The Mad Poets Society

McLean Hospital, in Massachusetts, was for years America's most literary mental institution, a place that Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton knew well

Olive Prouty visited Plath regularly, and was becoming quite impatient with McLean. In November she wrote a letter to Franklin Wood, threatening to stop paying for treatment (Prouty thought it was nontreatment) that seemed to be leading nowhere. Prouty had spent time at Silver Hill, in Connecticut, a mental hospital with a more structured approach to mobilizing depressed patients, and she couldn't abide the laissez-faire attitude at McLean. "I usually find Sylvia wandering listlessly up and down the corridor," she complained to Wood, "and when I leave she says she will do the same, as there is nothing else for her to do."

Plath's stay was approaching its climax. Barnhouse decided to gamble, and proposed electroshock therapy. The idea was frightening—especially so to Plath, because she had suffered through several painful and impersonally administered shock treatments before coming to McLean. She had received no anesthesia before the treatments, and afterward she was wheeled into an empty recovery room to cope alone with her trauma. "She was not properly protected against the results of the treatments," Prouty wrote to one of Plath's doctors, "which were so poorly given that the patient remembers the details with horror." Prouty was a meddler, but an informed meddler, and she voiced her opinion that the botched electroshock had driven Sylvia to attempt suicide. Barnhouse promised to stay with Plath during the therapy, and convinced her that this time the results would be different.

They were. In December, Plath received the first of three shock treatments. She regained her personality and composure so rapidly that she was able to spend Christmas at home. The hospital officially discharged her in late January, and by February she was back at Smith. Five years later Plath wrote of the treatments in her journal, "Why, after the 'amazingly short' three or so shock treatments did I rocket uphill? Why did I feel I needed to be punished, to punish myself." Neither she nor Barnhouse could explain the miraculous turnabout. "I can't tell you what happened," Barnhouse said in Nantucket. "The human mind is very complex. That sounds obvious, but people keep forgetting it. They think you just throw a little Prozac in here, and a little of something else in here, it'll do this, this, and this. It's ridiculous."

Many psychiatric hospitals, including McLean, still administer a less traumatic form of shock treatment, more palatably christened "electroconvulsive therapy," to blocked patients. [See "Shock and Disbelief," by Daniel Smith, February Atlantic.] When it works, doctors are still at a loss to explain how.

By the time he first checked into McLean, in 1958, Robert Lowell was, as they say in the consumer-products field, a repeat user. Forty-one years old, a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the country's most respected poets, Lowell experienced uncontrollable manic surges, and had been institutionalized before. To the astonishment of those around him, he would swell up with power, anger, and delusion. He would shower his closest friends with bitter, mocking curses, or proclaim undying love to an airline stewardess and insist on leaving the plane with her to start a new life. He once delivered a gibbering lecture lauding Adolf Hitler. Some stereotypes are true: there are people in mental institutions who want to assume the power of Napoleon, or of Jesus Christ, and at times Robert Lowell was one of them.

Just on the strength of his magnificent "Waking in the Blue," with its haunting description of life among the "Mayflower screwballs," Lowell was the uncrowned poet laureate of McLean.

... (This is the house for the "mentally ill.")

What use is my sense of humor?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with the muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crimson golf-cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbet and ginger ale—
more cut off from words than a seal.

This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean's;
the hooded night lights bring out "Bobbie,"
Porcellian '29,
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig—
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.

These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.

"Waking" was included in the book Life Studies (1959), which many Lowell admirers believe to be his best book. Life Studies is intensely autobiographical, and unsparing of Lowell's immediate and extended family. Sarah Payne Stuart, one of the poet's cousins, has recently suggested that the family's hostility to the poems may have precipitated a breakdown that sent Lowell back to McLean. After reading a pre-publication copy of the book, Lowell's formidable aunt Sarah Cotting announced, "I've just read what Bobby wrote about [his parents] Charlotte and Bob, and it's just awful." From her Beacon Hill town house she marched down to Lowell's home, on nearby Marlborough Street, and gave her nephew a piece of her mind. (This was the same aunt who once mused, while sitting on her yacht, "Why doesn't Bobby write about the sea? It's so pretty.") "I'm sorry you didn't like it," Lowell answered softly. "I thought it was rather good." A few weeks later Life Studies was formally published, and Lowell was back at McLean.

