Craziness runs in my family like a current under waters that swell and recede with the seasons. My sister and I have stood at its shore and watched some of the adults in our life get close enough to the edge to be swallowed whole. My uncle died alone, a pathological liar with a fake name and a fifth wife. My cousin killed herself. Another uncle wandered into other people’s homes, sat down in their living rooms and demanded, “Just who the hell are you?” But most of the craziness in our family goes by other names. He has a bad temper. She’s got the blues, could be menopause. He hasn’t been the same since Vietnam.
Maybe all families are like this. Maybe all young girls worry that their heads are a frightening place to be, their thoughts a medley of words they can’t translate, and even if they could, no one would understand them, no one would say, “Yes, I’ve felt that way, too. Yes, it’s fine, normal even.” Maybe all of these girls grow older, find others who feel the way they do, but still believe madness lives just around the corner. It waits. And maybe all of these girls grow into women and find men who think of them as strong and sane—men who even use the word “amazing” when they describe them to friends, men who nod, bewildered, when these women demand one promise before they’ll marry them: “No matter what happens, no matter what you’re afraid of, no matter who tells you that it’s for the best, promise me you’ll never commit me, that you’ll never let it happen. Because crazy is contagious and if I’m committed, if I’m living with completely crazy, no treatment, no doctor, no medication will ever help me find my way out.”
Interviewer: What happened when he got home from the war?
May McNeil: Well, we thought he was all right. The doctor and the nurse brought him to the door, and the doctor said, “Mrs. Can, here is your son. You’ll have to watch him. He’s shell-shocked.” That’s what they called them if they lost their mind. So he was home two or three days, and Mom cooked some beef. She used to make it real brown, pound it up real good, you know, and make it tender. He liked it. She set it right down by his plate, and when he seen that, he jumped up, and he said, “Meat, meat, meat,” and a bad word and “blood,” and he says, “That’s all I saw over in France,” and from then on, he was just raving crazy.
Interviewer: He said that’s all he saw over in France?
May McNeil: Yes, and he jumped up, and he hit Dad in the mouth and split his lip. Dad said, “May, go down to the neighbors and call the law. He’s lost his mind. “That was the hardest job I ever done in my life. But we called the law, I did, and they come out and put him in jail. Dad sat up in the jail, outside the cell all night; he felt so bad, you know. And the next morning after Elmer slept, he was OK. He said, “Dad, you had better do something with me. I do that often, and I’m liable to kill some of you. “And he asked us to put him in Jacksonville.
Interviewer: What’s over in Jacksonville?
May McNeil: That used to be a place where they put insane people. Jacksonville State Hospital. He was there all his life from the time he was about, I guess, 19 or 20 until he was 80.
May McNeil was born in Beardstown, Ill., in 1898. Her brother was a patient of the Illinois Central Hospital for the Insane [aka Jacksonville State Hospital). Interviewed by the Oral History Office, Sangamon State University, Springfield, Ill., Oct. 10, 1987.
When I was a child, my sister and I sneaked our bikes through the bushes guarding the gates of the Illinois Central Hospital for the Insane—The Bughouse, as the kids at school called it. Many of the buildings were old—the first patient was admitted in 1851—and the walls had crumbled in the corners. We liked the quiet, the twists and turns of the roads, the trees, which stretched their necks to the sky while their arms shaded us. We liked the buildings, large slabs of stone that leapfrogged on top of each other. We liked how we bounced over the secrets of the insane in the cracks of the sidewalk.
The hospital was nearly empty by then, with fewer than 600 patients in a facility that had once housed over 3,600. My sister and I often wondered where all the crazy people had gone. She believed they had escaped. They kicked through the sagging doors and stepped into the light. They were no longer patients, but nuns, maybe, or students at the Flamingo School of Beauty downtown. They fooled everybody but us.
Only the truly crazy people were left behind—or, perhaps, just the people who didn’t have the gumption to make a break for it. Not one of the patients left at The Bughouse was a person I knew, and yet every time I passed by, I expected to see someone I recognized, someone peering out the gate, someone I could rescue. Someone who would tell me that she wasn’t really crazy or, if she was, that she hadn’t always been. Someone who would understand all the chatter in my head, the characters who lived inside of me and the scribbled-in notebooks under my bed. Someone I could take home to my room, where the walls were covered in light lavender and “The Yellow Wallpaper” was something I only pretended not to understand.
