BY WILLIAM SEABKOOK
ACUTE ALCOHOLISM was the way my commitment1 read, to which was added, when the doctors and the psychiatrists had checked me over: —
NEURASTHENIC SYMPTOMS: marked
PSYCHOPATHIC SYMPTOMS: zero
This was in the winter of 1933, when friends succeeded just before Christmas in having me committed, through the New York courts, for treatment and possible cure, to one of the oldest and largest insane asylums in the East. They now call it a ‘mental hospital,’ as all such places do — but asylum is still what everybody knows it is, and it proved so truly an asylum for me that I have a friendly feeling for the good old word.
I had asked for it. I mean I had asked for it literally, though I had not specified any particular sort of place. I had been begging, pleading, demanding toward the last, to be locked up — shut up — chained up — anything! I had become a confirmed, habitual drunkard, without any of the stock alibis or excuses. My health was otherwise excellent; I had plenty of money in the bank, and a pleasant home; my work had been going well enough until the drink put an end to it and promised soon to put an end to me. Then I had tried to stop — and could n’t. I knew that I had already slipped past the point where any sanitarium, hospital, treatment, or environment which depended on my volitional coöperation could hold out any hope. I knew that I had lost my will with relation to alcohol. I knew that there was only left to me the wish — which is entirely different from the will — to be saved from my own weakness.
At the suggestion of a friend I signed a court commitment, and the next day I was locked up in an institution so big and so universally known that its name is a vaudeville synonym for the sort of place it is. I was kept there for seven months. The treatment I underwent put no strain whatever on my drunkard’s honor or my drunkard’s will. It would have been just about as hard to escape from this place as from Sing Sing, and, if I had escaped, the state police would have brought me back — in handcuffs, if necessary.
Copyright 1935, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.
In July they let me out, with handshakes and some good-natured kidding, through the main gate. Incidentally, they seem to have cured me, which is as it may be. I hope they have, and I hope too that an honest account of my experience may be of some use.
I was brought in late that December afternoon, polite, quiet, articulate, and able to walk without staggering, but drunk as a Bandusian goat. I had been drinking since seven that morning, even more conscientiously than usual, knowing it would be the last for a long while. My friends had not interfered. What difference did one last day make? It was now about six o’clock, a couple of hours since I had had my last drink, and I was beginning to sink. When the first formalities were over and the attendants showed me to my bedroom, I flopped down and went to sleep.
That was probably the worst night I ever spent in my life. I wanted nothing so much as to be let alone. Instead, I was awakened at frequent intervals to be bathed, weighed, fed, have my temperature taken, and be put through all the rest of the elaborate routine which the rules required of every new arrival. All night long there was a steady procession of people in and out of my room. And the worst of it was that I could not shut them out. The door had no lock on it, and when I got up and closed the door it was opened again from the outside. It was against the rules to shut the door.
I became more and more irritated. I began to think it had been a mistake to put me in precisely this sort of place. If I had to spend many nights like this, I’d soon be raving and foaming at the mouth.
By eight-thirty the next morning, when the doctor came around and asked me how I had spent the night, I was so mad that for the time being I forgot all about being a drunkard; I was so exhausted and stimulated by rage that I did not even miss my customary morning half-tumbler of Scotch. It could n’t have been a deliberate part of their psychic therapy, but it worked that way.
For months I had had a neurasthenic — if not actually psychopathic — agoraphobia, the diseased opposite of claustrophobia. I wanted to be shut up. I wanted to hide. I wanted to be by myself where people could n’t break in on me. This was, in part, why I had wanted to be locked up, and why the suggestion of a modern insane asylum, though it surprised me, had been welcome. Even the thought of a padded cell had been welcome, promising seclusion and peace.
I said as much to the doctor. He looked at me for a while without speaking, then finally grinned and said: —
‘Well, that’s a new one — if you are not kidding me. But I’m afraid we have n’t precisely the accommodation you say you were looking for. The fact is that we have n’t any cells, padded or otherwise.’
‘Look here,’ I burst out, ‘I wasn’t kidding you, and I don’t know whether you are kidding me or not. I came here for seclusion. I came here to be locked up. I thought I had rented a nice quiet cell. And you stick me in a wide-open show window, in an illuminated dog kennel without any front, where people come walking in and out and prodding me with sticks every minute of the day and night. I spent a hell of a night. You’ve got to find me a quiet room somewhere, where the door can be shut at night, for I tell you right now that, commitment or no commitment, if you think I ’m going to spend another night like last night —’
‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘I must be going along. We’ll try to make you as comfortable as we can.’