Because he was born into the Boston aristocracy, Lowell understood instinctively who was in McLean and why. He had grown up with "thoroughbred mental cases." No nuance of Boston snobbery could escape him—certainly not that he hailed from the line of thin-blooded, artistic Lowells, as opposed to the broad-shouldered, industrial-titan Lowells, who enriched themselves with textile mills along the Charles and Merrimack Rivers. Ralph Lowell, the downtown-banker chairman of McLean's board of trustees, was a "real" Lowell; Robert and his family, although they lived quite comfortably, were comparatively poor relations. Robert's father, Robert Traill Spence Lowell III, was a middle-ranking naval officer who had made a good match. His wife's family, the Winslows, proudly traced their ancestry back to the Mayflower. The venerable names attached to halls at McLean—Wyman, Appleton, Higginson, Bowditch—were the names of family friends. Robert had attended St. Mark's School and Harvard with the likes of them. Lowell read the hospital like an open book. In this case the book was a crazy salad of John Marquand, the Harvard faculty directory, and the Social Register. He wrote to his friend the poet Elizabeth Bishop,

I live in an interesting house now at McLean's, one in which no man had entered since perhaps 1860; suddenly it was made co-ed. It was like entering some ancient deceased sultan's seraglio. We were treated to a maze of tender fussy attentions suitable for very old ladies: chocolate scented milk at 8:30; a lounging and snoozing bed spread after meals, each announcement of an appointment gently repeated at ten minute intervals, an old crone waiting on table barking like television turned on full to pierce through deafness. On the other hand, it took three days to get a shaving glass. The man next to me is a Harvard Law professor. One day, he is all happiness, giving the plots of Trollope novels, distinguishing delicately between the philosophies of Holmes and Brandeis, reminiscing wittily about Frankfurter. But on another day, his depression blankets him. Early in the morning, I hear cooing pigeon sounds, and if I listen carefully, the words: "Oh terror. TERROR!" Our other male assembles microscopically exact models of clippers and three masted schooners.

Both men, and I too, shrink before a garrulous Mrs. Churchill, sometimes related to the statesman and sometimes to the novelist ... "How are you related to Thomas Arnold Lowell?" I assumed she meant James Russell Lowell, and was abysmally wrong and have never been to explain. Pointing to the classical moulding on a mantelpiece, she will say, "That's Cameron Forbes, the ambassador to Japan," or begin a dinner conversation with, "Speaking of Rhode Island reds ... "

Sometimes with a big paper napkin stuck like an escaping bra on her throat, she will dance a little jig and talk about being presented to Queen Victoria. She was.

Lowell visited McLean four times over the course of eight years. He left a paper trail of letters with the return address 115 Mill Street, Belmont, Massachusetts. He is probably the only patient to have exchanged letters with Jackie Kennedy from the wards; she thanked him for a book he had sent her, and congratulated him on getting away for the holidays. Lowell also corresponded with the poet Theodore Roethke, who had his own struggles with mental illness (Lowell: "I feel great kinship with you"), and he mailed a letter from Bowditch to Ezra Pound, who had been locked up in St. Elizabeth's Hospital, in Washington, D.C. "Do you think a man who has been off his rocker as often as I have been could run for elective office and win?" Lowell inquired of Pound.

I have in mind the State senatorship from my districtthe South End, Back Bay Boston, and your son's Roxbury etc. The incumbent is an inconspicuous Republican. His rival is a standard losing party democrat. I'd run as a democrat, and if I could edge out in the very difficult primaries, then I'd cream the Republican. And then there'd be vistas before me as I sat in the Boston State Capitol on my little $5,000 a year job that would cost me about $10,000. What's your advice.

There is no trace of a reply.

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