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.

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DAVID C. BREITHAUPT was born in the heart of the Cold War, in 1959. He grew up in central Ohio, the youngest of four brothers. His mother was an artist; his father, a political rabble rouser. He studied fine arts in college. Lived in NYC in the 1980s where he worked in various bookstores, including the great Brazenhead on East 84th street. He was an archives assistant to Allen Ginsberg and worked with his amazing staff. Did some part-time work as a newsstand checker for Rolling Stone. Quit drinking in 1987. Fell in and out of love. Kept moving. Moved back to Ohio with his family, Christa, Kate and Jo - worked in a college library. Snuck his work into various magazines like Exquisite Corpse, Rant, Main Street. Wrote bio-lit essays for the American and British Writers Series (Scribners) on James Purdy, Anna Kavan and Denton Welch under the editorship of Jay Parini. He edited a book on the works of writer poet, Charles Plymell called Hand On the Doorknob (2000 Water Row Press). Buy it now, please. His work is in the anthology, Thus spake The Corpse vol. 2, Best of the Exquisite Corpse (Black Sparrow Press, 2000). (Please buy that, too.) Breithaupt currently lives and work in Columbus, Ohio, for a sports newspaper while making occasional contributions to his federal restitution. He just finished a memoir with the working title Dada Entry: Picasso, Proust and Federal Prison as well as a collection of short stories, My Curves Are Not Mad with an intro by Jonathan Lethem. He is looking for publishers. Thank you.

32 responses to “Lunacy For Dummies”

  1. Dave, I love reading your work! Please keep poking around the Knox County courthouse, up and keep sharing!

  2. Paul Clayton says:

    David,

    Thank you for your delicious piece. What a box of pandoodles you’ve opened here! Food for thought, hell, this is a glutton’s free pass to Tony’s All-You-Can-Eat Italian restaurant.

    Just like they say that we all have a little Irish in us, especially around this time of year, I think we all have a little crazy inside. Sometimes it’s endearing and will get you a movie part or recording contract, and sometimes it only gets you tasered, shot up with thorazine, and issued a free overnight stay at the country Crazyranch.

    As far as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I have mixed feeling about that one. I was a book that certainly had a big impact on society. It was also one of my assigned books after I graduated from eighth grade, I believe, or the next year. We had to read that and two or three others over the summer for the following semester’s English class, at West Catholic High School for Boys in Philadelphia.

    I loved the book (and it was a great movie too years later), and I understand the over-arching theme, how society oppressed the free thinkers, the fun people, and how mean, sucky people ran everything back then (now they’re nice and everything is nice).

    I remember some of my mother’s struggles with depression and how she committed herself to the local hospital I didn’t know at the time (I must have been twelve or thirteen) that she had been in the hospital a couple of times before for depression and had actually had electroshock therapy. And, most importantly, it had worked. But I do remember her insistence that she go in, my father’s reluctance to see her go, and my own sadness and confusion over the whole affair.

    Anyway, society woke up and released all the insane people from the institutions so they could roam the streets and argue loudly with people others could not see. Of course nowadays with the proliferation of cell phones, they are indistinguishable from sane people.
    Years later a dear relative came down with manic depression and thought he was Grizzly Adams. He would frequent the black bars in West Philly, wearing a very large Bowie knife on his side. I remember visiting him in Broad Meadows prison with my father. I remember how his physical appearance would change when he got really bad, and how that gave new meaning to those quaint old stories of demonic possession. He terrified my parents and I remember how it was almost impossible to get the police to bring him in for some kind of evaluation.

    Anyway, you have turned over a fat log with lots of tasty, wriggly grubs. I hope you put it to good use.
    Best!

