Saturday, May 28, 2011

Library of Dust, part 2: Scared Out of My Mind

Many stories have escaped the walls of any asylum although most have died within. One such story was the experience of a child – a sane child whose spirit may have been a bit rebellious for the time, but none the less, she was and is perfectly sane.

Sharon captures her haunting memories in the following essay written in a writing class I facilitate.


In 1955 I was placed in the Oregon State Hospital for the criminally insane in Salem along with three other escapees from the Hillcrest reform school for girls.

After breaking free from Hillcrest, the four of us were picked up early one evening by staff from McClaren School for Boys. We had no idea no where we were going, and it was a quiet and somber ride. That would be the last silence I would experience for several weeks.

Hillcrest authority had warned the girls that runaways would not be tolerated and had suggested we would be transferred to Rocky Butte Jail in Portland. I believed I had prepared myself for jail. We had joked about it among ourselves laughingly, using the jailhouse phrase “we can do that standing on our heads”. So, of course, I was confused and bewildered when after a short ride we pulled up before a huge, looming and ominous building that housed Oregon's insane … about 3,500 patients at that time. It looked like what it was … a house of horrors! I could never have prepared myself for what would meet me inside.

My carpool partner and I were separated from the other girls, and I never saw them again. My memory of this place begins after entering the first of a session of wards where I was slightly relieved by the relaxed setting of Danish-style furniture and young people milling around for the most part, looking quite sane. Between each ward and locked door there was a hall or a short screened walkway. The heavy, solid doors were locked behind before the next was unlocked. One of the next wards housed older women; some were sitting in the wicker furniture that was familiar only to that ward. They were a scattered group with some talking to themselves or others, but it was nothing compared to primeval chaos that greeted us when we entered the back ward that was to be my home for the next three weeks … a ward for the criminally insane.

When passing through each ward into the next, it seemed as if we were descending deeper and deeper into this world of madness, peeling off layers until we reached the “back” ward where I was assigned. The constant racket and uproar overpowers my memory of the foul smell, but they were both overwhelming. I was scared out of my mind.

The building was constructed in 1883 with high ceilings, old fashioned lighting, and heavy screened windows. It was a perfect expectation as to what an Insane Asylum would look like, including the tormented occupants.

A group of women surrounded us as soon as we entered. I did not move even as they pressed close and picked at our clothes muttering and asking questions without needing answers. Surely, they were not going to leave us here in this snake pit. Well, they did!

It was near bed time, but they first took us to the shower area which also held two deep bath tubs set in the middle of the room. This arrangement provided space for as many attendants as needed to control the patients who became unmanageable. On this night, the tubs were used to disinfect or delouse the two of us, washing our hair with a nasty smelling liquid, even though we had come from a state institution. It was the rule. There were many other rules.

Two of us were placed on this ward, but we were separated. After being “disinfected' and issued a faded worn nightgown, I was taken to the bathroom and then instructed to leave my shoes outside the door of a room that held two cots. I was strapped to one of them with a heavy leather strap and wide leather cuffs that secured my hands to my waist. The other cot under the tall screened window was empty. I tried to convince the attendant that I was not crazy, only here for punishment. They ignored me, telling me I would be in restraints for twenty-four hours. “It was the rule.”

There was little sleep that night. It was February, and the wind was howling outside; the patients were howling inside. Tormented pitiful cries along with repetitive chanting, hollering, and pleading came from the women now restrained in bed.

Someone was allowed up to pace the hall. She was chanting “Jesus don’t care, Jesus don’t care” over and over, louder and louder. I was a stranger in a strange place and was thrown completely off guard.

I laid in bed trying to relax and not struggle in the restraints. I fought the claustrophobia and the fear. Just about then a hand came through the space between the wall and the radiator and grabbed my head. The wall that separated the room and the hall was cut away providing a spot for a radiator which heated both areas at the same time. The space around the radiator was large enough for a hand to reach inside. My friend who was released from her restraints to use the bathroom had seen my shoes outside my room and used the chance to scare me. My screams blended with the others.

