When my family went to visit Rochester this past spring, we drove past a huge old brick building that had obviously been vacant for quite some time. “What is THAT?” my husband wondered. “That’s an old insane asylum,” I told him flatly. I was quite confident, and I was right. I know what those things look like. There was one on the street where I grew up.
When I was an adolescent struggling with mental illness, I found the abandoned towers of the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane both haunting and troubling. I was never in any real danger of being institutionalized myself — for one thing, “institutionalization” the way it was practiced until the latter half of the 20th century simply does not exist anymore. There was a brief passing threat that I might need to be hospitalized in the short term at a small inpatient facility, one with more modern methods, but also one where, as the ER doc informed me solemnly, “they do electroshock therapy.” That put the fear in me pretty quickly. I have a bad habit of wallowing in media that I know will upset me, so at that point I had read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, Girl Interrupted…even thought I knew intellectually that a stay at the small clinic wouldn’t leave me lobotomized like Randle McMurphy, I also knew I didn’t want to take that chance.
The towers have been long since abandoned, but there is still a psychiatric hospital on the grounds near the old asylum. The summer after my first year in college, I worked at a gas station across the street, and our clientele was largely composed of inpatients with day passes. They were a colorful crew, all of whom had earned mildly humerous nicknames from the Stop-N-Go veterans. They came in all day long, buying cigarettes, coffee, hot dogs, beer. They had day passes, but nowhere to actually go during the day. So they wandered up and down the street, hung out in our parking lot, mumbled to themselves, and drank. There was one gentleman who my co-workers had dubbed “Rod”, because his feathered blond hair lent him a vague resemblance to Rod Stewart…if Rod Stewart was made entirely out of sandblasted leather and wore a torn-up denim tuxedo rather than flashy blazers and leggings. Rod would come in about four or five times throughout the say and buy 40 ounces of King Cobra malt liquor in a paper bag. One day Rod came in to buy probably his third 40 of the day, and as I rang him up, he leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, “You know, they’re all crazy over there.”
Mildly taken aback, I just smiled at him politely. “Yeah?”
He nodded, and then added, “After a while it starts to rub off on you.” He looked rueful for a moment, then turned and walked out the door as the Backstreet Boys crooned over the sound system.
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “otherwise you wouldn’t have come here.
When my father was a child, he also lived near the asylum. He and his cousin would ride their bikes past it after school, and the patients would be at their windows, shouting lurid things at them through the bars. Hearing that story as a kid left me aghast. It sounded so Dickensian somehow. Mental patients hissing vulgarities at children from their cells. Every time I drove by, I would hear the hissing in my head. It felt uncomfortably real.
As an adult, my dad had a friend who worked at the asylum. In a recent email, he described it thus:
“While I was waiting for my…friend to be available so we could go to lunch, I overheard my first schizophrenic conversation between an aid and a patient. The striking this was that he kept repeating the same tape or gambit over and over. And the aid had no other option but to put up with it and play her part over and over.
When I read this, I felt a chill. Because it was immediately apparent to me that the patient in question wasn’t just schizophrenic. He was autistic. Because people with autism were often diagnosed with “childhood schizophrenia” (a diagnosis, by the way, that is almost unheard of to this day, to the extent that one girl with the diagnosis, Jani Schofield, has been making the talk show rounds like a carnival side show for half a decade now) and put in asylums. That’s what we used to do with disabled children. We locked them away. Kids with autism, kids with Down Syndrome. Doctors told their parents these children were hopeless cases. Temple Grandin’s parents were told to insitutionalize her. Daryl Hannah’s parents were told to institutionalize her. They were not to be seen. They were not to be spoken of.
The great wave of deinstitutionalization in this country began with the one-two punch of the publication of Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962 and the Community Mental Health act passed in 1963 by President Kennedy. Kennedy understood the state of mental health care better than most — his younger sister, Rosemary, was lobotomized and institutionalized for relatively shady reasons. She had a low IQ and grew volatile and disobedient as a young woman. By the age of 23, her father unilaterally decided that she needed radical treatment. The doctor who performed the procedure would “ask her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing God Bless America.
“We went through the top of her head. I think she was awake. She had a mild tranquilizer. We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded. When she began to become incoherent. we stopped.”
Men reaching out past the bars. Autistics scripting endlessly to bored orderlies. After a while, it starts to rub off on you.
“The thing that I have understood is that madness entails no obligations. There’s no need to kill people in order to prove to them that you are insane. They know it already.”
“Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland
where you must feel very strange…
I’m with you in Rockland
where the faculties of the skull no longer admit
the worms of the senses
I’m with you in Rockland
where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re
losing the game of the actual ping pong of the abyss
I’m with you in Rockland
Where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul
is innocent and immortal it should never die
ungodly in an armed madhouse.
I’m with you in Rockland
where fifty more shocks will never return your
soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a
cross in the void.”
We don’t really have institutions anymore. The schizophrenics and manic depressives are in and out of prison instead. People struggle through the waking world disguised in a cloak provided courtesy of Pfizer and Blue Cross Blue Shield, where we can quietly refill prescriptions and hide in plain sight. Autistic children are integrated in mainstream classrooms, triggering horrified queries about the rising rates. 1 in 88. Where did they all come from? Where were they before?
They were in the institutions. The ones that are slowly but surely being turned into luxury hotellike the one in Buffalo, on the street where I grew up. I am glad for continuing urban revitalization in my hometown, but I would rather spend a winter at the Overlook with Jack Torrance that spend a single night at the Richardson Olmsted Complex with the voice of a thousand McMurphys hissing in my brain. Because after a while, it starts to rub off on you.