I spent two years working part time, two days a week designing vocational rehabilitation programs at a forensic psychiatric hospital. I wanted to get to know that population. A year had passed when I got my first big break to finally delve into the clients. Rehab was responsible for holiday activities and Halloween was about to happen. “Wouldn’t it be fun if you were our fortune teller this year?” Dolores (my boss) inquired. I named myself “M”, ‘palmist’, dressed in satin robes with sun, moon, pentacles (five-pointed star), and a hand-crafted silver hand hung round my neck.
Caricature by Chris Wynter
Within moments of examining each a patient’s hands, I pinpointed their behavioral issues, current obstacles, and major life challenges. Most reacted, “Hey, you’re for real!” or “You really know me!”. I carefully tailored my words to their ability to understand. Most competent readers know that it’s not what you see, but what you say and how you say it that matters. Inadvertently, Dolores had set me up as a confidant. You never know what you’ll hear or what you’ll say when a person you’re talking to believes you already know their secrets and future. Word of my abilities spread quickly. I soon gained many new recruits who became regulars.
Mohamed was ‘a lifer’. He’d been given enough Thorazine to sedate a small army. As a giant sized middle-aged black man, he looked like a dark blend of Muhammad Ali and Bob Marley. As one of the most popular patients in the hospital, Mohamed had been a Hell’s Angel, cocaine addict, and cold-blooded murderer. He found `religion’ during solitary confinement. I began receiving Plain Truth magazine shortly after I met him. He had placed me on their mailing list. I learned about contraband from Mohamed. Patients with money got marijuana, alcohol, extra cigarettes, Sanka, and a myriad of other illegal stuff smuggled through security.
One not to notice occurrence was the way large quantities of office and recreational supplies would arrive and vanish quickly. I began hoarding yellow pads, pens, and pencils, hiding them in my desk before they disappeared. Staff were getting away with whatever they could. Even office machines vanished. When I asked a friend in a nearby hospital what was happening, she replied that it was “par for the course”.
Many people who work for government agencies have a chronic poverty consciousness that makes them feel inferior, underappreciated, and entitled to get away with whatever they can. Most workers in helping professions give too much and don’t ask enough for themselves.
Nothing was as it appeared. One security staff member who habitually acted friendly with patients, said to me in confidence, “I’d shoot every one of them in the head at night while they slept if I could get away with it”. I pretended he was joking but was really shocked and awed. Watching patients pretending to be what and how they believed staff wanted them to be was a spectator sport. When backs were turned, patients would give staff their middle finger or spontaneously contort their faces. Staff often behaved similarly to patients and each other.
Sometimes it was `Show Time’. An organization whose job it was to inspect state hospital social service programs was called `XYZ’. The ‘powers that be’ at the top of the mental health food chain got plenty of notice from XYZ. Inspectors showed up to lots of hustle, bustle, and productivity. We ran smoothly, like ‘Timex’ when observers were around. Everyone was active and cooperative, and everything was orderly and `spic and span’. In truth, we were scuzzy, and programming ran unpredictably… you know, the kinds of things inspectors need to see.
The state allots monies for capital improvements and program development each year. Unspent monies are removed from the following year’s budget. A $100,000.00 surplus needed to be spent quickly. A scam that affected me was the creation of a woodworking and refinishing shop. The cabinet approved purchasing expensive woodworking equipment for the Rehab Dept. They failed to inform us that the patients would ‘never’ be permitted to use the tools as they were ‘much too dangerous’.
I questioned Billy (other half of my position) about who was going to operate the equipment. He told me that he and I would initially do the machining, but eventually certain patients would be trusted. I disagreed. None of our conjecture mattered, because when the fiscal year was over, the cabinet scrapped the shop. Now they could ask for more money next year. You’ll appreciate this picture of me and Billy at the annual Xmas party. Even Santa was a lunatic!
I figured if everyone else was getting away with things, so could I. `Gigolo’ worked maximum security at the secure entrance. When no one was around, he’d wave me past the bag check and metal detector. Even the director of the hospital was scanned and checked daily. I took advantage of his trust by waiting outside the hospital entrance until no one was in the foyer. I became ‘Smiley’, who always entered the security area with a big smile on my face. Gigolo would wave me through. In my briefcase was a camera, tape recorder, and extra tapes. I began recording patient songs and stories. I could and so I did.