Interviewer: Did you have a lot of younger patients?
Mamie Cole: That was another thing that bothered me. When we were in training, they told us that dementia praecox was the insanity of the youth. That was true. They used to come in there sometimes 13, 14, years old, and I always felt sorry for them. I always felt that they were just doomed, that they’d never get out. Some of them did get out, but some of them stayed there an entire lifetime.
Mamie Cole was an attendant who joined the staff of Illinois Central Hospital for the Insane in 1911. She later became a nurse and night supervisor. Interviewed by the Oral History Office, Sangamon State University, Springfield, Ill.,Oct. 13,1972.
My aunt calls, sighs and hangs up, the phone rattling as it drops onto the receiver. She calls again two minutes later and whispers my name. “Is it you? Or is it that machine again?”
I tell her it’s me. I don’t tell her it was also me the first time she called. “What’s wrong, Aunt Audrey?”
She whispers, “I can’t really talk, not here. I think one ofthem is listening.”
I walk into the kitchen and look out into the backyard. My 5-year-old son stands in the Florida winter sun and holds a frog in the palm ofhis hand. He rubs its back with a dirty finger. His head is bent, and his eyes are dark and brown, the shape of almonds, just like my aunt’s—a coincidence, this likeness to a woman who married my mother’s brother. “Maybe you could go into the bathroom,” I tell my aunt. “I bet they aren’t in there.”
There is a rustling, a shuffle of steps, a muted click. “Well, I’ve closed the door the best I can, you know, with the cord,” my aunt says, her voice a bit louder.
“It’s probably OK,” I say and open the dishwasher and take the clean glasses out. “What’s going on?”
“Well, they started up again last night,” my aunt tells me, and I can picture her, this 80-year-old woman I love, with her red, red lipstick, her blue-black hair, her once-kind eyes now wild in the curved mirror. “It was the one the queen always sends, the loudest one. The lieutenant bee. He was in my ear all night long.”
My son walks through the door, heads to the refrigerator. I shake my head, point to the bathroom. “Wash your hands,” I mouth to him. “What did he want?” I ask my aunt.
My aunt laughs, but it’s a bitter, broken sound. “What they always want: to make me crazy. And, you know, I think I made it worse when I called the exterminator.”
“Really?” I say and start on the silverware. I wonder how she found an exterminator who would come to her house to search for bees in the middle of an Illinois winter. “Did he find any of them?”
My aunt sighs. “No. I tried to tell him that’s how the bees are. They hide. People don’t know how smart they really are.”
The first bee showed up in my aunt’s bedroom a few months ago. She couldn’t see it—she can never see them, they’re so fast, so sneaky, so ready for the light to be switched on—but he whispered in her ear, a buzz all night long, a hum, which she first thought was friendly. Since then, they’ve become organized. The queen has decided my aunt’s house must become her hive. They will drive my aunt out, or they will kill her. My aunt knows this because sometimes, at night, she can hear them talking.
“You know what, Aunt Audrey?” I say and check my son’s hands. I open the refrigerator, point to the grapes on the second shelf. “Maybe you should move. Mom was just telling me that the retirement home on Fifth Street—you know, the one with those huge white columns?—has a bus, and they’ll take you to Mass every day, out to dinner, whatever, and it’s not like a nursing home. You’d have your own apartment. The food’s even supposed to be good.”
My aunt is quiet for a moment. “You didn’t tell your mother about the bees, did you?”
“No,” I lie. “Of course not. It’s just—”
“Because I know she’ll think I’m crazy, and I’m not.” My aunt’s voice is hard. “I’m not.”
Before I circle The Bughouse on my bike; before I move a thousand miles away; before I stand in my kitchen and study my son and speak carefully to my aunt as she whispers in her small, pink bathroom with the chipped tile and pale green counter; before my aunt’s bones have been shattered by a car; before she has lost a breast; before she has held a phone in her hand and listened to a police officer say “your daughter” and “suicide” and “I’m sorry”; before she has woken up alone in her home, night after night, with her feet resting on an open recliner, a rosary in her lap, the black static of the TV blinking at her afghan-covered knees, a half-eaten Meals on Wheels dinner on the tray beside her—years before all of that, a lifetime of sorts, my aunt pulls on a navy blue dress, boards a bus and kneels beside my mother at an altar. My aunt promises to protect me, to guide me, to lead me through whatever valley of darkness I might find myself in. She has left a husband at home to take this oath. He is angry with her: He is often drunk and sometimes violent, and no one can later recall why he is too furious to come with her. Still, she holds me in my white baptismal gown, her eyes calm and steady, her gaze sure. She smiles like a woman who has never been awakened by a bee in her ear. She smiles like we all do, as if she never saw it coming.