Our conversation had not been in undertones. A patient I was afterward to know as ‘Spike’ sauntered over and offered me a cigarette. ‘ Say, fellow,’ he said, ‘you’ve got it all wrong. You don’t tell them. They tell you.’
The place reminded me increasingly of my mother, who believed that by altering the name or appearance of a thing you could make the thing better. She was changing sauerkraut into liberty cabbage long before the sinking of the Lusitania. A skunk was a wood pussy, and hash became I-don’t-remember-what by the addition of a sprig of parsley.
This was not hypocrisy. It was her sincere if sometimes naive contribution toward making the world happier and brighter. I had affectionately supposed her to be old-fashioned, but I now found the same system at work in this highly scientific, extremely modern institution.
Take, for instance, the fiction that we were in a hospital. We all knew the sort of place we were in, and spoke freely about it among ourselves, — sometimes humorously and sometimes bitterly, yet always without embarrassment or pretense, — but Spike soon cautioned me not to say ‘nut college’ or ‘ booby hatch ’ where any of the doctors or nurses might overhear it. He said it made them feel embarrassed.
One of the first things I noticed was that they had tricked up the bars on the windows with my mother’s sprig of parsley. They were steel, and a gorilla could n’t have bent them, but they ran in curls and curlicues, like the fancy decorations of a château looking out on a snow-covered park. If you bit one of the bars, it turned out to be a bar, just as the hash on my mother’s table always turned out to be hash when you put your teeth into it, but if you merely sat and looked at it, it looked like something else.
The whole atmosphere of the place was camouflaged in the same kindly way. The nurse, attendants, orderlies in white coats, all said, ‘Yes, Mr. Soand-So,’ as if to make you feel that you were an elegant guest in your own home, and you only discovered that all of them were experts in jiujitsu if and when you insisted on going to the mat; so that life became a sort of parlor game, like charades or forfeits, and the rules were exactly the same whether you played it with the biggest doctors or the humblest little attendant. The game always began, ‘My lord, the carriage waits.’ If that did n’t work, they tried polite persuasion and coaxing. If you insisted, they threw you in. You always went.
For instance, on that very first day I was politely invited to go — and went
— to more places than I can enumerate. I had planned to spend at least a week in bed, or on a cot, tapering off maybe, reading detective stories. I had come here for rest and seclusion. I still had the idea of a ‘nice quiet cell’ firmly fixed in my mind. Instead, before that first day ended, I was putty in their hands. It was all part of the system prescribed for new patients.
Late in the afternoon Mr. Dirk, the superintendent, came in to look me over. He asked if I should n’t like to meet the other patients and be shown my seat in the dining room. I replied
— forgetting the rules of the charade — that I should prefer to have my meals in bed for a week or so. He replied that it would be ever so much nicer to have my meals in the dining room, beginning right then.
As a matter of fact, it was not bad, not like an insane asylum or a hospital either, but more like a club restaurant. There were small tables with flowers. The waiters and waitresses were Mr. Dirk himself, a couple of male nurses, and the nurse in charge of our hall, the beautiful Miss Pine. The guests were, as the French say, of an impeccable correctness. They were at ease, conversed of this and that, used the right forks, and asked for more olives. At my table were a professor of research histology, a railroad fireman, and a political lawyer. They seemed to have amiable interests in common, and drew me into conversation. Except that the lawyer believed Harding was still President, while the railroad fireman thought we were on a boat, their conversation was lucid and casual.
I felt awful, but not too awful yet. I managed to eat a little, and wondered if I were going to be kept awake all night again. When we arose from the table, I asked Mr. Dirk if anything had been done about my room. He said I was being moved to a bigger one, more quiet, around the corner of the corridor. We all gravitated into the lobby.
During those first days, unless there was a white coat or uniform to go by, I found it practically impossible to guess which were patients and which were attendants. Even with the staff doctors, you simply had to learn their faces. There were numerous doctors of medicine, dentistry, and divinity among the patients, so that when you were introduced to a new ‘doctor’ you never knew by the mere title which side of the fence he might, be on. You had to suspend judgment and draw your own conclusions, which you could n’t always do.
I was certain, however, about Dr. Hadden, the histologist, because I sat with him at dinner. He was now playing bridge. I pulled a chair over near him. He was dealing. He said he did n’t mind if I watched. He dealt himself a powerhouse, and could have made an original two-spade bid, forcing to game and perhaps to slam. He sorted his cards and passed listlessly. The other three passed, and the cards were thrown in. I asked him in undertones why he had done it. I was seeing everything acutely with a sort of puzzled fascination, but was still in a sort of detached, hang-over haze.