    • It’s generally such an invisible society, those with severe mental problems that have to be kept under lock and key that it was such a surprise to me to see this vast legion on paper between covers. It brought home for me a rude awakening of the existence of such a tribe when I saw the Lunacy Journals.
      Unless you have a friend or relative such as you did, it’s a world you seldom if ever encounter. Yes, sometimes the money runs out and the hospitals open the flood gates – I saw that happen in Tucson I think it was, where the town square had turned into a cardboard city. California had released a lot of patients and given them bus tickets to Arizona, this was the end of the line. This is something we might be seeing a lot more of in the future I’m afraid (unless some health care is passed). Thanks Paul for your interesting comments.

  3. slim says:

    mandango, your best entry yet. I remember a school field trip to said mental hospital and the pep talk our teachers gave us before we entered the cold clammy corridors of lunacy. “Don’t talk to any of them!” we were warned, “Please Don’t Feed the Animals” as if we could upset the delicate conditions of those who were probably too sedated to harm a flea. We did as we were told and simply stared at those who stared back even harder. A mirror-view into the future, I wondered. There but for the grace of god…
    I think such thoughts frequently, especially when I see the professional homeless in downtown Phoenix who have marked their spots, left their smudges, and work the same lunch crowd day after day. I wonder if any of the happy office workers realize that a nudge here or a nudge there could land them in mismatched shoes with holes in the soles. Or mismatched left and right brains making them chatty idiot savants. My motto is, don’t get too comfortable. It could all change tomorrow.

    Nice work, DB, keep it up, you got a bright future ahead of you if you live to see it.

    Et tu, Electroboy?

  4. Irene Zion says:

    Holy Toledo, David!

    A WALLFULL of Lunacy Journals?
    Now I have to make a trip to Knoxville.
    I hope you’re happy.
    I have other places that were on my list with much nicer weather.

    (Was there also a place in each story that said how that particular story ended? Anyone get out? Anyone cured? Speaking as someone just a tad off-center, I find this pretty frightening.)

    • Good question, the Journals were for one way entries only and they stopped in the mid 70s. Maybe, after the disco era, people ceased being nutty (not a moment too soon!). I always assumed that once the papers were filed, the inductee was in for sure. But yeah, that would be nice to see some exit visas.

      PS, the weather is great here, we have deer and geese in our yard and a couple of stray cats.

  5. Marni Grossman says:

    Really enjoyed this! What a fascinating treasure-trove right there in Columbus- (G-d, that sounded awfully lame…)

    There’s an excellent book on women and madness that might answer some of the questions you raised: “Mad, Bad and Sad” by Lisa Appignanesi.

    • This was actually in nearby Mount Vernon, Ohio. I suspect many small town court houses archive a bevy of weird documents. I expect a report back from everyone on their own local CH!

      The book sounds interesting, thanks much, I will check it out, thanks Marni.

  6. Good lord what a strange thing to find…

    And I love that you call it “Facebook for the 20th Century.” Brilliant.

    Interesting Kesey quote, too.

    • No theories on the Kesey quote from anyone so far. When I re-read Cuckoo’s Nest not too long ago, I saw that Kesey makes reference in the book to “the guy in charge.” Damn, now that he is gone, we can’t ask him. Maybe Zane knows.

      • Zane knows nothing… The guy is a lunatic. I interviewed him for Beatdom #1 and he was flying on mushrooms at the time. Weeks later he began threatening me. He said I posed as a Jewish schoolboy (I can’t remember the name he accused me of using) and said I’d stolen his mind…

        I believe I referred to him as a “cunt” in the introduction to his interview. Very professional.

        I wonder who he means by the “guy in charge”… Some kind of god? The president? The “man”?

  7. Brin Friesen says:

    This was fantastic, David. I just reread Cuckoo’s nest myself along with Sometimes A Great Notion, so your piece was right up my alley.

    What are you reading right now?

    • Thanks Brin. I think Sometimes A Great Notion was his best book and I think he agreed. Check out the edition with an intro by Charles Bowden, it’s nice.
      I’m reading an advance reading copy of American Subversive by David Goodwillie who I hope to interview next month for TNB. You should read his memoir Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time, if you haven’t already, it’s fantastic. Looking forward to reading Sam Lipsyte’s new book too, The Ask.
      And you?