Interviewer: Did you ever, in the time that you were working at Jacksonville, go to one of the funerals?
Mamie Cole: Oh, yes.
Interviewer: Could you describe them for me?
Mamie Cole: The state patients that didn’t have any relatives or anybody, they would bury them over in the potter’s field out there in Diamond Grove. Well, the minister always just preached a nice funeral like anyone; a few aides would go, maybe, and sing. I remember one time I went and Dr. Cointus was the minister. He talked about illnesses, and he tried to say that insanity was just the same as any other illness, and that was way back when. He said that you got sick in your body and sometimes you got sick in your mind, and I thought it was a nice sermon. They still do that for the ones that don’t have any relatives. I think they do.
Mamie Cole, previously referenced.
Years later—long after my summer bike rides have ended—I go back inside The Bughouse gates. By then, it is the Jacksonville Developmental Center, a day school. My friend Mark’s Special Ed little brother will spend his time there after he “graduates” from high school.
I am 16, and I am in the back seat of Mike’s car, and we are behind one of the empty buildings that I used to ride my bike around. He is telling me lies—he loves me, will always love me—but I don’t know that yet. He whispers into my neck, his hands everywhere my mother would say they absolutely should not be, and I see a shadow move across the window of the building beside me.
“Shit!” I say and struggle back into my shirt. “There’s somebody in there!”
Mike looks up, his eyes dark, unfocused. “I don’t see anything.” His lips find my ear.
I shake him off. “No, there! In that window. I saw someone.” I do not say I think it is a woman. I don’t even realize then that I am sure this shadow is a woman I have seen in my dreams, in a room in one of the buildings in The Bughouse, with a metal bowl on her head connected to thick electrical cords, who screams and screams, her eyes shut tight, her throat as tight as my mother’s.
Mike sighs and then laughs. “Hey, let’s go in and look. I hear there are tunnels under there and all sorts of old equipment.” He is already opening the door when I tug on his arm.
“No! Are you crazy?”
He laughs again and tries to pull me out of the car. He is a little crazy, this first love of mine, this 17-year-old kid, his dad a former drunk who still slaps him around, his mom a woman who cleans the floor on her knees every day but Sunday.
“Come on, baby,” he says, and I know right then, even as I follow him up the cracked steps, that he is wrong for me, though it will take me another two years to realize I am wrong for him.
It will end on an interstate on a spring evening. We will be in the same car we are in right now. He will be speeding into the dusk, clutching my arm as I open the door, ready to jump if he won’t pull over—”I swear to God, I will. I’ll jump out of this car, you asshole, you lying, cheating, son of a bitch. I swear I will jump if you don’t stop the car right now!”—and finally, after I claw away his hands and open the door, he will swerve to the side, rocks spitting into the ditch, and he will grab the back of my shirt as I try to leap out while the tires skid and stop, and he will speak slowly and carefully to me as the car pants and I stand at the side of the road with his skin under my nails. “Please, just let me take you home. Please. I can’t leave you here.” And later, he will tell his best friend—the person I will date next, as soon as I can, even though the only interest I have in him is what it might mean to Mike—that I went crazy that night. “I told her about Jody, and she just flipped out. She just went nuts, man. I swear to God, she was like completely insane.”
But now, right now, I am only crazy in love, its own kind of 16-year-old insanity, and so I let him lead me to this place, this abandoned dark building, where the only thing I find is a locked door.
Interviewer: At that time then, around 1950, were the old dances and parties pretty much eliminated?
Oscar Gronseth: They had patient dances prior to my coming to this hospital. When the patients would go to the dance, they were escorted in large groups. Then, when the music started, they would come together like the coming together of the Red Sea (laughter). And as the last note would end on the dance set, they parted again, like the parting of the Red Sea. And woe to any of them who were caught even standing around talking to one another.