Virginia was abandoned by her mother at birth. Fished out of a garbage can, Virginia grew up in orphanages. She had a grade school education and never developed work skills. Virginia ventured out into the world on her own. She became pregnant as an adolescent and a magnet for one co-dependent abusive spouse after the other. Virginia prayed her children weren’t forsaken by God, but they were. They were homeless and starving. She loved them too much to watch them starve to death. So, she killed them. What else could she do?
Virginia’s haunting voice expresses the agony of her soul. I saw her as a cross between Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. I found her tunes and lyrics profoundly poetic and deeply disturbing. She asked me to share one of my choosing.
“CRIES OF PAIN, CRIES OF JOY
SCREAMS OF TORMENT WITHIN
SILENTLY WHISPERING INNER FEAR
A WALL OF PRETENSE TO HIDE
BITTER REALITY WITH NO REMORSE
CHANGING MOODS, ALWAYS DENY
TRUTH IN A WORLD OF UNENDING STRIFE
REACHING OUT THE LAYER OF LIFE
DREAMING OF THE EVERYDAY CHARADE
MOVING FACES IN A MASQUERADE
REVEALING THE UNRELENTING SOUL
OF A TIRED AND LONELY BEING
HIDDEN QUALITIES SOARING BENEATH
THE EXTERNAL EXISTENCE ABOVE
COULD THE ENERGY EXIST TO FIGHT
THE SHADOWY SILHOUETTE OF I?”
“Have you ever seen a hand that frightened you?”
I often hear that question. It was a sweltering day. A chill entered my soul as I touched Manuel’s hot sweaty palms. His huge reddish balls of thumb were full (like they’d been stuffed with extra-large eggs) and smooth with no lines. The image on the left is simulated. The ball of thumb on the right is mine. Many significant relationship lines lie within my lifeline. I love lots of people. Manuel had no lines. Manuel had a mega-dose of desire, lust, and passion; nourished by fear, anger, and hatred. Unfortunately, Manuel had zero ability to have intimacy with other human beings. He allegedly kidnapped eight little boys, took them to rooftops, raped, murdered, cut their penises off, and carved crosses in the bases of their skulls.
Manuel pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He was committed to a maximum-security forensic hospital for the criminally insane. When I met Manuel, he had been dying of kidney disease. He’d been on dialysis machines for five years. His kidneys were shot. There would be no donor for a child serial killer. Manuel’s time was running out. He wanted to tell his story and asked me to record it. Before accepting Manuel’s word, I examined his hospital records and psychiatric treatment plans. Dozens of articles about the murders were recorded on microfilm in the news section of the public library.
Although the evidence was circumstantial, Manuel fit the profile. The media had generated a public frenzy. Hundreds of detectives and policemen were on the case. The first suspect had to be disguised as a policeman in order to not be lynched by the public.” It took over two hundred police, some wearing riot gear, to prevent over 1000 angry people from storming the xxx police station in the mistaken belief that a suspect in the mutilation murders of four young boys was inside the building.”
Manuel’s ball of thumb is the star of his story. Manuel came to the USA from Puerto Rico at age thirteen with his father and brother. He had great aspirations, but says he got hooked on drugs (marijuana) and headed downhill after that. Manuel said to me, “Drug addiction was in my genes. From the first time I tasted drugs, I never stopped”. A huge round ball of thumb symbolizes sensuality, compulsion, and indulgence. A paradox is that a large ball of thumb can also symbolize a huge appreciation of nature, children, art, music, and all things beautiful, along with abundant generosity and warmth. Manuel’s low set thumb and very stiff fingers and life and head line closely tied together at their start symbolizes that Manuel’s patterns and habits were deeply embedded.
Many thieves and pick pockets have inwardly curving pinkies. Hooked on heroine, Manuel resorted to stealing drugs to support his habit. He hung out with prostitutes and criminals. Meanwhile, his mother died of brain cancer, his sister died of cirrhosis of the liver, his half-brother died of a drug overdose, and his other brother was locked up for murdering their crazy father. Manuel’s tale would make an extremely dark TV sitcom.
Manuel dealt heroine to support his habit. When he turned sixteen, he was arrested for drug dealing. In “Purgatory’s tombs”, Manuel began banging his head against the wall. He was sent to a minimum-security outpatient mental hospital to detox and six months later he believed his habit was broken. Manuel discovered he had talents in arts and cooking. He tried living with a woman at seventeen, but he couldn’t stay out of trouble. While in and out of prisons and mental hospitals, Manuel managed to get his common-law wife pregnant three times; two daughters and a son. One daughter had to be on dialysis for failed kidneys.
