Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fear of the Dark: learned behavior and the disregard for history in favor of architecture

Some background first...

The Kirkbride buildings are a collection of historic mental hospitals dotting the eastern United States built in the 1800s and still in use up to the late 1990s. In later years (after the 1950s) the majority of these buildings were overcrowded, understaffed, and becoming horrendously run-down. Many of the hospitals had children's wings which were connected to the main buildings by underground tunnels or corridors, commonly used for transporting residents from one section of the hospital grounds to another without spoiling the scenic ground view. Electroshock therapy was in its hayday in the 40s, 50s, and yes even the 60s, and many of these children admitted to hospitals like the Kirkbride buildings were kept for years without explanation, but with plenty of "treatment" until they were no longer minors and had to be released. Drug therapy was also a very common practice with the children, and patients were pumped full of muscle relaxers until they could give the staff no more trouble.

Originally, the Kirkbride buildings were constructed on the then-modern idea that the insane were human beings who could be treated with rest and kind therapy, or controlled social interaction, to achieve a level of comfort if not actually being able to rejoin society as typical individuals. There were plays and outings; and patients played tennis, went for walks, sang or played music, took art classes, and spoke with doctors about their thoughts and feelings. Kirkbride was WAY ahead of his time on this account, given the common practice of holing up the mentally incapable or insane to be used as medical or laboratory test subjects for drugs or surgeries; or both.

After Kirkbride's time was over, and the care of his hospitals and patients fell to other hands, the integrity of the masonry as well as the staff began to crumble. As the insane - or the mentally or physically different, at least - became less and less acceptable to main stream society, more individuals were deposited in these deteriorating asylums. Many of these unfortunates were children whose families could not 'bear to cope with the strain of such a burden.' These children were shunted off into institutions at the age of five, seven, ten years old in some cases, without explanation or hope of release.

We've all heard the stories about the children found locked away by their parents - hidden from the judgmental eyes of neighbors and guests - in basements, attics, closets. Gagged and drooling, half-starved, illiterate and even unable to speak because they were never spoken to; never held, never touched - but not killed, because murder is a sin.

Fast forward fifty years.

There are now internet forums set up by the disbanded Kirkbride foundation to educate the public about the architectural history of the now abandoned buildings. Some of these forums welcome past residents of the halls to join and share stories about their time in the Kirkbride buildings. A long-time interest of mine, I bumped into one of these patient-oriented forums online one afternoon and spent my evening, most of the night, and a share of the early morning reading every page.

These were those kids who fell through the cracks, but grown up. Institutionalized by their families without knowing why, for things that now have names; dyslexia, epilepsy, autism, attention deficit disorder. Displaced children grew up and became adults seeking a place for themselves. It was cathartic to watch them take the website of the building that displaced them and make it into their own house of healing for each other.

These are men in their 50s and 60s now. Grown, some with children of their own. They have lives, businesses. Some share pictures of themselves then, age 8, having just become a patient at hall 18. They say, 'anybody here remember this little boy?' I wish the women would speak out more, but maybe that's not their way. They say women are more social creatures than men, but women know better sometimes, I think. Men are the talkers. The women listen and think and listen some more. Maybe they talk. Someday.

The Kirkbride buildings have interested me for years, in particular because their original intention. Dr. Kirkbride was so spot-on, seemingly noble, and insightful in his vision of what a hospital should be and provide. They were good buildings, and they only got rotted from the inside and abandoned because people got... what, lazy? Apathetic? Frightened. Frightened of all the different people they put inside? No room. Overcrowded buildings originally built with the foremost interest of the human mind and spirit at heart. Then all that crap goes on inside the walls and under the halls and it gets buried because humans-adult humans-get too scared of what might the others think?! Must protect the career, the family, the pension, my own mind and sanity. Then it all gets covered up. Neat and tidy now, turned into luxury apartment homes and a tourist-trendy hot spot for photographers to take their avant-guard digital photos with appropriate, but under-researched, names like "Ghost in the Halls" and "Child Angel" and "Alone."

A new generation of young people look at the Kirkbride theory of mental health. That people are PEOPLE. Human beings that need light, air, comfort, pleasure, colors, sounds, recreation, and other people who are like them enough and understand in order to get well; or at least to function better. Not to be locked away in a dark little room at stared at through a window for the rest of their lives - less than animal. The young people look and see the architecture and the grounds and they don't listen to the children who were there because most of them are dead now and buried. Or never learned a way to communicate in the first place. Not one that anyone could understand, anyway.

What do they do? They build condos on top of the sunken graves of the children and women and men who have no names and had no chance. Not even now. A mass grave for all our failures so we can forget. Forget and build a new home over their bodies so they can continue to fall through those cracks in the floorboards. In 200 years when scientists (provided we make it that long) demolish the condos and find masonry from the 1800s in the basements, will they dig deeper and find graves? Take the bones and test them, learn the cruelty that was inflicted upon these kids in the name of science and treatment, and wonder why? "How barbaric, the things medical science considered treatment away back in 1950!" they shall exclaim, and then proceed to perpetrate all manner of new and exciting tortures of the human body for the sake of "saving lives."

But ah, look at the lovely architecture. So much to learn. So much to fix. Take some puddy and seal up the walls so the history stops leaking out. Stop looking over the ocean at the poor repressed housewives of Ali Muhamed Whatever and look around you. Here. Too busy looking at the archway and making up pretty stories in the Gothic revival architecture to bother to look a little deeper. Chip away the paint and find a drawing of an owl scrawled by some 6 year old who sat in that corner for a day because he would not take his medicine. And here these 12 year old men are telling it to the world. But the world is too occupied looking at the architecture and mistaking it for history to learn anything about his story.

Makes you mad? A sad story you can't change. But there is also thankfulness that these men and women are not a spectacle for the amusement of others; as I'm sure they would not like to be. It's about their own healing and their own history and it's all about them. Always was. No one will learn anything. Nothing could change that would matter now. It would just be phantom healing. A bandage on a missing limb. So all I can do is sit there at 3 in the morning reading their stories. A time-traveling voyeur, utterly powerless. Watch them go from quiet and frightened and guarded with their names and lives, to happy and sharing and last names and facebook pages and websites and emails and phone numbers and they have found each other again! Even if its only for a little while. Even if it is only there, where they can be safe with their secrets on parade. Restoring memory and filling in the gaping holes in themselves with the memories of others.

In the end it's all about how easy it is to hold hands with a stranger in the dark, but how difficult it can be to hang on while the light is shining. Even after all that, are we that terrified of scrutiny? And what could possibly be worse, after all. Being caught feeling. Being seen, being judged, being so scared of that light that you prefer the dark. Because now its a choice and choices are scary things when you are unaccustomed to them.

So I sat and I read and I wished that I could make it all go away for them. But if you can't dispel the fear of the dark, at least you can make the light a little less frightening. One day at a time.