Tag Archives: mental asylum

Down Below: Leonora Carrington

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my fascination for books set in asylums, and that brings me to artist and writer Leonora Carrington’s short book: Down Below, a New York Review Books release. The book runs to 112 pages and includes a substantial background of Leonora Carrington’s life as a lead-in to the period she spent in an asylum. And here’s the rich and influential  for you, her nanny was “sent out” in 1940 in a submarine to “fetch Leonora back” from the asylum. At least she got lucky there. Marina Warner’s introduction shows Leonora clearly already on the rebellious side when she met, at age 19, the married artist Max Ernst. After Ernst sorted his “genital responsibilities,” they lived together in France until the German invasion. At that time, Ernst was arrested and Leonora fled to Spain.

Down Below

Down Below covers Leonora’s flight to Spain, a journey fraught with strange thoughts, danger and portents of death. She meets a man named Van Ghent and imagines he has “nefarious” powers:

I was still convinced that it was Van Ghent who had hypnotized Madrid, its men and its traffic, he who turned the people into zombies and scattered anguish like pieces of poisoned candy in order to make slaves of all. One night, having torn up and scattered in the streets a vast quantity of newspapers which I believed to be a hypnotic device resorted to by Van Ghent, I stood at the door of the hotel, horrified to see people in the Alameda go by who seemed to be made of wood. I rushed to the roof of the hotel and wept, looking at the chained city below my feet, the city it was my duty to liberate. 

She plays in the park at night, decides that Van Ghent is the “enemy of mankind,” and visits the British embassy where she tells the consul that the war is “being waged hypnotically by a group of people–Hitler and Co.- who were represented in Spain by Van Ghent.” The consul decides Leonora is mad, she’s passed through the hands of several physicians but ends up, finally, in an asylum in Santander.

From this point, everything goes downhill. The narrative becomes much more surreal as Leonora claims to be “transforming my blood into comprehensive energy–masculine and feminine, microcosmic and macrocosmic.” After reacting violently to staff, she’s strapped down and force fed through tubes inserted into the nostrils. She loses sense of time and place, and as the narrative becomes more surreal, it’s impossible to know what is real and what is imagined. She believes she’s the “third person of the Trinity,” and imagines a country named Down Below where she will be ‘purified.’

This is all quite painful reading, and the author’s matter-of-fact tone doesn’t make it easier or any less depressing. This isn’t an it-can-happen-to-anyone asylum memoir as Leonora clearly had problems with reality, had some sort of psychic breakdown, and with her violence and behaviour, she desperately needed help. Unfortunately, the treatment she received seemed to make things worse. Leonora Carrington is considered a major figure of the Surrealist movement, so it’s perhaps not too surprising that her memoir of the time spent in an asylum should resemble a surreal nightmare. Down Below has a patchy history and was “reconstruct[ed]” which probably explains the occasionally truncated feeling of the narrative.

Review copy

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Asylum: Patrick Mc Grath

“None of them noticed that she drifted through her days in a state of detachment and abstraction, functioning as she was expected to but not ever, totally there. None of them noticed but me. I was watching her.”

In Asylum, Patrick McGrath blurs the lines between those who treat mental illness and those who suffer from it. Perhaps, McGrath seems to argue, it’s even a matter of proximity…

Asylum is set at an institution for the criminally insane. It’s 1959 when psychiatrist Max Raphael, a dull, dispassionate, “reserved, rather melancholy” man brings his beautiful wife Stella, the daughter of a disgraced diplomat and his 10-year old son, Charlie from London to a walled asylum. Max is the new deputy superintendent, and the Raphaels take up residence in a large stone house just inside the walls. Max has his job and his patients to attend to, Charlie has school, but Stella doesn’t fit in with the other wives … what sort of life does she have within the confines of this “desolate” place?…

asylum

Stella is perhaps a trophy wife for Max, but they’re fundamentally mismatched. She’s bored, lonely, unhappy, sexually frustrated, and drinks too much. While the staff see the inmates as an entirely separate group of people, Stella, already alienated from the other hospital wives, resentful of the absolute power of the medical staff, doesn’t seem to be aware of a clear demarcation. Then she meets inmate Edgar Stark, an enigmatic artist who is restoring an old Victorian conservatory at the end of the Raphaels’ vegetable garden. Stark “functioned at a high level of intelligence,” but he’s subject to paranoid delusions, and years earlier, during a fit of violent rage, he murdered his wife, decapitated her and mutilated her head.

And if you think you know where this story is going, well you’re right. Even though she’s warned about Stark’s past, Stella heads straight for disaster.

