northern Michigan Asylum. Every year my family made the journey to the Traverse City area, my dad’s hometown, to spend a week at a rented cottage. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my paternal grandmother had been a resident of the asylum for years.

Beauty is Therapy

Like many, all I knew about such institutions came from fiction I had read, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and horror movies. So, I was surprised when I came across the mention of Dr. Munson and his ideas on how to treat mental patients on one of my many visits to Traverse City with my own children.

Dr. Munson believed in treating mental patients with dignity. No restraints were used on patients. Meals were served on fine China. Each room featured large windows to look out on the beauty of nature around them. A greenhouse provided plants and flowers to adorn the buildings. And patients were encouraged to engage in meaningful activities, including farming and art.

This was before the days of drug treatments that revolutionized the care of mentally unstable individuals and long before the 1970’s when patients were mainlined back into society and institutions closed, adding substantially to the homeless problems we have now. Who would have thought back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s there was such a progressive idea on treatment of the insane? Who would have thought life in an asylum could be anything but horrific? Seems we have lost something important over the supposed years of progress in the treatment of mental illness.

Work is Therapy

Munson also believed work is therapy, giving patients a reason to get up each morning. They worked together as teams to farm the land around the massive buildings and make the institution self-sustaining. The exercise and fresh air were healing to the psyche, as well as the human contact with others in a joint venture. As Earle Steele related in his memoir, “In all the years of witnessing groups or even being in charge of one, I never heard of one complaint of having to work – to all, it was an opportunity to get off the ward areas.”

This ended amid cries that it was unfair to use patients as “slave labor.” Also, when the farm produced excess, there were cries from local farmers at the competition. So, this great experiment in care of those who are mentally unstable and vulnerable slowly eroded away over time.

Grand Traverse Commons

When I heard that the buildings and grounds of the former asylum had been converted into a site that included condos, shops, restaurants, wineries, along with tours, I had to see for myself this monument from my childhood. And so did numerous others, it seems, as daily tours are usually sold out.

Many Michigan residents have had family members pass through these buildings. Perhaps, like me, these Michiganders come looking for some sense of their lost family member or loved one; a connection now gone. Perhaps, as Halloween approaches, they come seeking the macabre, hoping for a ghost sighting on one of the night time tours. Or perhaps they are looking for an activity to fill up an afternoon.

Whatever the reason, the grounds and the magnificent buildings remind us, beauty truly is therapeutic. There is nothing like a walk on a sunny day to lift your spirits. Or time in a garden, digging into God’s good earth.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit the days of Dr. Munson. Beauty and work, both are therapeutic and necessary for the human psyche.

Beauty is therapy. Work is therapy. May your life be filled with both.

What about you? Has beauty been a source of healing in your life? I’d love to hear about it.


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