I think they felt that we would start having a lot of bad sexual incidents or something like that if we let the sexes mingle. I just couldn’t see it. I felt the mingling of the sexes would have so much more of a therapeutic and beneficial value because it was much more natural, as in someone you’d find outside a hospital.
Oscar Gronseth joined the staff of the Central Illinois Center for the Insane in 1951 as a supervising therapist. He later became the Activity Therapy Supervisor. Interviewed by the Oral History Office, Sangarnon State University, Springfield, I11., Oct. 12, 1972.
I am sitting in my bed, my back straight against the headboard, my knees under my chin. There are ghosts all around me, but I can’t see them. Not all of them are friendly. I am 5, and I don’t know yet that my mother needs me as much as I need her. Or maybe she doesn’t, not now, not this night. This is before her little white pill, the unopened book on her lap, the startled jumps and the long silences that stretch out and cover the walls of our house. This is before my father and I sip wine together as adults and ponder words like “anxiety” and “clinical depression” and “genetic tendency toward these conditions compacted by external factors.” This is before she closes her eyes when she remembers the years of my teens, her “decade of despondency.” This is now, a moonless night in an old, yellow house, and I am small and cold and without power to hurt or to heal, and she is solely my mother, my savior.
I want to flee to her, to wait by the side of her bed, to watch her breathe until her eyes open and she lifts the covers for me to slide under. But I can’t leave my bed. If my feet touch the floor, if one toe steps into the dark, the ghosts will turn into shapes. Anything could happen then.
I am not the kind of child who calls out in the middle of the night. It is dim and everything sleeps; even the statue of the Virgin Mary by my bed seems weary as her bare heel crushes the head of a snake. I cannot yell for my mother. I cannot split open the night with a scream. And so I say her name silently as if it is a prayer, as if she is my own God, one I can beckon to me without words. I call her again and again, until she stands in my doorway, her white nightgown a shadow of light. “Laurie Ann?”
“You often called me with your mind,” my mother tells me now, 35 years later. “That’s how close we were. You didn’t even have to speak. Do you remember?”
We are a family that believes in the unseen, the unknown, the unspoken words that startle us awake. We do not spend a lot of time worrying if others believe as we do. We befriend these doubters. We seek them out, marry them even, and all the while, we secretly think of them as a bit barbaric, so intent on surviving that they never scrape beneath the surface to find what throbs within them. And yet, perhaps, our own survival instincts pale next to these skeptics we keep close to us. They are the sort of people who guard the gates of The Bughouse. We are the sort who roam its halls.
Interviewer: It sounds as though you’ve gotten results that a lot of other people who supposedly know what they’re doing haven’t gotten daughter). Doesn’t this make you feel pretty good?
Eleanor DeLong: Yes. [One patient] says I cured him. He was having trouble with his mother and his mother-in-law. He had a wife and five children, and I said, “Move as damn far away from both of them as you can get. “ He had a dealership from an implement company that was bugging him. I said, “Get rid of it; work for somebody else. Get out of this situation. Get away from your people; get away from hers. Stand on those two feet yourself “And he did it. And he is doing well, really well.
Eleanor PeLong began working at the Illinois Central Hospital for the Insane in 1929 as a ward attendant. In 1953, she became manager of the hospital laundry, where she managed patient workers. Interviewed by the Oral History Office, Sangamon State University, Springfield, I11., Oct. 1 1, 1972.
I hold my son in my arms, rest my chin on his damp head. He is 6 days old, and we are finally home from the hospital. There is a faint red circle around his neck where the umbilical cord became a noose. I study the flutter of his eyelids and wonder, as I have every moment since his birth, if there is brain damage, if he has lost something that he had been given, if those minutes without oxygen will mean a lifetime of loss. The doctors say we’ll have to wait and see.
I have a lot oftime. I’m supposed to rest. There was a problem in the delivery, and I also carry battle wounds. The forceps squeezed my son’s soft head, wrenching him from inside of me, twisting him toward this life even as the cord that connected us held tight. I have “too many stitches to count,” a tear that makes me worry my sex life is over and an incision that must be kept as dry as possible. I do what my doctor says. I stay in my nightgown and lie on a towel without underwear, and when I shuffle to the bathroom, my husband walks with me, holding my arm. Later, he mops up the blood that leaves a trail on the tile behind me. He uses bleach. I make him open the window. The baby’s in here, too.
