There were only two patients in the art room. One was warily tucked in a corner, the other was a pretty twenty something African-American woman quietly cutting colored paper with a child’s scissors. I gently mused out loud. “You look healthy and normal. Why are you here?”
“My psychiatrist tells me it’s because I feel no remorse for what I did.”
“What did you do?”
“I killed my roommate”. I chopped her up in the bathtub and flushed as much of her as I could down the toilet. The rest of her I put in black plastic garbage bags that I tossed in a dumpster.”
“Did you think you would get away with that?”
“I didn’t think at all. I got the idea from TV.”
“And you don’t feel badly about what you did?”
“The girl is dead. There’s nothing I can do about that!” “I guess I’m sorry for her family”.
Mary grew up in a verbally abusive emotionally constipated family with no privacy. When Mary left home, she applied for a single room at college and was forced to have a roommate. Enduring a year, Mary reapplied, and lost the room to her roommate. Completely losing control of her mind and heart while stuck in a state of rage, Mary eliminated her problem.
Many strange stories unfolded over the next several months in the art room. Every day promised new adventure. I was glad I’d survived the bog of bureaucratic bullshit. I was yearning to examine everyone’s hands, but decided to wait. I anticipated astonishing tales of intrigue and amazing artworks. Many patients had artistic talent. There were two professional artists in the group. I supported everyone’s creativity and acquired special materials and supplies above and beyond my call of duty.
The first patient I bonded with was a refined and cultivated woman in her mid to late fifties. Bizarre circumstances led to Betsy’s hapless and senseless captivity. She lived on Treasure Island, a wealthy seaside community. Betsy managed an art gallery and was gossip columnist for a local newspaper. She loved to garden and was a member of a local gardening club.
A lawyer of considerable power purchased the land adjoining Betsy’s and neglected it. Weeds and branches drooped and draped sloppily onto Betsy’s property. Her neighbor‘s obvious dislike of landscaping and disdain for his neighbors annoyed the hell out of Betsy. One very vexing afternoon, she verbally threatened to chop off everything extending onto her domain. Grabbing her ax, she angrily severed every limb over her property line. While quietly recuperating on her porch, Betsy became alarmed and frightened when police in plain clothes marched aggressively through the gate of her yard.
Betsy grabbed her ax, attempting to chase them away. The next thing she knew, Betsy was sedated in a psychiatric hospital for further evaluation. Her neighbor had pulled strings and managed to have her temporarily committed. Then her serious problems began. Because Betsy was so agitated, Thorazine was prescribed, mandated, and administered. Betsy had a bad reaction to Thorazine. She was rushed to a local hospital. Her spleen had to be removed.
Betsy was no criminal. Nor was she crazy. She had great character references. Her son, a successful architect, pleaded fervently for her release, but no one appeared able to help her. A series of unfortunate events had led to her getting caught up in ‘The System’. Betsy’s attitude remained positive and optimistic while her mental and physical health deteriorated. She lost three productive years of her life. The lawyer tried to acquire Betsy’s property while she was locked up, but her son successfully blocked him.
Everyone admired Betsy. I was self-appointed president of her fan club. She could draw, paint, sculpt, and write better than anyone. She won several patient art awards. She was a positive role model. As editor and illustrator for the patient newspaper, The Scene. Betsy also created signage for hospital activities and events. I got special permissions for her creative seamstress work and purchased (my $) supplies like needles, threads, and unique fabrics.
Betsy designed stuffed insects. She called them ‘love bugs’. Sewing and sowing the seeds of success in my mind, Betsy inspired me to imagine a patient run cottage industry within the confines of hospital life that would serve other sheltered workshops in social and medical worlds. We could be a source for products, design, and marketing.
I got braver each day as I investigated patients’ lives. I couldn’t divulge my appetite for wanting to know more, but I did look as closely as I could at their records, hands, and gestures. I printed crude hands using newsprint paper with poster paint. I assumed madness would be revealed in aberrations of hand morphology and topography. There were many unusual hands. I saw a lot of frustration, anger, and fear, along with an uncanny clarity or lack of clarity in thinking. Many souls saw only one solution to their problem, never considering the consequences. Invoking hindsight enables most folk to harness our strengths, mindsets, attitudes, and actions, and embrace whatever challenges we encounter on the path to becoming healthier and happier.
Repressed rage, confused minds, and constipated emotions rule mental illness. I’d never have predicted from the hands that I read, that most of these people would be committed to mental institutions. Many patients lacked peripheral lines. They were less neurotic than the wounded healers with highly developed superegos and many more peripheral lines who were paid to care for them.