The story is narrated, unreliably, by Dr. Peter Cleave, and we know through Cleave’s quiet, controlled narrative voice that something went horribly wrong with Stella. Interestingly, Cleave’s voice is so quiet, so controlled, that there are times when we forget that he is telling the story, and more importantly, that perhaps, just perhaps, he played a role in the events that took place.

The catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now. Such relationships vary widely in duration and intensity but tend to pass through the same stages. Recognition. Identification. Assignation. Structure. Complication. And so on. Stella Raphael’s story is one of the saddest I know. A deeply frustrated woman, she suffered the predictable consequences of a long denial collapsing in the face of sudden overwhelming temptation. And she was a romantic. She translated her experience with Edgar Stark into the stuff of melodrama, she made of it a tale of outcast lovers braving the world’s contempt for the sake of a great passion.

The book isn’t simply the story of what takes place; it’s Dr. Peter Cleave’s narrative placed on top of past events. Here is a tale of illicit wild passion, of Stella growing increasingly out of control with the story told by Cleave’s  occasional, very occasional, clinical interpretation. It’s not that Cleave’s interpretation is incorrect, but it is inadequate, and just why his clinical interpretation of events is inadequate adds subtle psychological depths to the story. The way Cleave watches Stella and Stark echoes a behaviorist watching two rats in a laboratory–with one important difference; Cleave is not a disinterested observer, and hints of Cleave’s true feelings are buried deep in his narrative. He was opposed to Max’s employment at the asylum in the first place, and his decisions at vital points in the story bring his neutrality into question. It’s perfectly brilliant that Stella’s story should be told by an observer who is hardly disinterested. Edgar Stark, with his “restless, devious intelligence,” is Cleave’s pet patient, and Cleave, a sexually ambiguous character, is fascinated by Stella. There’s a section in the book when Stella and Stark have “urgent and primitive” sex on the ground. In the next paragraph, time has passed and Cleave questions Stella about her sex life with Stark. Interestingly, and hardly coincidentally, he says “I probed her gently,” a very telling, Freudian choice of words when he questions Stella to get the details. It’s a love triangle of sorts with all the physical passion between Stark and Stella, and Cleave a voyeuristic observer who holds limitless power at the asylum.

And that brings me to the book’s title: Asylum–a word that has more than one meaning–a place of refuge or an institution for the mentally ill. The ending packs a powerful punch with Cleave’s professional reasonableness teetering into creepy obsession.

Aslyum was made into a film. It’s well worth watching ( I just watched it for the second time), and although the plot is fundamentally the same in the book and the film, there are some differences. The book, as usual, is more complex and subtle. Peter Cleave is a much more invisible character in the book than in the film whereas Stella is much more off the rails.

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For the Love of Willie: Agnes Owens (1998)

“You could be Alice in Wonderland and me the White Rabbit for all you know.”

It’s taken me too long to return to Scottish author Agnes Owens, but sorting through book stacks revealed the novella: For the Love of Willie, the tragi-comic story of a young girl’s infatuation with a creepy shop owner named Willie Roper. The story is narrated by now middle-aged Peggy who lives in a mental hospital and whose major relationship is with a much older resident named the Duchess, a woman who may or may not have had a husband. Peggy, stealing paper from wherever she can find it, is determined to write her life story, and equally determined to make the Duchess, who’d much rather obsess on a Mills and Boon romance, read it. So the story goes back and forth with some scenes between Peggy and the Duchess and other scenes that tell Peggy’s story.  The big question here, in this story of abdicated responsibility, power and conformity, is what happened to land Peggy in a mental hospital.

Peggy’s story begins during WWII,  a gloomy world of air raids and rationing, with her first day delivering papers. She’s eager and proud to have landed the job which pays six shillings a week, and pleased that Willie Roper, the shop owner, makes special concessions for her. Plus there are those caramels which she, the only girl delivering papers, gets daily while the boys go without. Life at the newspaper shop is peculiar, and the reclusive Mrs Roper who lives above the shop with her husband rarely appears, although she arranges for sherry deliveries, against her husband’s wishes, courtesy of the paper boys. There are some ugly rumours about Willie but that doesn’t stop Peggy developing a crush on a man more than twice her age, and when she leaves school, she’s employed as his assistant….

for the love of willieWhile it’s fairly easy to guess where this story is going, it’s the author’s style that makes this story such a delight.  Peggy’s powerful voice combined with Agnes Owens’ dark tart humour make this tragicomic tale a marvelous read.  At sixteen Peggy is innocent and powerless, or so the adults who surround her think until Peggy’s quirkiness erupts in an unexpected way. In a world in which options are controlled and limited, immature Peggy makes her own tragic decision–the only one she thinks she can live with. Now in middle age, Peggy is in the position, once again, of being controlled by those in power, so we see her shouting through the railings desperately trying to catch the attention of a passing male, locked in the ‘punishment room’ and tranquilized for causing trouble. Even though Peggy is in many ways a victim, somehow she transcends that description, remaining uniquely defiant, obstinately independent, and brutally sane.