‘Because fate is against me,’ ho whispered sadly. ‘I will explain it all to you one of these days and you will understand.’
Another benevolent elderly gentleman who had finished his evening paper asked me how I liked everything. When I told him, quite honestly, that I did n’t yet know, he said he sincerely hoped I should be pleased, for he was sparing no expense; it was now costing him nearly five million a year, and he proposed installing a large swimming pool after Christmas.
The only noise in the big room came from a pinochle game between Miss Pine and the lawyer who thought Harding was still President. They laughed and were gay together. I watched it for a little while. The lawyer was cheating flagrantly, and Miss Pine, instead of objecting, simply cheated more flagrantly on the sly.
The lawyer said to me, with a happy smile: —
‘You see, Miss Pine is the only person in the whole hospital who can give me a decent game. She can sometimes even beat me. The others play so poorly that I always beat them, and then they get jealous and accuse me of taking cards from the bottom.’
He chuckled, Miss Pine melded four queens, and a gentleman asked me if I had read Anthony Adverse. His question made me realize that, despite the strange fascination this new world had for me, I was in some curious way vaguely bored, vaguely disappointed. The truth is that I was beginning to have the familiar ‘Is that all?’ feeling from which I have suffered since the first time I went to a circus. I had it when I first heard Caruso sing, and when I first went up in an airplane. It had followed me into deserts, jungles, devil-worship crypts in Kurdistan, and voodoo temples. It was catching up with me again in this weird place.
The next day the doctors started working on me. It was time. During the first night and day I had been in a more or less aggressive alcoholic daze, at the same time fascinated and resentful toward my new surroundings, but now I was a wreck. For nearly two years I had been drinking a quart to a quart and a half of whiskey, brandy, gin, or Pernod daily, and now I had been without any liquor for approximately thirty-six hours.
The first doctor came in soon after breakfast. He stared at me with keen curiosity, told me his name was Paschall, and that he was to be my regular doctor. He had an open face and looked like a straight-shooter. After thumping me, taking my blood pressure, pulse, and what not, he soon found that my nerves were shot to a degree which I had automatically concealed from my friends and myself. For instance, when I shut my eyes and tried to touch my nose, I missed my head. It scared me. Of course, if I had n’t been pretty seriously scared already, I should never have had myself locked up, but now when he held a mirror and showed me that my mouth twitched, I was thoroughly disgusted. I said: —
‘ So that’s the way it is. Well, you’ve got to keep me locked up in this place if it takes — ’
He said: ‘Well, if that’s the way you feel about it, we may be able to do you some good.’
‘Listen, doctor, I’d rather be dead than the way I am. That’s why I’m here. I’ll stand for anything. It’s up to you.’
‘Well, then, in the first place, I’ll tell you the worst. No tapering off.’
I did n’t say anything to that, and he continued: —
‘We can give you something to take the place of it at first, if we have to, but we’d rather not. We have other methods, which you probably won’t like, but they’re better.’
I said: ‘I told you it’s up to you, and besides, you’ve got me where it does n’t make any difference whether I like it or not. Have n’t you?’
He grinned and said, ‘Oh, you’ve found that out, have you?’
I said, ‘Sure. Spike told me about it yesterday.’
‘Ever hear of prolonged baths?’ he asked presently. I told him I’d heard of them, vaguely, for maniacs and girls in Bedford. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that’s the idea. They quiet your nerves.’
‘All right,’ I said. ‘My nerves need quieting.’
So during the next few days I learned all about prolonged baths, and learned also — without smashing any of the furniture or trying to smash any of the attendants, which is the usual preliminary — everything about the mysterious ‘pack,’ the only method of prolonged physical restraint now regarded as cricket by modernized institutions which can swear without perjuring themselves that they have thrown all the strait-jackets, handcuffs, and muffs out of the window. ‘Pack’ bears the same relation to ‘ strait-jacket that ‘mental hospital’ does to ‘insane asylum.’ It is a rose by another name.
They laid me straight and naked on the bed with my arms pressed along my sides like a soldier at attention, and began swathing me, rolling me on one side and then the other, in tight wet sheets, so that the weight of my body rolling back and fort h would pull them smoother and tighter. Over and over again they swathed me, until at last they stood off to smooth out the wrinkles and look at it and see if it was all right. I was flat on my back. Except that my head stuck out and lay comfortably on a pillow, I was like the mummy of Rameses. I could n’t bend my elbows or knees. I could n’t even double my fists. My hands were pressed flat. I could n’t move a muscle except by telegraphing a deliberate local order.