Morning came, and my door was open, but I still was strapped in bed. One of the patients entered my room, a heavy-set, sloppy-looking woman. She talked softly, sweetly to me and reached under her dress for a comb that was left with just a few scattered teeth. I pleaded with her to leave as she leaned over me and started to comb my hair. She rambled on not paying any attention to my pleas, and I was afraid to make her angry as I couldn’t defend myself. She quickly left when a childlike girl or woman bolted into my room taking an aggressive stance with hands on her hips and screaming, “You're in love with Doctor Dreis are you? Aren’t you? I saw you take him down and intercourse him.” I was afraid this agile little monkey-like gal jumping around was going to tear into me. Just then a matron arrived and released me to wash up and have breakfast. She left me with a bleached cotton print dress which was common issue, and I hoped it would help me blend in with the other patients. Most of the women seemed to be living in their own worlds, talking and using wild hand gestures to get their point across to the imaginary people they were directing all their energy toward.

My first experience in the dining room is the only one I remember vividly. I sat down with a dozen or so patients at the long wooden table set with dented tin plates and cups and a solitary spoon for a utensil. In the midst of this first meal a young woman sitting at the head of the table announced in a loud voice, “I use Listerine”. She took a big gulp of coffee, threw her head back, and gargled. Then she spewed it out over the table, following it with peals of laughter.

Others would spit food back in their plates or take or give food to others sometimes causing a squabble, but more often this was tolerated or not even noticed by what I guessed to be heavily sedated women, some with drool spilling from their open mouths. I couldn't eat. I tried to convince myself to drink the milk. Take a sip, I love milk. I couldn't do it. Everything seemed so vile. I learned to drink coffee. Black coffee was all I could stomach ... I found myself looking forward to mealtime for the coffee which other than a couple bites of bread I dunked would sustain me through my stay. I was close to hysteria, myself, and I was so grateful when they told me I would not have to finish the 24-hour restraint rule.

After breakfast and lunch any patient that could function at all was required to “Block.” This required pushing a large block of wood covered by a heavy cloth on the bottom with a broomstick handle. This was a twice-a-day, seven-days-a week routine, and it went remarkably smooth. For as boring as it was, it was meant to provide exercise, and, of course, it helped keep the floors polished. Everyone moved exceptionally slow, some suffering with physical disabilities, pushing and polishing single file up and down the hall, around and around for an hour. ...........................................................Blocking tool on right

I got the first look at my surroundings that morning while I blocked, meekly staying in line, trying to blend in, and not drawing any attention to myself. One end of the long hall provided the sleeping rooms, some single, some double, and at least one larger room that held bedridden patients who were in constant restraint. Their yelling and pleading for help was a continual day and night background for the repetitive babbling and pitiful whimpering which never stopped anywhere on the ward. The terrible pathetic sight of their struggling to free themselves is unforgettable.

Blocking was over this first morning and my friend from Hillcrest was not there. They must have moved her early. Separating us, I later learned, that was another fear tactic which I must say was effective. I was on my own here, and there wasn't anywhere to go.

Several times I sought out someone who was exempt from blocking for different mental or physical problems and would place them in line, put the block in their hand, and sneak away. This didn't work very well as my plan would be foiled when my stand-in would wander out of line and foul things up or just wasn't capable because of the lack of strength or balance. Today I wonder if some younger patients were disabled with Muscular Dystrophy or other disfiguring diseases. Shame on me!

The opposite end of the hall held the open “day room” and the nurse's station. There was always activity here. The nurse's station was next to the door, and patients gathered to wait for the doctors or other attendants who stopped there before leaving the ward. There were always several inmates trying to push or beg their way out, pleading to go home. No one likes to be locked up even if they are crazy.

There were two or three women who wore red cotton pajama-like suits that were buttoned around the waist and across the shoulder, allowing them to be undressed without taking off the leather belt and cuffs that were never removed. They were not required to block, and one of these poor souls was hunched in a corner snarling at anyone who looked her way. Her hair was tangled, and she looked and acted menacing. The sloppy woman with the toothless comb couldn't resist the temptation. She stopped and tried to fuss over the hunched woman. It was over in a flash. The crazy woman had her down, and her teeth were locked onto her arm. When separated she was bleeding where a hunk of flesh was missing. The comb which was considered contraband was confiscated. Personal possessions were not allowed on this ward.

There were a few exceptions to that rule. An elderly lady in a single room, who had been a resident for 30 years was allowed to have a broom and spent her days sweeping her room hour after hour. Later, when I tried to engage her in conversation, she brushed me aside. Absorbed in keeping her floor clean, this sweet-looking, little gray-haired grandma always wore an apron.