In the asylum, the Duchess and Peggy are women whose lives have shrunk to a routine of medication and boredom. The Duchess consoles herself with her dreams, saying “I dream a lot myself. It’s like going to the cinema in a way.” It suddenly seems vitally important to Peggy that she tell her story, but the Duchess, theoretically a captive audience, isn’t impressed:

‘I think people might want to read it if you put some romance into it,’ said the Duchess. “I mean if you wrote about falling in love with someone. Women always like to read about things like that.’

‘For God’s sake’ said Peggy, ‘you should know by this time that there’s no such thing as falling in love. It’s only sex with a sugar coating round it. I once thought I was in love, but on looking back I can see it was nature’s way of getting the female pregnant. We’re just like animals, you know. Do you think they fall in love?’

‘How can I tell what they’re thinking?’ said the Duchess haughtily. ‘But I’m quite sure they do in their own way.’

Her mouth closed firmly as she turned her attention to the film on television. Peggy shook her head and went into a reverie which had nothing to do with her present circumstances.

As with Bad Attitudes, there’s something a little off kilter about the characters in the book. Peggy’s mother and Willie are the main adult figures here, and they both act badly with Peggy’s mother abdicating responsibility when it comes to protecting her vulnerable daughter, and Willie taking advantage of an immature mind. Peggy is seen as a bizarre nuisance mainly for her refusal to conform to convenience. This theme is also continued in the mental hospital where the nurses bully and brutalize the patients and harass the poor old Duchess for wetting her bed. When various women in the book react emotionally to the circumstances in their lives, then they’re locked up or if they’re lucky, as Willie says about his wife, it’s all blamed on their hormones:

She’s been acting very funny lately. I’m just hoping that it’s her time of life.

16-year-old Peggy is a quirky character, someone who seems uncomplicated until suddenly she shocks us in a way we didn’t anticipate, and that’s exactly what makes this novella so brilliant. We’re left puzzling over the question of Peggy’s sanity, but certainly the adults in Peggy’s life have a great deal of responsibility here. Agnes Owens is an author who will definitely appeal to fans of Beryl Bainbridge.

122 pages

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The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Ambitious Dr. Abraham van Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Asylum by Thomas Doherty

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fascination with mental asylums, so how could I pass up Thomas Doherty’s non fiction book, The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Ambitious Dr. Abraham van Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Asylum? I came to the book knowing nothing about the subject–just what the blurb promised. The author first learned about the Wisconsin Insane Asylum back in 1972, but it had long disappeared by that time and been replaced by “utilitarian 1950s era brick buildings.” Doherty was fascinated enough by the tale of the now vanished “palatial stone” asylum to return and research the “early hospital casebooks,” the minutes of the trustee meetings, and the annual reports from the asylum’s superintendents. The intro sealed my interest in the book:

From all that accumulated mustiness emerged an endless stream of lost souls, such as a young woman devastated by the deaths of her brothers in a Confederate prison camp: “Conceives she can feed the portraits of her brothers … by crumbling up bread and trying to make them eat it.”

While the book is a portrait of an age and its attitudes towards insanity, it’s also a portrait of post civil war America with its detritus of human tragedy.  The post civil war period saw an incredible upswing in insanity as a result of broken, bereaved families, unassailable grief, and the aftermath of an incredibly savage war.

Widows, wives tormented by returned veterans, mothers convinced that the draft was a death machine stalking their sons, fathers and mothers whose grief had driven them berserk or sucked all the vitality from them and there were the soldiers themselves.

This was an era of “the hospital Movement” with the medically held opinion that “insanity was not a curse but a curable disease,”  and with a national attempt underway to standardize the management of public insane hospitals. While the book is partially an examination of a particular insane asylum, even more than this, the book is a character study of Dr. Abraham van Norstrand, a man who served as a doctor during the civil war, a banker and an entrepreneur, who later became the Wisconsin asylum’s most notorious superintendent. According to the author, the asylum’s 1868 annual report was “as thick as a Russian novel,” thanks to testimony about van Norstrand and “months of dramatic hearings.”