I only saw one club (murderer’s) thumb in the patient population. I expected to see many more Mr. Hydes, motivated by passion, lacking impulse control, and having a propensity for violence. I didn’t. Other hands were soft and supple. Sometimes their bones felt detached. There was zero energy, enthusiasm, or desire to think clearly or do anything meaningful. I observed one psychotic person’s skin as appearing splotchy purplish red. I imagined the color combo was repressed rage. Many hands were stiff in the joints, preventing the lost souls trapped in limbo between their inside and outside from escaping. I examined schizophrenic hands with two sets of head or heart lines in dominant hands that were ambiguous, ambivalent, suffering, struggling, and striving to know themselves and others.
Betsy and I loved the symbolism of the Tarot. We consulted the cards many times with many questions. We rarely heard what we wanted to hear, but always heard what we already knew. I collected birth names, dates, times, and places from patients, but didn’t explain why.
Most artwork and poetry in The Scene came from the art room. The patient newspaper was a venue for creative expression for patients and staff. It offered hospital news and provided space for patients to express their concerns and share their creativity. It was an important venue because it provided an outlet for frustration, anger, and depression. Everyone spent too much time complaining and blaming their problems on ‘The System’ and each other.
I decided to become a spiritual ambassador and good sense maker. The real enemies were our bad habits, bureaucracy, and time. We were a team whether we chose ‘to be or not to be’.
One notorious patient infected my psyche with doubt. He was a young black man in his early thirties. Fred had been mentally, emotionally, and physically malnourished via many abusive foster parents. A gentle kindness lie beneath the surface of Fred’s deeply scarred face. Fred was violent, but it wasn’t knife fights and gang warfare that got him locked up. It was Fred’s unrequited love. Fred was obsessed with a teenage girl. Allegedly, she was ‘taken away from him’ by an `abusive maniac’. Fred created realistic ‘WANTED DEAD or ALIVE’ posters of his maniac. He posted them all over town, offering a phony ten thousand dollar reward for him. Fred had no clue he was creating evidence that would lead him directly to the loony bin.
Fred’s large feminine hands, rectangular palms, long slender knotty fingers, and conical fingertips embody the quintessential ‘feeling’ type: great for empathy, appreciating art, research, organizing, paying attention to detail, and mostly for caring. Fred’s long head line sloped into the heel of his hand, revealing a vivid imagination and rich fantasy life. Fred could copy anything perfectly. He could have been a master forger, but that particular crime would never have occurred to him. I cheered Fred’s abilities and encouraged him to draw from real life. I also convinced his treatment team and security on his ward to let him have pencils and paper and allow him to draw under supervision.
Fred had a private sketch book. He produced forty or fifty sketches and drawings in the first month and showed no one. I asked to see them. Reluctantly, he showed them to me. I was blown away. The political parody above was his first. That’s Ronald Reagan and its meaning is self-explanatory. What stunned me most were caricatures of staff sexually abusing patients. Patients were pleasuring staff in the sickest possible ways. Were security, therapists, and patients actually having bizarre sex acts using objects of pleasure and pain or was Fred’s vision an artistic fabrication of his unique psyche?
How could Fred have witnessed what he was portraying? He had a graphic imagination. Maybe his friends were telling him their stories and he was interpreting them. Fred let me photocopy a few drawings. I wondered about the veracity of Fred’s artwork and shared it with Dolores. She showed it to the cabinet. Betraying Fred’s trust was my greatest blunder and regret. Fred fought fiercely as his drawings and supplies were confiscated. It wrenched my heart to watch him being reduced to a drug induced stupor, artistic genius, never to create (during my tenure) again. I was responsible and couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Mary 2 was a highly functioning, extremely troubled patient. Mary believed she was Satan’s child, a bad seed. Mary was three when she first unsuccessfully attempted to poison her little sister. Then she failed to drown her in the bathtub. She tied her to a tree in a lightning storm, hoping she’d be electrocuted. Finally, Mary’s dysfunctional fundamentalist Catholic parents enrolled her in a devout Catholic school. They hoped that would save her. Mary predictably became more twisted. At sixteen, Mary set a nun on fire and carved her charring body to a bloody pulp with a broken glass bottle. She told everyone, “The Devil made me do it”.
Mary produced dark artwork. I coveted and appropriated her drawings every chance I got. While under suicide watch in a maximum-security psychiatric hospital, Mary etched `666′ in the skin of her arms and legs with whatever sharp objects she could find. She also scratched ‘666’ on furniture.
I don’t frequently see hands that frighten me. Mary’s hands were scary. The creepy hand above with very stiff fingers that curl inwardly belong to Susan Atkins’ (Charles Manson’s protege’). They’re similar to Mary’s. Mary’s skin was hard, dry, coarse, and reddish. She chewed on her nails relentlessly, leaving her nail beds red, raw, and sore. Mary transformed self-critical into self-hatred. I wished I could help her let go of irrational terror. Mary’s soul was hard-boiled from the hellish reality of growing up with hypocritical parents, along with fundamentalist codes, irrational doctrines, punitive rules, and restrictive regulations.