Manuel spent five years in a state penitentiary while his family survived on welfare. The prison system tried to rehabilitate Manuel by teaching him several different trades. He had the best of intentions but was unable stay out of trouble. Next, he found religion and went to live in a church. Becoming fundamentalist and fanatical, Manuel began preaching from the bible to his family, friends, and strangers on the street. He claimed he tried to stay away from drugs, but even a drag from a cigarette or sip of beer would rekindle his addiction.
A combination of drugs and religion led to grandiosity. “I was greater than God. I really believed I was Jesus Christ”. Manuel took medication for his hallucinations. On drugs, he could temporarily cope. If he forgot, he’d become mentally and physically ill. Manuel began taking speed and cocaine again. His delusions and hallucinations became more grandiose. One forensic psychiatrist described Manuel as a “walking time bomb”, a violent psychopath destined for evil and a forensic lifestyle.
Several authorized and unauthorized exits from QRS, a low security mental hospital, coincided with the mutilation deaths of young boys. Manuel was seen preaching on the streets near the scene of one crime. He was connected to other murder locations because of relatives who lived nearby. Manuel denied killing the boys. A court appointed defense attorney talked him into copping a plea of insanity. Manuel claimed he didn’t know anything about the legal system and just followed his lawyer’s advice.
“I was sold down the river. Everyone needed a murderer, and I was him”. Manuel was declared criminally insane. There were no more mutilations of children after he was put away. I secretly believed Manuel committed those crimes. I also felt compassion for him. He was born on the short end of a very hard thorny stick in both the nature and nurture departments.
I was repulsed by him, but I also realized that Manuel might have been a very different person had he had real love and nourishment in his childhood. Manuel could have had a healthier and happier life with the right nurture.
I read almost every hand in the hospital, but never shared anyone’s secrets with anyone else. Rehab staff considered me harmless. They were more neurotic than the patients. Many had overdeveloped superegos. Most of them did what they knew they could get away with. Most patients had huge ids with no superego. They did what they thought they had to do, never contemplating the consequences of what they did. They saw only one solution to a problem. Patients generally had fewer peripheral lines in their palms than staff who were more confused.
I published an appeal to patients interested in participating in something creative and fun.
I was `M’, the fortune teller at our Halloween celebration. Mark is my name. I came here as a vocational instructor. Many of you know me as part-time art therapist. I’m actually an industrial designer. I design products for manufacturing companies and teach design at local colleges. I sometimes offer workshops to help creative people and inventors manifest their creations.
One year ago (this week), I began working here. I hoped I could motivate many of you to nourish your natural talents and abilities. I planned to offer guidance and support on projects of your creation. I assumed you’d be inspired by an opportunity to work on your own projects. Over the past year, I‘ve heard many reasons why you can’t or don’t want to be involved.
You’ve become so used to circumstances being hard that you can’t imagine anything else. Disappointment is too painful. You’re afraid to be enthusiastic. You’re afraid to trust anyone. Your self-esteem is too low. You’re not worthy or capable, but I assure you, you are.
I’m appealing to anyone who feels inspired or curious about their potentials and is willing to make a commitment to a weekly schedule to work under my direction. You must be accepted to participate in my class. A brief interview with Mr. Cartozian, the Rehab Counselor, will be required. His approval, along with the support of your treatment team will determine your eligibility. If you want my help, you’ve got it.
I promise to dedicate myself to helping class members make their projects a reality. Any project you choose is fine as long as it’s possible. Twelve students will participate in classes. There will be two work / study groups with six students each. Each will meet twice per week; one session on Tuesday and one session on Wednesday.
Here’s my vision: We’re motivated about our projects and willing to do whatever it takes to make them happen. We’re sharing in healthy constructive ways and learning a lot from everyone’s projects. We’re learning to draw and make things in our workshop. Many projects are happening; works of art, music, writing, and producing practical items like furniture, magazine racks, floral planters, and boxes of all shapes and sizes. If you can envision yourself in my class, please speak with me directly in the Rehab Department on a Tuesday or a Wednesday over the next several weeks.
I began preparing for my vocational classes. Some of my favorite patients were ready to sign up. Others I’d tried to interest remained apathetic. I published an appeal for my ‘vocational classes’ in the ‘Scene’, the patient newspaper. The response was better than I expected. It’s what happened as a result of my choices and actions that drove me out of my mind.