Best Specimen of a TyrantThe book opens with van Norstrand firmly in place as the superintendent when a new, young patient is admitted, Reverend Romulus Oscar Kellogg (known as RO). Kellogg suffering from exhaustion, and had already experienced breakdowns when he was brought to the asylum by his brother Amherst. Just the week before, RO preached a thunderous sermon from the pulpit which didn’t end when he left the church. He lapsed into insomnia, ranted through “frenzied marathons” of preaching, and these episodes would end in exhaustion, with RO complaining of pains in his head and paranoid fantasies of “enemies [who] lurked in the house.” RO’s wife Caroline coped with the situation, but RO’s behaviour spread out to a local man, and the result was that RO was admitted to the Wisconsin Insane Asylum with the opinion of a local doctor that he would make a “speedy recovery”  from a condition labeled as Theomania. 36 hours later, Kellogg was dead. This death, called a ‘suicide’ by van Norstrand, led to a scandal and, eventually, to an unraveling of the superintendent’s life and ambitions.

From this point, the book goes back into a catalogue of cases–damaged people many scarred for life as result of the Civil War–and we understand why Kellogg’s case (and death) was so different from the norm. Then the book delves into van Norstrand’s past, his pre-Wisconsin Insane Asylum days, and we see a young ambitious man carving out a medical career and learning the benefits of Quinine. A considerable portion of the book is spent following van Norstrand’s army career as a Union doctor with the Fourth Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment, and while all this may seem a distraction from the death of Kellogg, this information allows the reader to very effectively get a sense of just who van Norstrand was, his character and his motivations, before he became the superintendent at the Wisconsin Insane Asylum.

There were just a couple of annoying intrusions when the author speculates fancifully about situations:

From time to time, in the comfort of his family’s elegant quarters on the second story of the central building, he night have stood at one of the towering windows overlooking Lake Mendota, his gaze fixed on the skyline of the distant city, and brooded upon his fate should some eminent figure rise out of that feverish undercurrent of rumor and resentment to point an accusing finger at him.

But this is just an unfortunate lapse; the book is much better than that, and reveals some remarkable facts about van Norstrand’s life–through his hardships as a doctor, as a politician behind a smear campaign, and as an entrepreneur and a banker during some very dicey times. His civil war experiences were horrendous, and the conditions the soldiers endured were shocking (thinking of the misery of Ship Island and that’s even before they fought the enemy), but even in the midst of war, van Norstrand managed to engage in some strange speculations involving whiskey.  It wasn’t all death and dying:

Like Flashman he had a gift for attaching himself to local gentry on both sides of the conflict and basking in their flattery. He delighted in recalling many a feast laid out for his pleasure and many a bottle of aged brandy or claret urged upon him in one white-pillared mansion or another. As head of the biggest hospital in the Department of the Gulf, he saw Fourth Wisconsin comrades die lingering deaths and was himself worn down by illness and exhaustion, to say nothing of the frustration of being locked into middling rank. But again and again those lavish encounters with the privileged–slave owners or not–and every favor and deference granted him as surgeon, officer, man of the world, energized him. And finally that old seductress, easy money, caught his eye.

We also see van Norstrand at his best during the Civil War. He held firm ideas about good diet as essential for health, and Doherty, mining van Norstrand’s memoirs shows him arguing with commanding officers and going “beyond government channels and local pharmacists, paying planters and other private citizens up to five dollars an ounce, often from his own pocket” for precious supplies of Quinine. Thomas Doherty does a fine job of re-creating the times and conveying the impression that van Norstrand was really an incredibly energetic and enterprising man–yet his flaws, his energy, his ego and that entrepreneurial spirit are the very things that led to his downfall in the end. The marvelously detailed section regarding the 1868 hearings make for fascinating reading, and we see how van Norstrand’s mammoth task to ‘cure’ the insane was fraught with difficulties in a chemical-less age when physical restraint and punishment seemed a viable option. Van Norstrand was battling against the odds before RO Kellogg appeared at the asylum, and this young man’s appearance and his reaction to morphine created the ‘perfect storm’ for disaster. While Doherty opens a window into a specific time and a specific incident, the book extends beyond even the study of one character into human nature itself. We see disgruntled employees given a venue for their discontent and yet ultimately, van Norstrand’s speculations and business ventures sealed his fate and underscore the argument that once one arena of unethical behaviour is uncovered, the door is open to all other accusations and suspicions. In crossing swords with Samuel Hastings, the man who led the attack against van Norstrand, the superintendent met his match and hence his downfall. Sometimes, it’s the corners of history that prove to be the most interesting. Highly recommended for those interested in Wisconsin or asylum history.

review copy.

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The Sleep Room by F.R. Tallis

“I did not recognize the sound at first. It arrived as nothing more than a subtle incursion: something seeping between the accumulated layers of silence.”

One of the benefits of experience is that we grow to know what we like, so while after reading some plot outlines, I tend to steer away from certain books, I am attracted to others. The Sleep Room had an unappealing cover, but the storyline checked a lot of boxes for me:

  • written by a psychologist
  • set in a mental hospital/asylum
  • treatment/therapy for mental problems
  • anything to do with sleep and dreams

British author F.R. Tallis was new to me, and in spite of the fact that the book had its attractions, I approached it still with some doubts because, after all, you never know just how well written a book will be until you take that chance and open it.