This was the famous ‘pack.’ It was tighter than any kid glove. And the tightness was so uniform that it did n’t stop circulation. They told me I’d sweat a lot presently, and had fixed an ice pack on the top of my head where the skull was thickest. They had turned out all the lights, but left the door slightly ajar, and told me that they’d be down the hall somewhere so that if anything went wrong I could let out a yell.
I lay there in the darkness like an Egyptian mummy. Pretty soon my mind began to work, and I discovered that I liked it. It occurred to me that probably I was masochistic or something of the sort. I set about rationalizing it, as one always does. I remembered the theory that we all have a subconscious longing to be back in the womb — that we remember subconsciously how nice and safe and warm it was. I remembered poetry about the womb and the grave. There were some distant, ordinary, living, human sounds way down the corridor somewhere, but they did n’t disturb or concern me. Perhaps they did disturb me, for I became acutely conscious again of my jangled nerves. I wanted to turn over, to toss about in the bed. I wanted to put my elbow up under the pillow. I wanted to move my arms. I wanted to scratch my forehead. I’d have to yell for help if a fly alighted on my nose.
In a little while the active nervousness decreased, but I was conscious of increasing tension. I tried experimentally to break or stretch my bonds, by contracting and straining every muscle. I found that I could n’t loosen them at all, and it was this that had made me like it. I went lax presently, and began to sweat. I sweated, time passed, and the tension was gone; the jangling nervousness disappeared, too, fading slowly as it does under a strong soporific. I was soon as peaceful as an unborn babe.
When they came back after a long time and began to unwind me, I was still peaceful. And when they went away I turned on my side, stuck my arm up under my head, and went to sleep without another movement.
I was put to bed that way for five or six successive nights, and then Dr. Paschall ordered it stopped. He said I liked it too well — that it could get to be another habit, like dope, veronal, or whiskey, and advised me to read La Séquestrée de Poitiers.
Toward the end of a week they began to merge me into the group, to cog me in with the machinery of Hall Four. I mean, special things stopped happening to me; they stopped shunting and dragging me around for special examinations, treatments, wrappings, tappings; they began to make me do the same things everybody else did. They enrolled me in the kindergarten, took me for walks with the rest of the class, gave me work to do and things to play with.
The numbers of the halls were arbitrary. A new patient went automatically to Hall Four, the observation ward; if he was violent he was sent to Eight or Nine; if he stayed there a long while he might go to Five; and when he was calmed, or nearly cured, he went to Hall Two. The female patients, I learned, were under the same roof, but way over in an entirely different set of halls, nearly a quarter of a mile away. Some of them, I was told, were ‘good-lookers,’ and I’d soon see them all, or most of them, at ehurch or at the movies.
At that time there were fourteen of us in Hall Four. We had to stay there until the doctors made up their minds where each of us should subsequently be quartered. We might be sent to one of the howling back halls under constant surveillance, or to one of the ‘villas’ where patients had almost as much freedom as in a summer boarding house or sanitarium-hotel.
At this point there is something I had better try to explain if the general picture is to make sense. I was an alcoholic, but I was not now, or at any time thereafter, put with a group of other alcoholics. The groupings were on a different basis. For example, take the fourteen of us who were quartered in this intermediate hall. Our ailments were quite dissimilar, just as ailments are in a surgical ward or in the accident ward of a regular hospital, where one man has appendicitis and another hernia or mastoiditis; where one has broken his arm falling off a ladder, while the man in the next bed has been slashed in a fight or cracked on the head in an automobile smashup.
So it was here. One of us had melancholia, another suffered from hallucinations; so-and-so was elated, another was manic-depressive; still another, who seemed completely sane, was with us solely because he had occasional uncontrollable impulses to jump out of high windows or in front of motor buses. Our only similarity was that our various ailments were in the stage which made the tempo of this hall the right one temporarily for our treatment and observation. I was the only alcoholic in the group. There were few alcoholics, indeed, in the whole asylum — a scattering half-dozen, maybe, among three hundred patients. As a matter of fact, while the institution accepts patients in this category and sometimes cures them, it is not very eager to take them. The authorities don’t like to accept cases they may not be able to cure, and, contrary to some impressions, the whiskey habit is harder to cure than the general run of ordinary mental derangements.
While our ailments were dissimilar, as I say, there was one respect in which we were all alike — one thing which differentiated us from people on the outside, and made it expedient for us to be locked up. I figured it out for myself. It checked on all of us. It negated, incidentally, the Pirandelloish notion, widely prevalent, that ‘if the truth were known’ nine tenths of all the people of your acquaintance, including perhaps yourself, are ‘outside’ only because they haven’t been ‘tagged,’ as it were.