I went to the day room where there was a television playing with the sound of a game show adding to the pandemonium. I found a place where I could sit with my back to the wall to stay out of the way until I could get my bearings. There were several people in the room; some were staring at the television with blank faces, not understanding the dialogue. I never had a chance to brace myself before the “little monkey” who had been in my room earlier, jumped in front of me again screaming and accusing me of “intercoursing” Dr Dreis. I was still scared of this tiny little fairytale creature, but my hands were free, and I could at least protect myself. She abruptly stopped, went to the heavily screened window, and standing with her legs apart, she lifted the front of her dress and slowly swayed back and forth singing “beautiful, beautiful bluish-green eyes” over and over until she was calm and left the room.

Sometime in the first few days I was taken off the ward to have my photo taken. Fingerprints? I can't remember. I do remember that I was taken through a dimly lit tunnel that smelled like a musty basement. There were tracks laid throughout the tunnels, and I later learned they were used to transport food, laundry, and other supplies between buildings using a small rail system. It was also used to transfer patients, which made it a convenient way to keep them from the public eye. I had expected to see a doctor at the end of the tunnel or someone with information. I was confused as to why I was still here. Were they planning on keeping me, testing me? Treating me? Will I see a doctor? I had questions, but no one to ask.

I felt alone, but as the days went on, my fears lessened. The initial fright had turned into more of a defensive mode. I was still leery and cautious but not saturated with the initial fear I had experienced when first thrown into this surreal never-imagined world.

As I became more comfortable, I was curious about these women. I approached several of them looking for someone to talk to and perhaps to help me navigate through this nightmare, but there was no common ground for conversation. I listened to a woman in her early forties who had tears in her eyes when she spoke of being married and cried when she told how much she missed her children. She was so lucid that I wondered to myself why she would be on a ward for the criminally insane.

As we were talking, the big door opened, and she was up off her chair, trying to squeeze her way out while she desperately pleaded her case. She was joined by several other women all desperate to escape. I found something else to do, but I sought her out again feeling sorry for her. She was so quiet and sad apart from some of the more aggressive or heavily sedated women. The entire scene was pathetic. I can't say it enough.

A few days later, while blocking after lunch, this same thin, delicate, red-haired woman began singing “Bringing in the Sheaves, Bringing in the Sheaves.” She had a beautiful soprano voice, but she sang louder and louder, higher and higher as she went around and around until the song progressed into a high pitched scream. The attendants filled one of the deep bathtubs, and two of them wrapped her in a sheet and immersed her in the cold water which subdued her. In the next few days she was taken off the ward for a shock treatment. When she returned she was withdrawn and mute.

I approached anyone who could finish a sentence. I spent time with a young woman who was probably in her thirties who told entertaining stories about hobnobbing with movie stars. As a young girl in the fifties, I enjoyed the movie magazines that were so popular and kept us up to date on the personal lives of the stars. And now, I was privy to the inside stories.

She named different leading actresses and actors she had met and run with. She described the houses of the stars where she partied in Hollywood. She took me to California with the sunshine and the beautiful people, a wonderland she was a part of ... and who knows it may have been true. She was a pretty woman, and even in her cotton day-dress she played the part of a glamour girl to the point of being pretentious. I spent as much time listening to her stories that she would give me.

One morning while everyone was blocking in the hall, I saw some staff and a doctor escort her to a room which was set up like mine as the radiator was cut into the wall. Each time I passed her room I would stop and have a look. Today they had strapped her in bed and had a cart on wheels which was rigged to give portable shock treatments. I watched them put the cones on her temples and apply the shock. The only other thing that I remember is how hard she slept, how she snored so loudly for so long, and how she was so quiet and subdued when she recovered. She was blank when I spoke with her next. That was the end of the wonderfully entertaining stories.

Soon after the shock treatment she was allowed a “day out”. It was a day off campus and most likely with her parents. I wondered if that was the purpose for the shock treatment, to subdue her for her visit. She caught my attention on her return because she was dressed in street clothes. I followed her when she went into the bathroom. The always-busy staff had taken their eyes from her before she changed her clothes, and she had decided she was going to wash her long, beautiful, full-length camel hair coat.

The bathroom had a long community sink with multiple faucets, and the movie star lady laid out her coat in the sink and turned on all the faucets. The overworked matrons now had to deal with this ruined coat which probably cost as much or more than a week of their wages. I speculated that maybe her parents had some influence as she was the only patient I observed that had left the ward with the exception of those who received shock treatments.