Mary had a huge crush on me. She was the first to arrive at the art room and last to leave. I felt nauseous when I was alone with her. I was repulsed, but always smiled and acted nice. Mary generously offered to give me a quickie blow-job under my desk. I remembered Fred’s drawings and how easy it would be to become one of his vignettes. I thought about all of the Ministers and Priests, religious shepherds, who physically and spiritually rape the innocent lambs they are entrusted to protect. Does terror, shame, guilt, and disgrace trigger erotic fantasy? Is fear of being caught a turn on? Can the Devil sow the seeds of evil in a psyche?
Mary was hovering over me and monopolizing my attention. I was abrupt and impatient with her. Dark rings appeared around her darkening eyes. Mary felt rejected. Satan was hard at work, preparing her for evil acts that night on her ward. It was a full moon. Stealing the ‘six’ and ‘nine’ balls from the pool table, Mary loaded them in a black wool sock, then beat a new patient to death while she slept. The poor woman was there for shoplifting, a few days of observation, and psychiatric evaluation. Mary said she didn’t like the way the woman looked at her. She’d certainly think twice before shoplifting again had she survived. I felt guilty and responsible. I should have said something. Staff should have been more vigilant. Mental institutions aren’t called lunatic asylums for nothing.
It’s not what you do, but what you get away with that matters. Gene was undeniably the most incredible artist in the hospital. He’d been a successful commercial artist and advertising executive. Scuttlebutt was that he created the TV ads that everyone loves to remember.
Gene was unique. A celebrity on his ward, he had the only private room, outfitted with his own furniture, library, audio tape collection, state of art stereo system, Bose headphones, and grizzly bear rug.
No one messed with Gene. Dark satanic auras shrouded Gene. Angry facial expressions and aggressive body language told a tale of uncontrollable rage from a horrible childhood. Gene was hostile. Everything about him screamed, “Stay away from me!” In a jealous fury and fit of rage, Gene slit his girlfriend’s throat from ear to ear. She survived, didn’t press charges, and forgave him. Gene couldn’t forgive himself. He told me had to stay because he’d do it again.
Gene could have been free had he wanted to be and behaved accordingly. I tried to make good sense to Gene and convince him to become an active member of the real world again. Gene wanted to stay. With little interest in worldly freedom, he was free to love his literature, music, art, and still be king of the roost. I actually felt a little jealous of his inner freedom.
Gene was charismatic in a dark and dangerous way. He was the patient Dolores caught in the art supply closet with Janice. That untimely final exit for Janice turned out to be wonderful therapy for Gene. We frequently had philosophical discussions and co-created artworks that I still cherish. This life size pastel Gene drew of me in the art-room subtly captures a very private part of me.
Benny was Gene’s buddy. Benny was uncooperative. A strong fit black man in his early thirties, Benny’s phobia of homosexuality impelled the former transit policeman to assault a bar full of gay men one night with a semi-automatic weapon. While freebasing crack, Benny brutally slaughtered eight gay men.
Benny came up bi-yearly for forensic review. He believed he’d be set free one day, but was always rejected. One psychologist told me that a ‘secret agenda’ was to never ever let him go or know. It was in everyone’s best interest to humor Benny. Otherwise, he’d lose hope, become violent, and need to be permanently medicated.
There was never a dull day in the art room. One handsome young patient, recently admitted, had cut his mother’s heart out, artfully prepared, and hungrily ate it with her favorite knife and fork on her favorite plate while drinking her favorite wine and reclining in her favorite chair.
Another man was found combing his mother’s hair on her mantel, weeks after he had cut her head off. The entire hospital was full of lunatics and addicts who committed violent acts under the influences of bad circumstances, rage, or drugs. Schizophrenics, sociopaths, psychotics, and pathological liars flourished and blossomed. One sociopath from England had a Rolls Royce delivered to the hospital entrance based on conversations he had with a dealer from a pay phone in the hall of his ward. If only I could put everyone’s amazing talents to good use…
Jesus Jefferson was the angriest patient in the hospital. Rejected countless times by forensic committees, Jesus had nothing left to lose. Everyone steered clear of him. Jesus had thrown his girlfriend, her 3 year old child, and dog from a 17th story window. They died instantly as they hit the ground. Jesus had zero remorse and never spoke of the incident. He clearly needed to be locked up, but what of his other innate talents and abilities. I envisioned Jesus as a capable production manager in a patient run manufacturing business. I shared my idea with two staff psychologists and they agreed with me. Unfortunately, Jesus was too unpredictable and angry to be given any real opportunity to take real responsibility.
Names have meaning. Many people who end up in loony bins are named after biblical figures. Jesus, Mary, Faith, Angel, Grace, and Hope haunt wards at mental institutions everywhere. Whatever their parents had hoped, wanted, or expected… something else weird and perverted happened. My parody below represents my interpretation of present-day archetypal names.
MAGA = TRUMP vs chump