My friend, Professor T—, who has an international reputation as a philosopher, with a chair in one of the major universities, confessed that he always felt a sense of embarrassment, of furtiveness, of guilt, when he came to see me. He was afraid, he said, they’d ‘find out’ and keep him there.
That notion, which I used to have myself, is wrong, and I can prove it. I can prove it by the one criterion that clicked, checked, on all of us locked up in there, and that would not check on the professor or any of the rest of you who are going about your business free on the outside.
Take Hauser, our youngest, a favorite in the hall, a brilliant, amusing, chap — up to a certain point. He was ‘elated.’ He sparkled. He had finished, precociously, his academic course at Princeton with honors, including the Phi Beta Kappa key, at nineteen, and was headed toward the medical school when his father, who was a doctor, had sent him here to the ‘nut school instead. He did Bob Benchley stuff. The difference between him and Benchley was that Benchley controlled the stuff, Benchley rode it; Hauser could n’t control it. He did it whether he wanted to or not. He did it when he did n’t want to. It rode him.
Take my morose friend, Papa Renwick. He was the diametric opposite of Hauser. He was so melancholy that he wanted to die. Lots of people on the outside are so melancholy that they want to die. But they control it. They don’t try several times to jump out windows, as Papa Renwick had done. He could n’t control it.
Take young Frainer. His case was a queer one. He is cured now, I’ve heard; but it took longer to cure him than it did some who were brought in howling or imagining they were ancient emperors. Yet he seemed to have absolutely nothing the matter with him except that he was a pain in the neck to everybody and seemed to need a good clout on the jaw more than he did psychiatric treatment. His appearance was against him. He had a head like Byron or Apollo, and the sort of nip-waisted, long-limbed, flat-flanked, beautifully shouldered body that made any clothes he put on look as if they had come from the Prince of Wales’s private tailor. He had an authentic Boston Back Bay accent which made even Miss Pine and the doctors feel inferior, and the manners of Lord Chesterfield. On top of this, he had an aggressive superciliousness and selfishness which were painful and astounding, as when he let the crate of fruit his family sent him rot rather than give any of us an orange.
There was nothing else mental, or moral, the matter with him. But this one thing had been enough. His unpopularity, to use a mild word for it, in the outside world had become universal. He had been asked to leave a succession of banks and brokerage offices in which his influential family had placed him; his fiancée had thrown him over in disgust; servants, waiters, taxi drivers, clerks in stores, invariably wanted to kill him; no young women, or men either, of his own set could abide him. His parents, even his mother, had the extraordinary sense to see that the fault was with him, and that if he were n’t cured of it life would junk him. Honest medical psychologists consulted by his parents had guessed that the real young man, underneath his unfortunate outer shell, was a sweet-natured, rather timid, decent chap, but that it would take a year or more in some psychiatric institution to break through the overlay and cure him. So here he was in our midst. Why? Not because he was supercilious and super-selfish. You know plenty of people like that who are often successful, if not beloved. They use it as armor and as a weapon; using it, they control it. But this poor fellow had it as a disease, like jaundice or measles; he couldn’t control it.
Then there was Professor Jeffries, the mathematician. His mind raced. He played with primes. Cube roots cluttered his brain and whirled in it. Controlling the clutter, he had been a brilliant teacher and a ‘lightning calculator’ as well, using this latter freakish talent merely to amuse himself or his friends, since he did n’t have to commercialize it. Now he had lost control of it; it controlled him. He was harmless, but had to be watched all the time. Undressed for bed and in his pajamas, he forgot one night to get into the bed, and when the night watchman’s light flashed through the open door hours later he was standing absorbed in the middle of the room. His racing mathematical mind, controlled, had been in a fair way to make him famous; uncontrolled, it had put him here.
So take me now, in turn, as a case like the others. For many years previous I had been drinking, sometimes a lot, when I wanted to, getting tight intentionally and liking it, sobering up when I wanted to or thought I ought to, and staying sober for long periods to grind out quantities of work. I know plenty of good citizens, business men, artists, writers, who not only go in heavily for highballs and cocktails, but get drunk as a boiled owl whenever they choose — and who nevertheless, year after year, keep their health and balance, do their work, turn out a distinguished product in good volume. I know now that getting drunk frequently, being fuddled and muddled half the time, lying down to sleep at parties, being put to bed by the taxi driver or fighting with policemen, is not being a drunkard. So long as any man drinks when he wants to and stops when he wants to he is n’t a drunkard, no matter how much he drinks or how often he falls under the table. The British upper classes were constantly and consistently mildly tipsy, from father to son, in Parliament and Pall Mall, for nearly the whole of the eighteenth century. It is n’t, drinking that makes a drunkard. I had drunk for years, enthusiastically and with pleasure, when I wanted to. Then something snapped in me, and I lost control. I began to have to have the stuff when I did n’t want it. I could n’t stop when I wanted to. I was n’t here because I drank a lot, or too much. I was here, just like the rest, because I had lost control.
