The best discoveries are made by accident.
I was in the Knox County Courthouse, researching an obscure mystery writer (Delano Ames 1906-1987) who shared my hometown. I was taking a break from surfing through the Ames family documents and perusing their births, marriages and deaths when I noticed a wall of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with cream colored volumes. What, I wondered, could contain so much information? Land deeds? Criminal cases? Government overthrows?
I walked over to the wall and traced my hands across the bindings. They felt like vellum and smelled of forgotten attics. I grabbed a volume and read the spine. It said: Journal of Lunacy. I knew instantly that I had hit the mother lode of something. Of what I wasn’t sure.
The volumes were arranged by year beginning in the early 1900s and stretched into the mid 1970s. This is a lot of lunacy, I thought. I felt a rush as I began to imagine what information these volumes might contain. Was this an official acknowledgment of our nation’s insanity, a sort of recognition of our population’s instability? Has some truth been revealed and been duly noted by the US government? I opened a random volume and wondered if my name was inside.
Between the covers were applications, questionnaires of a medical nature. Each page was specific to an individual. I read on. Wow, these were documents filed to commit others to the mental hospital. These volumes were the Facebook for crazies of the 20th century! Upon examining a few of the entries, I noticed that the majority of inductees were women. The volume I was looking at was from the 1950s. Each commitment to the mental hospital required a so-called medical reason for admission. Many of the woman were sent to never-never land for such serious afflictions including “nervousness,” “chattiness” and even being “overly talkative” (chattiness squared I assume). This explained, I realized, the lack of nervous, chatty women you saw on the streets these days.
The men it seemed, had more somber and manly reasons for admission such as catatonia and suicidal depression, the results of starting all those wars and having to fight in them. These were manly afflictions and if we were chatty or nervous, we sublimated them into masculine despair.
There was a lot of reading between the lines to be done here. Were mental hospitals simply convenient boarding houses for men who decided to shelve their wives or relatives into storage? Or were some of these claims of “chattiness” simply layman’s terms for the as yet unchartered regions of bi-polar illnesses? Or perhaps some of both?
I felt some sort of awe, sadness and fear as I gazed upon these volumes. It was a bit like looking across a cemetery of the war dead, imagining the lives behind each story and conjuring their tragedy, waste and injustice. In a world that strives to be sane, here was the hard-copy-bitch-slap-wake-up call that we were not. It was the portrait Norman Rockwell forgot to paint.
As a kid, my brothers and I used to ice skate sometimes on the pond before our local mental hospital. It was a foreboding brick building with a hint of gothic, where Dracula would have gone if he was mental. It was set back on a hill, surrounded by woods as if in some perpetual warning of what lay in store for you if you did not behave. The grounds were designed by Frederic Laws Olmstead, the same man who brought us Central Park and other landmark floor plans. As kids we would whisper and point and kid each other about ending up here. It was a sheltered off world though, as if it didn’t really exist. The inmates never mingled with the land of the living, at least not back then. It was imaginary to us, like a comic book, just a theory. There weren’t really people behind those walls, locked in rooms, drooling and making pottery with their own feces were there?
This begs the question, at least for me, to ask if there was anyone in your own life that you thought should be locked up, restrained and moved to the rubber-room? I’m not speaking of annoying family members, spouses or ex-boy or girl friends – I’m talking about certified lunatics, dangerous to themselves and others, unable to navigate the rat race with the rest of us, pretend to hunger for the American Dream or peacefully watch reality TV after work each night.
It’s a tough call. Sometimes lunatics appear to be the only sane ones amongst us, other times not so much. On occasion I’ve seen, mostly on the streets of any big city I’ve ever lived, those crazies babbling away to imaginary cohorts, conducting imaginary orchestras (OK, I do these things myself sometimes but I do it in private, or try to) and generally acting fucking crazy. This has always set for me, my own Miriam Webster mental image definition of what crazy is. But in my own life, besides myself, has there been anyone I’d enter into the scrolls of the Journal of Lunacy?
No (some come close though).
Once, while I was doing archive work at Allen Ginsberg’s apartment in NYC, I witnessed Peter Orlovsky riding the crest of a bi-polar high supplemented with who knows what drugs and alcohol. He was flying around, talking at warp speed and snapping pictures from an Instamatic that had no film in it. After I left, Peter apparently tipped the boat, became violent and had to be hauled away to Bellvue. I think Peter was crazy that day but not insane. It’s a subtle distinction, I know, like the difference between white and black truffles. Insanity has a more smokey flavor to it. But I’m not sure, where do you draw the line and who gets to draw it?
I suspect that in the heyday of the Lunacy Journals, it was an option of convenience to dump the unwanted in Mental Land. We feared the unknown and crazies exemplified that notion to the max. Loose cannons on the deck are a pain. Lock the crazy bastards up!
No essay on lunacy is complete without a mention of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Years ago he inscribed a copy for me in which he wrote “the guy in charge shivers all the time with unnatural shame chills.” WTF, I thought. I had to think about this one for awhile.
I’ve thought about it for years in fact and have come to forge my own summation of what he may have meant. Could he have been stating that our waking day “sane self” is always being nipped at the heels by the specter of lunacy, that at any given moment, whatever it is that gives us our semblance of being a “productive member of society” could slip away with the snap of a finger? Perhaps. I don’t know. I’ve chewed on this a long time, it’s your turn now.
I’m just glad my name isn’t in the Journal of Lunacy but my life’s not over yet. I’m a good boy and don’t bother anyone. Please don’t take me away. At least not yet.