I’ve been working on a short story based on my grandmother’s experience in a state mental hospital. She was sent there in 1940 when my mother was 12 years old. Back then, it was not unusual for men to commit their wives to mental institutions if the women were a bother, eccentric, didn’t perform their “wifely duties” the way a man expected, and much more.
It was easy to convince a law enforcement official to take a woman away and commit her to a state institution. After all, she was “hysterical,” right?
This story is fictional; I have no specific ideas about what my grandmother or others went through during their lives, or whether my grandfather had her committed for frivolous reasons. However, as we’ve been dealing with the pandemic and seeing more and more mental illness in this country, it seems real mental illness needs to come into sharper focus.
I recently had a conversation with a relative who told me he had to take time off from work to participate in intensive mental health therapy. He said, “I don’t know why I’m depressed. I have a nice home, a great marriage, a good job, my kids love me, my parents love me, I’m educated, why do I feel this way?”
I told him it’s not about your circumstances; it’s rooted in a chemical imbalance, something that may have its origins in genetics or some brain malfunction. It’s great, on the one hand, to have people in one’s life to support you; on the other hand, when outside people who see someone whose life isn’t so bad struggle with depression, they think, “What does HE have to be depressed about?”
Back to my grandmother’s day–she often didn’t have enough food or money in the house. My mother used to find funerals around the neighborhood–you know, Irish wakes–where food was plentiful. She would sneak into the post-funeral celebrations and eat to her fill and then make a sandwich for her mother. She’d sneak those funeral fixings home so that her mother would have something to eat. This may have continued for longer than it did, but when my mother was 12, her mother was committed to a state mental hospital, where she remained until her detail in 1972.
Was my grandmother insane? I can’t say. I wasn’t around to observe her. Of course I’ve heard stories about her, but I would describe those tales as descriptions of eccentricities, not true mental illness. I will say, however, that the availability of mental health treatments might well have kept my grandmother out of an institution for 32 years. Modern psychology and psychiatry has tools that might have kept my grandmother functioning in her own home.
But the fact is, women were being institutionalized by their husbands, and then divorced or having their marriages annulled by the Catholic Church so that they could be married again, simply because those men didn’t want to put up with their wives. Was that the case of my grandmother? Was it the case of many of those same women who lived with her, day in, day out, never to return to their own homes?
We went, every Sunday, to pick up my grandmother and bring her home for Sunday dinner. When one of my friends asked me to do something with her on a Sunday, I told her, in front of her mother, that I couldn’t, because we had to go pick up my grandmother at the state hospital. “We don’t talk about those things in this house,” her mother said.
“Why? It’s just my grandmother,” I replied. “It’s not my fault she’s in that place.”
Of course it isn’t.
Hundreds of suitcases of the residents of that institution were abandoned there when the place closed. Those contained treasure troves of information about those people–individuals who went to a place they didn’t understand. I’d really like to know what happened to those suitcases. I’d love to read the letters, postcards, see the mementos the residents brought in with them, never to see those precious memories again.
The hospital itself was razed and sold so that a developer could build houses on the grounds. I’m sure that when the bulldozers tore down the structure, those suitcases went with the cement and steel to a dump somewhere.
I contacted the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health several years ago to see if I could retrieve my grandmother’s records. They replied that since I’m not her next of kin, the answer is no. How does one define “next of kin?” Her children are dead; I am the eldest of her grandchildren who went to see her every Sunday. I’d say that’s next of kin. Close to home.