I insist on this common denominator. I insist that it clicks. Melancholia, higher mathematics, drink, had n’t put any of us here. Loss of control had put us all here. Of course there were others of us whose loss of control was more diffuse, less easy to define — the paranoiacs, schizophrenics, catatonics, t he ones who had elaborate hallucinations, the manic-depressives, and my later friend, Charlie Logan, the human barometer, who howled like a wolf whenever the weather was changing. Despite the common denominator, we had a kaleidoscopic divergence of cases.
So here I was, an inmate of this extraordinary locked-and-barred kindergarten, for the same good reason as the rest. We were a bunch of grown men, most of us mature, who had lost control of ourselves in one way or another and who had to be controlled by others — that is, treated like children and put back in the nursery.
The longer I stayed in the asylum, the more I saw and experienced, the more it seemed to me, often fantastically, to be a kindergarten. Despite court, commitments, despite bars and huskies, it was more like a nursery than a prison. We were handled as children — not as delinquent or bad children, necessarily, but rather as potentially decent, irresponsible children who did not know what was good for us, and therefore frequently had to be told. It was an atmosphere of ‘Mamma knows best’ or ‘Teacher knows best,’ protective and generally kindly, but backed up with ‘Mamma will spank’ when the children became unmanageable and had to be dragged kicking to bed without their supper.
What gave it sometimes a crazydream quality — quite apart from the fact that some of us were crazy — was the fact that all of us were grown men, many of us middle-aged or elderly, of the type that generally bosses and orders other people around in the outside world. To the casual eye we were responsible, mature, none of us physical invalids. When our nurse, Miss Pine, took us to walk, we looked like a delegation of prominent Rotarians. We rambled about a good deal, both in the buildings and in the snow-covered park, nearly always in sole charge of Miss Pine. We grown men went to play in the snow in charge of a young girl in nurse’s uniform who scolded us if we forgot our rubbers and told us when we had to go back indoors. Sometimes one of the huskies was off somewhere in the background when we went out, but usually not. When we returned, Miss Pine saw to it that we put on dry socks before going to supper if we had got our feet wet, and made the political lawyer eat all his spinach before he could have his pie.
Four days a week she took us to the barbershop, through the long corridors, unlocking the doors, counting us, and bringing up the rear. Often there was something sad, almost sinister, about that special procession. We usually walked single file, not that there was any rule about it, but in the long, bare connecting corridors there was a narrow strip — a ‘ runner,’ I believe it is called — and we got the habit of walking single file on it. Not all the patients were always cheerful, and early morning is never a very gay time in any sort of institution, so that often most of us walked silently with our heads down. I was a part of it myself, yet I could see it. One of the depressed ones, leaving months later, cured, told me that he remembered those walks to the barbershop as the most horrible experience of his life. Back in December, the time of which I am now writing, one could never have guessed that he was noticing anything. He was like an automaton. He walked with the rest of us like an automaton. We all, as well as Miss Pine, looked after him a little — prevented him from walking on in a straight line when there was a comer to turn, made him sit down when it was time to sit down. He seemed as oblivious as a robot. Yet he told me afterward that those walks to the barbershop had always filled him with horror. He had believed then, he said, that he would walk in a line of men like that, somewhere, silent and single file, all the rest of his life.
But such things were the secret undertones. On the whole we were a cheerful kindergarten and liked our pretty teacher.
We talked about it sometimes among ourselves. No responsibilities, no obligations, no problems to meet or solve, no duties or decisions. We did n’t even have to decide when to get up in the morning or when to go to bed. Somebody else looked after us, looked after everything.
‘How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood, when fond recollection presents them to view!’ ‘Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight! Make me a child again, just for to-night!’ During the war I heard bearded Frenchmen sobbing, ‘Maman, maman, maman! ’ and once I heard a man bleat it. standing on a wooden platform just before the sheriff sprung the trap. When life gets too much for us, we want to go back. Life had got too much for us. That’s why we were back in a nursery.
