Saturday, October 11, 2008

Notes from a mental institution

Monday, October 13, 2008

The two most important places in the mental institution where I grew up were the record room and the cemetery.

A bit of background: My father was a medical doctor who was the superintendent of a large mental institution. He served from the late 1940’s until the early 1970’s.

I grew up on the grounds of that hospital with many mental patients as my friends.

The institution is gone now. All that remains are whatever’s left of the records (the histories of the thousands of people who came and went from there) and the cemetery. There are a few buildings still standing, but the hospital itself as it evolved from 1886 to about the early 1990’s is long gone.

I visited the cemetery a while back. It was fenced and locked.

The cemetery was the place to bury mental patients who were not buried elsewhere. Those people are still resting there, covered with knee-high grass. Looking over the fence, I had no way of telling whether the numbered plaques which had marked their graves were still in place. It was hard for me to believe that there had been a time when my friends and I had wandered through the mowed, unfenced cemetery and looked at the plaques. Because of the way I had been brought up, I always understood that the people buried there were important and special.

And the records? Relatives seeking genealogical or personal information may or may not be able to find it. The FAQ’s section of my web site lists another site which can tell you how to find whatever information still exists. I give my web site address below.

My new mystery novel The Body in the Record Room opens in the record room of the fictional Sunrise State Hospital because it is in the record room where the facts of people’s lives were housed. My main character, a mental patient who thinks he is the cowboy hero Roy Rogers, finds the body. Of course, Roy is in the record room without permission. No place in that huge institution is immune from Roy Rogers. That’s why they call it fiction. You can make your characters go where no patient could have really gone.

Once or twice I went to the locked record room with my dad. Most often he had to put a note into someone’s record. The record room was (at least as it seemed to a young child) a HUGE room filled with rows and rows of filing cabinets. Each cabinet had patient records going back, I assume, to the late 1800’s. In other words, the record room was filled with people’s lives, their joys, their sorrows, their demons, and their feelings of abandonment or love.

All my characters are fictional, as are all the events in the novel. I came upon my Roy Rogers when I had a dream one night in which a man kept saying, quite frantically, “My name is Roy Rogers. That’s who I am and that’s who I will always be.” I decided to tell the story of the man in my dream. He would inhabit a fictional mental hospital whose physical description was much like the hospital where I grew up.

In moving through the hospital, Roy would show people places they might not dream such a hospital would have. He would go through the blacksmith shop and bakery and the now not-much-used ice house. He would look up at the water tower and hear the roar of the mechanical equipment in the large building which generated all the electricity for the institution. And in so doing, he would remind people of the generations of state hospital patients across the United States whom society had (in a sense at least) thrown away. The book might also remind people of the many (not all, but still many) loyal hospital employees who always did the best they could, no matter what obstacles they faced.

The main reason I wrote The Body in the Record Room is that I wanted to write a good story. If it reminds all of you of the mentally ill, both at that time (in the mid-1950’s) and now, that is a special bonus. I’m no expert in mental illness. I just lived around it for the first eighteen years of my life. I had many patient friends, but I didn’t know their illnesses, and I only knew them by first names. Still, I loved the people I lived with, and I want the mentally ill of that time and now brought back to mind.

All my characters are fictional, but there were real people in those hospitals, just as there are real people in the mental hospitals, group homes, and prisons where so many mental patients are now housed. And some aren’t housed. Some (by choice or necessity) live under bridges or on heat grates.

If you read The Body in the Record Room and if you have some feeling for the patients in the story, you will know something of how I felt as I was growing up.

Mental hospitals engender all kinds of feelings. I didn’t write the book to defend what those hospitals were or what they are today. I wrote it because of all those people lying virtually unnoticed in the knee-high grass. Those folks and all the others need to be remembered, even if our memories have to be jogged by a fiction book like mine.

If you would like to respond to this post, please leave a comment or go to my web site where there is an email address. Thanks.

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