Days pass, and I sit and hold my son. I don’t want to see friends who stop by, even Kristin, who brought chicken salad. 1 shake my head when my mother calls. I don’t open the cards, the blue packages. I only pretend to listen when my husband reads me e-mails with “Congratulations!” in the subject line. I sit and hold my son. My husband needs to go to Safeway, just for a minute, just for a few things, like milk and more bleach. He asks me again and again, “Are you OK?” And then, “Are you sure?”
My husband puts the phone by our bed, kisses me as he leaves. I sit and hold my son. He looks right at me, his eyes dark blue, and studies me without a blink. He seems to know something that I don’t. He seems wise to me; there’s something beneath his stare. Perhaps he senses that my love for him is too big, too wide, and that my fear for him will swallow us both whole. He wants to tell me something—something that will change everything between us—but I don’t know what it is.
After a minute—or many minutes, maybe even an hour, I don’t know, I don’t count time anymore—I realize that my son is warning me. He will grow, and he will be bullied. Or become a bully. There will be drugs, maybe, and dark alleys and needles that haven’t been sterilized. He will drop out of school, or he will get some girl he can’t remember pregnant. He will join a gang. Or he will be shot by a gang member on his way to baseball practice. He will die in my arms. He will live to be a 100 and never call. He will become old and fat and bald, miserably pecking away inside a cubicle, never finding out what he could have become and blaming me because of it. Or he’ll end up at The Bughouse—which, of course, isn’t The Bughouse any longer. Now it’s the Jacksonville Developmental Center, and it’s for people whose brains didn’t get enough oxygen.
It occurs to me, as I sit and hold my baby, that none of it matters. Although my heart has been cracked out of my chest and is limping after my son, I cannot alter the outcome of his life. I can only witness it, and at this moment—when I am struggling to keep the cap of my pain meds closed, my breast milk clean—it seems too much to ask of me.
The phone rings, and, without thinking, I answer it. My friend who had a son six months ago asks me how I am. Before I can stop myself, I tell her, “I know something awful is going to happen to him, and I know I’m going to have to watch, and I can’t do it. I can’t.”
She is quiet for a moment and then asks, “What do you think is going to happen?”
“Anything can happen,” I tell her. “Anything.” And I talk about drugs and gangs and prison and sex and doesn’t she remember the time she mixed Ecstasy with mushrooms or was it cocaine? Didn’t she end up behind a dumpster in downtown Denver? And I’m not judging her—God, everybody knows I’m a virgin on all that stuff— and she’s great, she turned out just fine, really, but think about that: She was just this normal kid from the suburbs, two nice parents, good schools, the whole bit, and what if she had overdosed or died choking on her own vomit, and what if, I don’t know, she ended up with some man she didn’t know on top of her, and what if he liked to cut, or what if he had AIDS, or what if it’s one of our sons who’s on top of some drugged up little idiot, no offense, holding a knife between his teeth, or what if he’s the drugged up little idiot? Or both? I mean, really, what have we done?
My friend takes a long, deep breath. “Listen to me. This is crazy talk. Jake is—what? Ten days old? Listen to me. You need to put that baby down. You need to, I don’t know, get in the shower or something. You need to call your doctor if you can’t pull your shit together. I love you, but I’m telling you: This is crazy talk.”
I hang up the phone. I put my son in his bassinet for the first time. I walk to the bathroom and turn on the shower. I stand under cold water. I watch the blood fall from the empty space inside of me and circle the drain, around and around, until the water runs clean. I wait until my heart beats hard and then slows. I turn the water as hot as I can stand it, and when my skin shrinks and stings, I step out and stand before the mirror. I lift my chin and find the curve of my mother’s face, the arch of her throat. I study my eyes, brown and not the least bit wise, and I pray that the bees in my family’s hive of madness will rise off my shoulders like the steam around me. I study myself, the woman I am becoming, the mother I long to be, until the room turns cool and clear. I walk back to my bedroom where my son sleeps. A trail of blood follows me, but it is lighter now, its steps farther apart. I climb between my sheets. I close my eyes, and I don’t dream.