The sleep roomThe Sleep Room is outstanding. Suspenseful, compelling, and atmospheric, this has to be the creepiest book I’ve read in a long time, but far more than that, this is also a very intelligent story which questions the validity of medicating mental problems, which is, as it turns out, a preferred method in this tale, over the snidely dismissed ‘talking cure’ of Freudian therapists.

It’s 1955, and the novel opens with James Richardson, a young psychiatrist working in London, interviewing for a job with Dr. Hugh Maitland. To Richardson, Maitland is a hero of sorts–an eminent psychiatrist regularly published and the head of “psychological medicine at Saint Thomas’s.” Richardson is particularly interested in sleep studies, so he leaps at Maitland’s offer of a job at Wyldehope, a remote hospital located in Suffolk for ‘special’ cases. This sounds like a dream job: 24 beds “two wards and a narcosis room,” supported by nine nurses, a caretaker and his wife. In addition, Maitland in vigorously opposed to Freudian methods:

Freudian techniques are hopelessly ineffective. All that talk. All those wasted hours. Three hundred milligrams of Chlormazine is worth months of analysis! Don’t you agree? Dreams, the  unconscious, primitive urges! Psychiatry is a branch of medicine, not philosophy. Mental illness  arises in the brain, a physical organ, and must be treated accordingly.

Maitland’s anti-Freudian stance matches Richardson’s beliefs, so he takes the job, agreeing with everything Maitland says, thinking that this will be the first step in a brilliant career. Apart from occasional relief from local doctors, Richardson will be the only doctor on staff–a situation Richardson initially questions, but then he’s reassured by Maitland, who’s a rather domineering character, and after all a senior doctor, that all of the treatments are handled expertly by the nurses, and that the work load will not be unmanageable. While the patients are divided into male and female wards, Maitland is obsessed with the patients in The Sleep Room:

I will always remember entering the sleep room for the very first time: descending the stairs that led to the basement, Maitland at my side, immaculately dressed, talking energetically, cutting the air with his hands, the door opening and stepping across the threshold that seemed not merely physical, but psychological. The nurse, seated at her station–a solitary desk lamp creating a well-defined pool of light in the darkness–the sound of the quivering EEG pens and, of course, the six occupied beds. All women–in white gowns–fast asleep: one of them with wires erupting from her scalp like a tribal headdress.

The six patients are undergoing Narcosis (deep sleep) treatment with the goal of keeping the patients asleep for about 21 hours a day. Each patient is woken up–but perhaps it’s more accurate to say each patient is ‘disturbed’ every 6 hours and taken to the toilet, washed, fed, and given more drugs. Enemas are administered in case of “falling bowel activity.” One of the arguments for Narcosis is that patients could be given more ECT (Electroshock) therapy when they are asleep, and Maitland’s patients receive weekly ECTs with the controls set “at their uppermost limits.” Maitland sees little difference between the patients, is disinterested in the details of how they became damaged people, and describes them collectively as schizophrenic.

“Of course,” Maitland continued, “the great advantage of administering ECT while patients are asleep, is that they experience no anxiety–which means one can prescribe longer and more intensive courses.”

Maitland returns to London leaving Richardson in charge. For the most part, the patient care–especially for those in the sleep room–is on auto pilot with Richardson monitoring the sleeping patients and their bodily functions.  The patients who are not undergoing narcosis are also bombarded with medication, and any failure to “respond” leads to a doubling of medication, so even those not asleep are like zombies. Richardson is naturally curious about the patients and the circumstances that brought them to Wyldehope, but this is not a subject up for discussion, and “case histories were entirely irrelevant.” It’s not so much that it’s a secret as much as it simply doesn’t matter, but then neither does a “cure” seem to be part of the agenda. In fact, as time goes on, Richardson, who is plagued by headaches and disturbing dreams, begins to suspect that Maitland’s goal is to see how long people can be kept in this vegetative state.

Richardson isn’t exactly comfortable with his duties, but his doubts and questions are answered or dismissed so smoothly by Maitland, that he bows to his authority and reputation. However, once Maitland is gone from Wyldehope, Richardson is left in charge, and some bizarre things begin to occur. He feels a presence in his isolated room, items disappear, a patient complains that his bed moves back and forth making sleep impossible, and a nurse is terrified to stay in the Sleep Room alone at night. Since the patient population is delusional, perhaps some of this can be explained away. Richardson’s discomfort grows even as he attempts to quell his growing alarm, and he is forced to acknowledge “the idea of the dead returning to annoy the living.” Yet as a doctor, he knows all too well that if he begins to acknowledge any supernatural presence he places his professional standing in jeopardy.