Divine service was held every Sunday afternoon from two-thirty to threethirty, — it had to be in the afternoon because they hired a regular preacher and small choir from outside, — and we mostly attended to look at the women patients, as the women patients attended to look at us. The first day I went along, Miss Pine piloted our Hall Four delegation. The pews were already two-thirds filled when we reached the chapel, and I noticed that the males were as sharply divided from the females as in the West Virginia country Dunkard churches I had seen in childhood. The doctors seldom came to church, and I soon discovered why.
The clergyman appeared on the platform, robed, Episcopalian, and began the ritual, which was modified High Church, mild and deleted, a pleasing form of dignified worship which could scarcely displease or excite anybody. Individual patients occasionally had to be ‘shushed’ for responding too loudly or interrupting the preacher. Nurses and male attendants, uniformed and white-coated, were scattered among us to keep us in order. We were restive, but no more so than children. Miss Pine had to take a big black cigar away from Mr. Biemann, who chewed it and kept asking out loud for matches, and sometimes patients groaned, muttered, or suffered in undertones, but not much, and the little was drowned in the droning responses and music.
It was when silence settled upon us presently and the Reverend Dr. Percival Bone began his little sermon that I understood why the doctors never came to church. I listened in growing amazement. It was a discourse in monotones from which all religious fervor, all mysticism, all soul, all Heaven and Hell, all God and Devil, all reference to good and evil, all sequential thought and ideas of any sort, were as completely absent as in the babbling of a brook or the whispering of wind in trees. Sometimes, by following his words closely, it would seem that they might be on the verge of meaning something, as when he said, ‘Hope makes you cheerful, so that when you hope you are cheerful, and when you are cheerful you hope, so let us be of good hope and cheerful’; but the voice droned on, soothingly, elusively, in non sequiturs, to love and charity, and I noticed that Miss Pine, breathing softly, was asleep.
I was so puzzled by the Reverend Dr. Percival Bone that I went back to hear him many times. It was always the same. I formed theories. It was impossible, of course, that any man had been able to graduate from a theological seminary with a mind as completely a blank as his seemed to be. Yet he held a regular job in some church outside. I wondered if he took drugs. I wondered if he thought all patients in insane asylums lived in a complete mental vacuum.
Eventually I discovered, or rather learned, that it was all as deliberate and intentional as Four Saints in Three Acts or ‘a rose is a rose is a rose.’ The Reverend Dr. Percival Bone was an intelligent and worthy clergyman, carefully chosen by the board and paid an excellent honorarium to follow their specific, scientific, ultramodern psychological instructions. Our advanced psychiatrists, some of them ranking among the best in the world and wise in institutional experience, were agreed that religious excitement, religious stimulation, religious fervor, or anything which might arouse a lively interest in religious matters of any sort, was generally very bad medicine for mentally deranged people. Their job, they conceived, was our salvation in this world, restoring us sound to our families. Their minds were singletracked on that problem. Our heavenly welfare could wait. But they were not atheistic or inimical to religion per se, nor would it have been seemly to deny all patients, though prisoners, the right to attend Christian service in a Christian country. Hence the innocuous compromise.
A somewhat similar policy prevailed concerning the movies which were provided for us, in the same auditorium, fortnightly through the winter. The censorship had no moral, ethical uplift or educational angle. The object was simply to provide us with gentle entertainment, never too exciting. If Mae West and The Thin Man were banned, so too were Joan of Arc and Ben-Hur. The choice of films lay with a woman doctor of the staff who seemed to have a theory that photoplays starring domestic animals were particularly soothing to the insane. Over and over again the hero was a horse, when it wasn’t Rintin-tin or a Terhune collie.
An exception to this rule occurred in December, when she presented Katharine Hepburn in Liitle Women, and thereby caused a riot. The riot broke out at the point in the picture where the little women gave away their breakfast. If you recall it, the dear little girls had been up since daybreak helping mamma, and had just sat down to a pretty breakfast table with steaming coffee, waffles, honey, and other delightful dishes, when Miss Hepburn conceived the bright idea of giving the whole breakfast, coffeepot and all, to a poorer family next door. As the younger sisters danced around with delight, denuding the table, a girl over in the darkness among the women patients cried: ‘Why, it’s disgusting! Vd have one cup of coffee first, or I’d pour the whole pot down her neck! The idea!’
Spike, who was sitting near mo, shouted back: ‘You said it, sister!’
Before the hubbub became general and the lights went up, another patient, a dear old major from Virginia, roared out: ‘ If I had a bunch of daughters like that, I’d put ’em in a—!’