At this point I was more at ease with the surroundings and sought out ways to fill the days. The hospital did have a movie night, but the criminally insane weren't privilege. I spent some time playing cards with a little, feisty, older lady who wore mitts on both hands as she would shred clothing, bedding, or whatever she found to satisfy her compulsion.

It was a selfish act on my part. It was a bargain deal. They removed her restraints, and I would play cards with her to weasel out of blocking, although for me it was just about as boring. There was a partial deck of cards, and the “Shredder” did all the dealing. After being restrained it probably felt good to use her hands. She was in complete control. I didn't even need to play my cards. She played them for me and with no rhyme or reason. I liked this little lady because she was so out-front, bossy, and spoke her mind. I should have spent more time with her.

About a week after arriving, the matrons who were always short-handed asked me to help with the showers. I agreed only if I would be on the drying end of the operation. The more violent patients were showered with their restraints intact. Even so, I was uneasy with these naked, sullen women, some of whom spent their days cuffed, either on their feet in their pajama suits or on their backs, and a few on sheepskins. Some would recoil and cower at being touched while others would fight even though their hands were cuffed. They kicked and struggled when they were dried and dressed. More than once I called for backup because they scared me. I hated this chore, but once doing it I could hardly ignore the fact it made it much easier and faster for the overworked help.

I stayed clear of the patients restrained in their beds. I ignored their futile cries and pitiful pleas for help. The same pleas you might hear repeated in nursing homes today. The same smells you'll find there, as well.

I did not witness any intended abuse for my three week’s stay. The matrons I talked with were from around the Salem area. They were of the same make up as the Hillcrest matrons; some of whom had also worked at Fairview next door. Middle aged housewives for the most part, overworked and undoubtedly underpaid. Strong women who must have a matched mindset to rebuke the women following them constantly, clamoring for attention, and asking questions that have no answers. To spend day after day with such despair and heartache and in turn be required to clean the woman with feces smeared on her and the wall of the bathroom or to calm the two fighting over a single scrap of paper or to deal with the woman who undresses whenever a male was present. All this is a constant whirlwind of insane actions blended with the other lost, catatonic souls with bent heads set on over medicated bodies. I wondered what the turnover in this job must have been?

My grandparents came to see me. They told me my parents had been here, but were turned away. I hadn't had a letter because communication was not allowed the first thirty days. My grandfather was persistent, and we were allowed a short visit. He brought me hope along with box of chocolate Turtles. After three weeks of bread and black coffee, I counted the hours until meal times when I was allocated two of the delicious sweet pieces of chocolate and caramel. I nibbled, savoring each tiny bit until the after-flavor had long passed.

It was just a few days after their visit that I was taken to the office of the Superintendent where I met my grandparents again. They had been to the District Attorney's office in Salem, and grandpa had demanded my release. He got it. I was getting out of here!

The meeting with the superintendent draws a blank other than a visual of a large, kind man behind a large desk. I do know I left the State Hospital not knowing where I would be going. A nineteen year-old I knew who was released from Hillcrest, was sent back for parole violation when she married. Amazingly, they allowed her husband visitation. What a goofy world! Being an adult in her circumstance didn’t keep her out of Hillcrest, and perhaps I was to return as well. So, being eighteen would not assure my release. They could return me to Hillcrest if they wanted. Anyway, I felt their intention may be to send me to jail. I welcomed either choice after this experience.

Again, I was on my way to an unknown destination. Only, this time I was surprised and overjoyed when I arrived at the modern Donald E. Long Juvenile Home in Portland. I later discovered that Hillcrest wouldn't take me back because they believed I was the instigator in the runaway.

After several days of peace and quiet in the Isolation Unit, but still certainly concerned about additional incarceration, I went to court. It was brief. The judge asked questions and ruled the State Hospital had been severe enough punishment, a harsh lesson, and he turned me loose. I will bypass any further restriction. Free and clear.

Sharon H., 2011

Photos courtesy of David Maisel
Library of Dust

For more information:
Claiming Cremated Remains
Oregon State Hospital

Emily, 28 May 2011

Library of Dust by David Maisel

Occasionally, I review non-fiction memoirs, but this is the first time I have written about a photographic book which tells nothing of the memories of its subjects, and little about their lives in general.