      • I’ve started reading Sometimes a Great Notion so many times. But I can never get into it. I don’t know why. I still have a copy in Scotland and another one in Korea, but everytime I get 20 pages in I find my eyes glazing over.

        • SGN does jump back to and fro in time, I love the prose. If you ever do finish it, you’ll see how the ending wraps right up to the beginning, it’s fantastic. Kesey gave me an easier inscription in my copy of Sometimes a Great, he wrote, “I wish I owned one of these nice old hardbacks!” (I had a 1st edition he was signing). SInce I had an extra, I gave it to him. Poor guy.

  8. Zara Potts says:

    Journals of Lunacy?? What a find!
    Chattiness? Nervousness? – My God, I’m lucky that I escaped the padded room.
    The idea of mental illness fascinates me. I think we all have a line at which we can cross into a form a lunacy – whether temporary or permament.
    A couple of years ago, I was in the grip of a fully fledged choking phobia and I really thought I was going mad. The awful thing about it was that I KNEW my behaviour wasn’t ‘normal’ but I was absolutely unable to do anything about it. It was just awful.
    Fascinating subject, David.

    • I wonder if other court houses have these same records. I suppose these procedures are outdated, feel free to roam nervous and chatty.
      Phobias are serious business, you are far from alone. I think Shirley Jackson had agoraphobia, fear of leaving the house. She stayed inside and ate herself to death. That’s my phobia trivia.
      I hope you keep them at bay. Thanks for checking in.

      • Zara Potts says:

        Shirley Jackson – the writer of my favourite short story ever??
        Oh no!
        The good news is my phobia’s seem to have disappeared (touch wood) so I may still avoid the padded room for this year at least..

        • I’m glad your phobias have vanished. Life is too long for phobias.

          As I recall, Shirley was holed up eating cheeseburgers in Vermont (where her hubby was teaching I think). She ballooned up and had a heart attack, right in the middle of a sentence. Did you ever read her unfinished novel, Come Along With Me? It’s a great start but stops if I recall correctly, in mid sentence. Blam. I think Shirley was also taking speed which didn’t help. At least she wasn’t a one-armed go-go dancer. Which was your favorite short story?

        • Zara Potts says:

          I haven’t read ‘Come Along With Me’ – but I love the fact it just stops in mid sentence.
          Eating cheeseburgers in Vermont sounds like a much better option than being a one armed go go dancer!
          And the short story was ‘The Lottery’ – I read it when I was quite young and it just haunted me.

  9. Simon Smithson says:

    Nice one, David! I’m very jealous of you discovering such a treasure trove.

    A friend of mine was briefly committed, at a pleasant-seeming private mental health facility. It was miles away from Cuckoo’s Nest, but, at the same time… I don’t think I would have wanted to spend much time there.

    • I wonder if records like these will ever be transfered to digital storage? Imagine typing these records up all day, or scanning them, putting them on a CD-ROM. Wow. That would make you end up in the looney bin. I guess if I had to go to the hospital, I’d pick one of those poet places such as where Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton went. That sounds doable. Perhaps we can all go now that health insurance has been passed. Hooray!

  10. Joe Daly says:

    Tremendous piece. Love the quote at the end. To me it almost sounds like he’s describing survivor’s guilt. As if those in charge can’t help but look at those in their care and think, uncomfortably, “there but for the grace of God go I.”

    What a great find in the bookshelves! Thanks for sharing this unique and engaging experience.

    • David Breithaupt says:

      Joe, that’s a good interpretation. Survivors guilt. Could be, sounds as good as anything I can come up with. The possible meaning has morphed in my mind over the years from one thought to another. Thanks much.

  11. Mary Richert says:

    Wow, this piece is so savory. As for me, I’ve had my brushes with crazy, and there is one person I would definitely commit to involuntary therapy, though I don’t know if I would call this person crazy… manipulative and delusional, yes, but also sharp as a tack. Isn’t that the worst kind, though?

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