A psychiatrist cannot admit to seeing things that cannot be explained. As soon as he does so, he crosses the line that separates himself from his patients.

As events spiral out of control, Richardson wonders what happened to his predecessor. The atmosphere at Wyldehope, a rambling mansion, glows darkly with the sense of impending doom–especially so when Richardson, continually observing those in the Sleep Room, discovers that the sleepers are dreaming in synchronicity.  

The Sleep Room is an entertaining, suspenseful page turner which questions the poisonous structure of professional hierarchy, the prevalent attitudes towards female sexuality, and the power of dreams.  This well-crafted book, told through Richardson’s eyes, moves smoothly from skepticism and the solidity of scientific facts to sheer terror of the unknown and the unexplainable. There are some real names here, and the treatments, as outlandish and barbaric as they seem to the modern reader, were the MO of the day, and the character of Maitland appears to share some basic commonalities with Dr. William Sargent. We may finish the book and reassure ourselves that mental patients in the western world fare better these days, but an uneasy feeling remains that pills have become a replacement for therapy. Author F. R. Tallis, a psychologist, certainly seems to know how to push those reader buttons, and the narrative moves along very cleverly by feeding with hints such as “it is ironic–given what happened next” which left this reader eager to continue and very annoyed by any interruptions.  Some of the issues raised by the plot are left unanswered, but it’s easy to connect the dots and come to one’s own conclusions. The final chapter overworked the book’s premise, but in spite of that minor flaw, this is a helluva creepy read.

Review copy

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Solo Pass by Ronald De Feo

“People continued to pass by, and I meant nothing to them, as they meant nothing to me. Who needed to court their approval? Why had such a need ever been important to me? And this particular group was especially pitiful. Here they were, just leisurely strolling about, gazing in windows, stopping in shops, hurrying off to drinks or a late lunch, while a thief and a madman traveled among them, by their side, almost shoulder to shoulder. And the fools didn’t even know it. They believed themselves to be perfectly safe.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for novels told by an unreliable narrator. I also have a perverse interest in any book set in an asylum, so add those two factors together and throw in a name I already know, Ronald De Feo, who delighted me in 2011 with his extremely unusual novel, Calling Mr. King  –the story of a hit man who finds an inner life. It’s a triple whammy. How could I lose?

solo passOtt, a man in his 30s, is our unreliable narrator. He once had a career as a New York editor, but his life began a downhill spiral when his wife Elizabeth left, and after a meltdown, he found himself being carted off to the mental health ward at Essex Hospital. Well, this is Ott’s version of events, and as the novel continues,  we discover, of course, that Ott’s view of life is inaccurate. His problems extend far beyond the breakdown of his marriage, and if anything, marriage was a failed attempt at normalcy and connection with another human being. But hey, things could be worse–there’s also a violent ward at Essex and Ott isn’t on it. He also isn’t being shipped off to Courtland, a hospital for more permanent cases, full of “frigging zombies talking to walls and chairs.” No, life is looking up for Ott; he’s on the brink of being given a solo pass to spend a few hours outside of the hospital by himself. A solo pass is a trial run of sorts, a taste of full release and theoretical freedom . Will Ott be able to handle it?

According to seasoned patient, Mandy, a young trust fund woman, there’s a knack to being released. She advises Ott to “just tell them what they want to hear.” ‘Them,’ of course refers to the doctors in the ward–the ones who make the decisions about medication and further treatment. She also advises Ott not to open his mouth to rant against his bête noir, that “uncouth bastard,” Prodski, Ott’s former therapist, and as it turns out, the man Ott blames for the breakdown of his marriage and his life. Mandy is an expert on solo passes–on her last one, she immediately found another former patient and had sex. These days we’d call Mandy a sex-addict, but back in the 60s she’d be on the nympho ward in Sam Fuller’s spectacular over-the-top film, The Naked Kiss (yes, one of my favourites).

Solo Pass takes us through Ott’s preparations for a few hours of ‘freedom’ in one afternoon. Of course, since we are privy to Ott’s innermost thoughts while his doctor is not, we get a sense of whether or not he’s ‘ready’ to fly solo, or whether this is a risky venture:

“Any of those strange feelings lately?” Dr. Petersen asked, referring to those feelings that used to creep up on me–at my job, at home with my ex-wife, just about anywhere and at any time. There I’d be by the window of my office staring out at the office buildings across the way or sunk down in my favourite easy chair at home studying Elizabeth reading on the sofa, and I’d suddenly feel that I didn’t belong, that I had been placed in someone else’s life, that everyone and everything around me was foreign, unfamiliar, wrong.

