Sunday, July 21, 2013
Chico novelist explores the secrets of the asylum
Something happened at the Emerson Rose Asylum in the late 1970s. Everyone left, suddenly; "patients, doctors, and staff completely vanished and were never seen again." Later, as the asylum falls to the wrecking ball, someone finds a series of letters stuffed in a bed, addressed to a "Dr. Quill." The brutal and heartbreaking letters, all from patients, are fictional; but they serve to illuminate not only the abuses one might imagine go on at certain mental institutions, but also the individual lives, where getting inside their heads is hardly imaginable at all.
Though "Letters From The Looney Bin" (self-published, $2.99 in Amazon Kindle e-book format) is not about Thatcher C. Nalley's actual experience doing intake work at Butte County Behavioral Health, it's clear her time there reaffirmed a commitment to help tell stories of mental illness from the inside out. The dozen letters all speak of something brewing at the asylum--maybe a mass escape--in the wake of the terror of Dr. V., the new man in charge.
With compassionate and wise care, those in the asylum can make at least a little progress in stilling the demons. Such compassion was represented by Dr. Huxley, but now he's dead of a heart attack. For one patient, Juliette, the demons are startlingly real. "I don't talk about the demons that come to my room at night," she writes in her letter to Dr. Quill. "I've seen what this place does to others who tell about the things they see. The orderlies come and take them away in the middle of the night. I think sometimes they take their brain, because their minds are gone by morning."
The letters tell of horrendous childhood abuse and neglect, and it's clear from the stories that those in the asylum could not very well be walking the street. Sabel screams, loudly, and yearns for control. The "white coats" allow one of the doctors to alter "my throat to where I cannot make any sounds, no sounds at all." Perhaps it is no wonder that Sabel runs to the nurse's station, picks up a typewriter, and smashes the head of one of those "white coats."
One can say, with full awareness of many meanings here, that this is strong medicine.