So, why is this a topic?

It is a story of lost lives; lost memories. It is part of life that is too often pushed aside and forgotten. It is a story that few wish to share, but everyone needs to face. For this reason, the story begs to be told so families will share the secrets hidden behind the doors, the forgotten family members.

Library of Dust by David Maisel, part 1

Dust: the deterioration of solid matter.
Dust to dust: the Biblical cycle of life.
The Library of Dust: canisters filled with dust, shelved as books, and hidden away for decades. Living dust that interacts with its vessel as if trying to escape…one last escape to freedom.
The Oregon State Hospital was established in 1883 in Salem to house mentally ill patients and the criminally insane. In 1913, the hospital’s cemetery made way for a new building, so the bodies were exhumed, cremated, and placed in copper canisters in an underground vault. This practice of cremation continued until 1971.

The hospital provided a “safe place” for relatives who no longer fit in the public’s world. It was a place for them to receive care; a place for them to be forgotten. This was a place for those individuals which time has tried to erase. But now their memory is brought back to the surface by one individual whose philosophy is to record “things that aren’t intended to be seen”*.

David Maisel, originally from New York City, but currently living in California, visited the State Hospital in 2005 and in 2009 to photograph various parts of the asylum, but especially the copper canisters which have been stored in an underground vault for decades, repeatedly flooded, and hidden from the world. When I first saw his work online, it was immediately clear that his background in design and structure transformed the misery of this institution into mesmerizing art.

Thousands of copper canisters that entombed cremated psychiatric inmates were exposed to continuous water damage resulting in an array of colors and patterns as the water corroded the copper shells. In his book Library of Dust (Chronicle Books, San Francisco), Mr. Maisel captures the eerie essence of the canisters, each one as individual as their human contents once were.

Maisel’s coffee-table-sized book contains four articles by noted scholars and fifty-four cremation canisters as well as many other photos highlighting various rooms of the hospital. These essays give us insight into the reasons so many colorful minerals corroded these canisters as well as our cultural views on death and cremation.

Geoff Manaugh, former senior editor at Dwell magazine, in his commentary “Mineral Kinship” states, “Indeed, the canisters have reacted with the human ashes held within.” He contends that “We, too, will alter, meld with the dust and metal; an efflorescence. This, then, is our family narrative, one not of loss but of reunion.”

The late Terry Toedtemeir, geologist, historian, and Portland (Oregon) Art Museum’s photography curator, in his contribution “The Soul Remains” discussed the various minerals appearing on the canisters and that although copper is known to be resistant to corrosion, multiple minerals have formed on these canisters presenting an array of colors. Toedtemeir states that “X-ray diffraction analysis has revealed that the particular corrosion product is a complex copper phosphate mineral known as sampleite,” a rare mineral found in arid regions, yet is appears on these water-logged canisters along with many other minerals. He further postulates that the make up of the water as well as the contents of the canisters could have affected the corrosion, but that this was a surprisingly short period of time for all these minerals to form.

Michael S. Roth, historian, curator and author, shares some background on the role of asylums in the United States and our cultural views of madness and death in “Graves of the Insane, Decorated,” a title taken from an 1886 Statesman Journal (Salem, Oregon) news article about decorating the State Hospital’s cemetery on Memorial Day.

David Maisel writes the last contribution, entitled The Library and Its Self-Contained Double, where he recalls his photographic visits to the hospital. In 2009, he returned to find that the hospital and ended his book with one more shot, the new library of dust. In effort to preserve the existing, unclaimed canisters, have placed them in individual black plastic vaults row upon row, each with a metal plate number, now appearing more like a huge library card catalog, or in the least more modern shelves on which to place those lives. Sadly, each copper canister is also encased in a plastic bag with a baggie tie, and Mr. Maisel reports that condensation is developing inside the bags.

There is something very sad that the natural elements of the physical body and the earth’s minerals are now encased in man’s unnatural creation, plastic, which can have the lifespan of up to 600 years … so much for dust to dust.

Part two in this series is the memories of a past inmate.

* "Strange beauty, transformation, secrets and loss" by Leah Ollamn, Los Angeles Times, Sunday, January 4, 2009, an interview with David Maisel.

Photos are the courtesy of Daivd Maisel.

Read and see more at Library of Dust

Emily, 28 May 2011