No, I told her. None at all. And I smiled again, this time to indicate that I now regarded those feelings as rather ridiculous, a product of an illness that was no longer with me. Why the very mention of them amused me more than anything else. I conveyed this amusement well. Yes, I believe I was very convincing.

Through Ott’s memory, glimpses of his married live with Elizabeth emerge along with scenes of his hostility at work:

And when I discovered that my immediate boss, Richard Lorch–a smug, officious nuisance–had an aversion to office plants, considered them bourgeois and decorative clichés, I brought in more. “What’s the point?” he had the nerve to ask one day when he caught me hanging up a new addition. Perhaps to annoy you, I answered in my head.

Apart from his relationship with Mandy, Ott also chats with other patients, including  Wally, a man addicted to cheesy TV programmes and Tommy, a man with a history of violent behaviour:

He held up a sheet of paper covered with what looked like graffiti–words, circles, cylinders in red and blue ink–quite a mess really, an aggressive, violent one at that, “My plan for attacking Iran,” he said, and went on to explain that the dozens of circles represented tanks, our tanks, thousands of them, and that they would form a line and sweep down into the country and destroy everything in their path. And then they would get air support from thousands of fighter jets–the cylinders–that would be firing on anything the tanks missed.

“Fuckin’ great, right?” he said when he finished detailing his battle dream,. “We’ll wipe out all those fucks. Right?”

One of the subtler aspects to the novel is the idea that certain bizarre behaviours are condoned by society while others are deemed unacceptable, and of course, the real question here is just who gets to decide which behaviours are ok while other behaviours are not. For example, Ott’s uncle insists on dressing smartly to visit graves. It’s a sign of respect, he argues, while Ott can’t see the point. However, when Ott calls his own answering machine and leaves himself a message this is considered most peculiar by Uncle Arthur. Bottom line, once you’re deemed ‘unstable’ good luck getting that label changed.

In this highly engaging novel, Ott presents his version of events, but we are still able to see cracks in the narrative, and eventually a well-formed picture of what really happened emerges.  Are Ott’s workmates “cool or just plain indifferent?” And why did the secretary resign “for personal reasons?” This is a story of a man who doesn’t fit in, and his attempts to do so have failed abysmally. Now with time out, therapy and the appropriate medication, what will happen during this test run–a solo pass for a few hours? The novel’s conclusion didn’t go in the direction I perversely urged, but that is, I think, my personal preference, and not the fault of the story. Ultimately, author De Feo shows that the weight of conformity and a desire to belong to a social group can be both a terrible burden, an overwhelming challenge, and oddly enough a liberating choice. Some of us just have to go farther to find a comfort zone.

Review copy

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The Treatment and the Cure by Peter Kocan

“You’re not feeling so cheerful now, with this talk of shock treatment. You start to think how it was all too good to be true. Now you’re finding out about the bad thing, the thing you knew had to be here though you didn’t know exactly what it would be. Shock treatment! It had a very bad ring to it. Especially the word ‘treatment.’ When they biffed you it was pretty bad, but at least you knew they were doing something they shouldn’t be doing. They knew it too. There was always a chance they’d get into trouble for biffing. Not much of a chance, but a chance. Also some screws didn’t agree with biffing, and they’d try to stop other screws who did it. But ‘treatment’ was different … they could do it with a clean conscience because they were trying to help you.

In 1966, nineteen-year-old Peter Kocan attempted to assassinate politician Arthur Calwell. Kocan failed and was subsequently tried and found guilty of attempted murder. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he was first sent to Long Bay Correctional Centre and then transferred to the Criminally Insane Ward of the Morisset Psychiatric Hospital. The novel The Treatment and The Cure (originally published as two separate novellas) is an autobiographical but fictionalized account of Kocan’s experiences told through the eyes of nineteen-year-old Len Tarbutt.

When the novel begins, Len, confused and disoriented, is freshly transferred from a prison to a mental asylum. At first the hospital seems a great improvement over Long Bay prison, but Len very soon discovers that the insane asylum has its own minefields to be avoided at all costs: medications that reduce the powerless patient to a zombie-like state and electric shock ‘therapy’ administered by the forgetful but enthusiastic doctor known as “Electric Ned.”

Len mingles with an assortment of patients with a range of problems–murderers, child molesters, and even peeping Toms. Lonely and withdrawn, Len soon learns the asylum system–where the number one rule is not to draw attention to yourself. But surviving in this system is easier said than done–especially when bored and sadistic guards often set up scenarios in which patients are guaranteed to be dragged off to shock therapy. Len witnesses many patients who were functional reduced to cretinism by the over-eagerness of Electric Ned.