‘For shame!’ cried an old lady patient. ‘It was beautiful. It was unselfish! It was—’
‘ It was too damned unselfish! ’ somebody else shouted, and then in less loud voices we began a free-for-all debate, in which the consensus of opinion seemed to be that it was too much. Luncheon? Sure! Dinner, maybe. But breakfast! It was n’t human. We felt we had been outraged, and continued the argument until we were packed off to bed.
Thereafter our heroes and heroines were quadrupeds. They were sometimes beautifully unselfish, too, and sometimes gave away their lives, but never their morning oats.
When Christmas of 1933 came round, we celebrated with a Christmas tree; we ate turkey and plum pudding; but what keyed the day, supplied its chief tone, was the inundation of visitors. All of us had at least one visitor; some had several. Most of them were familiar faces that came every Wednesday or Friday, but that day there were extra aunts, cousins, married daughters, remoter connections or friends who had come from a long distance, some of them for the first time.
It was always interesting to study visitors who came inside our locked precincts for the first time. They usually regarded their own patient as a normal invalid, as it were, but all the rest of us with dubious misgivings. They wanted to hurry through our corridors, smoking room, public reception hall, to the privacy of their own patient’s bedroom, where they were forced to leave the door open, but conversed in low tones. They were initially embarrassed to be visiting this sort of place, to have one of their ‘ dear ones’ shut up in it. They all had the same psychology the first time. But reversals of attitude on the part of our visitors — initial terror and subsequent reassurance — were sometimes striking. I recall one case that was like a little Ibsen drama.
When I had been in Hall Four some weeks, a new patient by the name of Kingston arrived. He was a pleasant little man with sandy hair, about forty-five years old, with a dryly humorous mouth that had a kindly twist to it. What might be the matter with him was a mystery, — I mean to us other patients, — for he seemed perfectly normal, completely coordinated. I enjoyed talking with him and thus discovered that somehow, when he was talking most interestingly, it would occur that suddenly a whole flood of words other than those he was using (and with an entirely different context) would come out unconsciously. He would choke them back, until they became frantic, stammering sounds, then ceased, and permitted lucid continuation of what he had been consciously saying.
In a couple of days his wife came to see him — her first visit. She was a bride-like sort of creature, tall, considerably younger than he, with a sensuously kindly mouth and big cowlike eyes which somewhat belied the urban sophistication of her smart tailored clothes.
Since Kingston was new, he was still quartered in the wide-open bedroom midway of the corridor, where I had spent my first annoyed public night. Having occasion presently to go to the other end of the corridor, passing this open door, I glanced in without curiosity, and beheld a sight not easy to forget.
Once years ago, when I was flashing an electric torch in a deep jungle forest, it had revealed two frightened gibbons, clinging to one another, eyes wide, mirroring dumb terror of the unknown. So these two humans now were clinging, and the same thing was in their eyes — the look of repressed, would-be mouth-wailing fear that superstitious children have; silent, anticipating the hideous and nameless. They were perched on the edge of the bed, and looked indescribably lost, even in so small a room. She had one arm protectively over his shoulders and was holding both his hands. Their eyes were turned toward the door, as if the dreadful thing would enter by it. I doubt if they saw me as I passed. I averted my head automatically. I would bet that the girl’s mother, or some of her family, had sympathized with her about the ‘ awful shame ’ and burden of it, and had probably suggested that she would rather see John ‘in his grave.’
It turned out that Kingston’s malady, his quirk, his cross-circuiting of cerebral-lingual wires, was no worse a problem to the psychiatrists than a case of double vision would have been for the oculists. Learning this took all the fear out of both of them, and with it the embarrassment and shame. Curing him was going to take a year or so, but by February his wife was coming Wednesdays and Fridays, as cheerful and familiar as you please, helloing the rest of us, asking about our progress, and talking of John’s case as freely as if he had been having a broken elbow straightened or his ribs mended.
Most visitors — wives, mothers and fathers, friends — went through the same stages. In the end, visitors made friends among themselves, and fraternized on the suburban trains coming out, sharing taxis from the village station up to our hill, telling the conductor, the news-stand man, the Greek at the fruit store, all about it when they asked, ‘How’s your patient?’
The town was proud of the place and friendly toward it. It brought the town’s only fame, and a lot of business. A friend of mine tells me that one day when she was in the doldrums about me her taxi driver said: ‘Don’t you worry, lady; I’ve seen ’em taken up there in a net or on a stretcher, and I’ve seen ’em come out in a year or so driving their own cars to start on a new honeymoon.’
(To be continued)
- Nothing here is fiction or embroidery. It is straight fact. All the characters and episodes are real, but all proper names, except my own, have been completely changed. — AUTHOR↩