The very best parts of this excellent novel describe how Len tries desperately to appear normal and rational, yet this is a game in which the inmates don’t make the rules. Even Len’s attraction to poetry becomes suspect at one point as it causes him to read and meditate in solitude–an activity that’s largely frowned upon. Sometimes when inmates come to the attention of the guards and the doctors, they’re questioned and boxed in with circular logic, and there’s always shock treatment as the inevitable outcome awaiting them. For example, a particularly sadistic guard named Smiler continuously persecutes one inmate named Sam. When the inmate complains about the persecution, it’s becomes a signal that he’s ‘paranoid’:

“Everyone knows that mentally ill people think they’re being persecuted, so Sam is sealing his own fate by accusing Smiler. Smiler is pleased at how beautifully it’s working out.”

In spite of the dark subject matter, Kocan manages to write with a humour that’s refreshingly innocent. Kocan’s protagonist describes his environment by using the second person ‘you.’ This creates a numbing depersonalized distance between the narrator and his difficult experiences.

There are some wonderful passages that describe patients who appear cured, but they’ve simply learnt the game well enough to give the ‘authorities’ exactly what they want to hear. Zurka, for example, doesn’t seem like the sort of person who chopped up several passengers on a train, but that’s exactly what he did. After spending several years at the asylum, he appears ‘cured,’ but there are some instances in which Len retains nagging doubts about some of the inmates’ preparedness to be returned to society:

“Zurka is obviously very sorry and sad when he’s telling you about the last bit, about the train. You are quite sure he’d never do anything like that again. You’d bet your bones on it. If it was up to you, you’d let Zurka go to the open section. Yet when he’s talking about the psychiatrists who took all his money for pills and fees, or about his Polish countrymen who wouldn’t help him, you get a faint cold feeling of worry. There’s an edge in his voice that makes you think he’s spent the years here remembering the wrong they did him. It’s probably nothing. You’d still let him go to the open section if the decision was up to you. Yet, you’re glad somehow, that it’s someone else’s decision.”

Those who learn the rules and a superficial degree of conformity are judged ‘normal’–and as long as the inmates pay satisfactory attention to these rules, those in charge are happy with the inmates’ progress. It doesn’t seem to occur to those rule-makers that perhaps the inmates have learned to mimic the behaviour the doctors, nurses and guards want to see:

“You’re talking to Zurka about what he did to the people with his butcher’s chopper. He doesn’t mind talking about it now. He’s pretty sure he’s to be transferred to the open section and he wants to show that he understands about his crime and why he did it and that it was a dreadful act. The screws say that being able to talk calmly about your crime shows you’ve gained insight. Of course, you mustn’t talk about it too much, or too calmly, or they’ll say you’re dwelling on it or that you aren’t showing a healthy remorse.”

Strangely enough, some of Len’s hardest times are when he’s transferred out of maximum security. He falls under the ‘care’ of a sadistic nurse nicknamed Blue–a woman who torments some of those who fall under her jurisdiction. One of the ubiquitous ideas in the novel is the degree of mental illness inside the asylum. Whereas the patients are diagnosed and labeled with terms, some of the more sadistic employees are able to mentally torture inmates and twist reality with impunity to such a degree that the more fragile inmates escape the only way they can–through suicide.

There are escapes, the moments of joy, and small but powerful acts of human kindness, and the few people who reach out to Len makes all the difference in the world. There’s the overwhelming idea that no one really gets ‘cured’–even though that’s supposedly the goal held for all the inmates, and the system recreated here in these pages would most likely push anyone in a fragile mental state over the edge. Since this is basically a coming-of-age novel, this is not only a fictionalized memoir of asylum life but also an account of Len’s gradual ability to self-heal when given the fragments of opportunity.

All of the employees at the asylum inherently believe in different approaches to mental well-being. For example, the librarian believes reading provides healing, Electric Ned believes a cure can be found in shock treatment, and the therapy supervisor, Mr. Trowbridge believes that work is therapy. Although Trowbridge is a thoughtful man, one of Len’s few advocates, his dogmatic belief has little flexibility. To Trowbridge, the road to mental health is found through employment and functionality, and the ability to work is the measure of mental health. Similarly, the sadistic nurses and guards use the systems they embody (medications and rules) and create ways to subvert and sabotage any progress made towards mental health, and as in any closed system (school, for example) there are favourites and there are those who are picked on unmercifully. Institutional corruption is not included in this tale because for Len it doesn’t seem to exist; instead cruelty exists because of abusive power structures directed by banality and boredom. Cruelty is, therefore, the more devastating for its sheer disinterest.

On one last note, Kocan has published several books and has won awards for his fiction.

239 pages

Europa Editions

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