Two patients were in the art room. One warily tucked in a corner, the other a pretty twenty something African-American woman quietly cutting paper with a child’s scissors.
I gently mused out loud. “You look so 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 body up in the bathtub and flushed as much of her as I could down the toilet. The rest I put in black plastic garbage bags in a dumpster.”
“Did you think you would get away with that?”
“I didn’t think at all. I got the idea watching TV.”
“And you don’t feel badly about what you did?”
“I guess I’m sorry for her family. The girl is dead. There’s nothing I can do about that!”
Mary told me she grew up in a large family with no privacy. She applied for a single room at college, but had to have a roommate. Enduring a year, Mary applied again, but her roommate got it. Mary lost control of her mind and heart and eliminated the problem.
I was glad I’d survived the bog of bureaucratic bullshit. Many strange stories unfolded over the next several months. Every day promised fresh adventure. I was yearning to examine everyone’s hands, but didn’t. I couldn’t wait for astonishing tales and amazing artwork. Many patients had artistic talent. There were even a few professional artists in the group. I supported everyone’s creativity, going above and beyond the call of duty to acquire special materials and supplies for them to work with.
The first patient I bonded with was a refined and cultivated woman in her mid to late fifties. The circumstances that led to Betsey’s hapless and senseless captivity were bizarre. She lived on Treasure Island, a wealthy seaside community near Purgatory. Betsey ran an art gallery, was a gossip columnist in a local paper, and loved to garden. She was an active member of the local gardening community.
A Purgatory lawyer of considerable power purchased Betsey’s adjoining land and let it flourish with weeds and branches that draped sloppily onto her property. Her neighbor‘s lack of landscaping annoyed the hell out of Betsey. One very vexing afternoon, Betsey threatened to chop off every leaf hanging over her domain. Betsey grabbed her axe and severed every limb and brush extending over the line. She was calmly recuperating on her porch, when suddenly and unexpectedly, she was frightened by several police officers in plain clothes who marched aggressively through her gate.
Betsey picked up her axe and attempted to chase them away. The next thing she knew, she was sedated in a psychiatric hospital for further evaluation. Her neighbor had pulled some strings and managed to have her temporarily committed. That’s when extremely serious problems began for Betsey. She got so agitated that Thorazine was mandated and administered. Betsey had a bad reaction to the Thorazine and was rushed to a local hospital where her spleen had to be removed.
Betsey was not a criminal. Nor was she crazy. A series of unfortunate events led to her becoming caught in ‘The System’. Although Betsey had great character references and her son pleaded fervently for her release, no one seemed able to help her. Betsey’s attitude remained positive and optimistic, however, her mental and physical health continued to deteriorate while she lost three productive years of her life.
Everyone admired Betsey. I was the self-appointed president of her fan club. She could draw, paint, and sculpt. She won several patient art awards. Betsey was a positive role model for everyone. She was editor and illustrator of the patient newspaper, The Scene. Betsey also created signage for activities and events. I got special permissions for her to do creative seamstress work. I purchased (with my $) supplies like needles, threads, and unique fabrics for her to experiment with.
Betsey designed lifelike stuffed insects, while planting the seeds of success in my mind. She inspired me to imagine a patient run cottage industry within the confines of our hospital that could serve sheltered workshops in a variety of social / medical networks. We could be their source for design and marketing.
I became braver each day as I talked to patients about their lives. I wasn’t able to divulge or indulge my avocation, but I did begin to look as closely as I could at hands. I made crude prints with poster paint. I assumed that madness would show up in obvious aberrations of their hand morphology and topography. It rarely did, although there were many unusual hands. I saw a lot of frustration, anger, fear, and an uncanny clarity in their thinking. They only saw one solution to their problem, never considering the consequences.
I wouldn’t have predicted from their hands that most of these people would end up committed to mental institutions. Many patients lacked peripheral lines. They were more psychotic and less neurotic than the wounded egos and superegos that cared for them. Many of us have repressed rage, confused minds, and constipated emotions. The healthiest among us harness our strengths, choose our attitudes and actions, and embrace whatever challenges we meet on our path to becoming healthier.
I expected to see more, but saw only one club (murderer’s) thumb in the whole patient population. This guy was like Shrek. Motivated by his passions, he totally lacked impulse control. Another patient’s hands were so soft and supple that his bones felt barely attached. He had no energy, enthusiasm, or desire for anything. I observed a psychotic’s skin that was blood red with repressed rage. Other patient hands were so stiff you couldn’t flex their joints with a nut-cracker. These individuals were trapped, inside and out. I saw schizophrenic hands with two opposing sets of lines in each hand. I imagined two lost souls; opposites, suffering, struggling, and striving to find themselves through him.
Betsy and I loved the symbolism of the Tarot. We consulted the cards many times with many questions. Although we rarely heard what we wanted to hear, we always affirmed what we already knew. I collected birth dates, times, and places, 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. We spent too way much time complaining and blaming our problems on ‘The System’ and each other. I appointed myself spiritual ambassador and diplomatic good sense maker. Our real enemies were our bad habits, bureaucracy, and time. We were a team whether we chose ‘to be or not to be’.
One patient who infected my psyche with doubt was a young black man in his early thirties who grew up in abusive foster homes. A gentle kindness lie beneath the surface of Fred’s blade sculpted façade. Fred was involved in violence, but it wasn’t knife fights and gang warfare that got him locked up. It was unrequited love. Fred obsessed over an innocent teenage girl who was allegedly taken from him by an older man Fred described as an `abusive maniac’. Fred created realistic ‘WANTED DEAD or ALIVE’ posters of the maniac and posted them all over town, offering a phony ten thousand dollar reward. Fred didn’t realize he was creating evidence that would end him in the looney bin.
Fred’s large feminine hands, rectangular palms, long slender knotty fingers, and conical fingertips embody a ‘feeling’ type. It’s a great combo for cultivating intuition, being empathic, making and appreciating art, being good at research, organizing, and paying attention to detail. 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. I cheered his abilities and encouraged him to draw from real life. I convinced his treatment team and security on his ward to let him have pencils and paper and to allow him to draw with supervision when he asked for them.
Fred began a private sketch book. He amassed forty or fifty sketches and drawings in the first month that he showed to no one. I asked to see them. Reluctantly, Fred showed them to me. I was blown away. Several political caricatures like the one on the left were at the beginning. What stunned me were realistic pictures of staff sexually abusing patients. Patients were pleasuring staff in the sickest possible ways. Security, therapists, and patients were having bizarre sex using objects of pleasure and pain. Could they be that crazy? Can they get away it?
Fred certainly had a vivid imagination. There was no way he could have witnessed what he was portraying. I wondered if Fred’s friends were telling him their stories. He let me copy a few drawings. I contemplated the veracity of Fred’s artwork and shared it with Dolores. Betraying Fred’s trust was my greatest blunder and biggest regret. Dolores showed Fred’s drawings to the cabinet. Fred fought fiercely as his drawings and supplies were confiscated. It broke my heart to see him reduced to a drug induced stupor, an artistic genius, never to create (during my tenure) again. I felt responsible and couldn’t stop thinking about it.
My second Mary was a high functioning extremely troubled patient. Mary believed she was Satan’s child, a bad seed. Mary said she was three when she first unsuccessfully tried to poison her sister. Then she failed to drown her in the bathtub. A few years later, she tied her to a tree in a lightning storm, hoping she’d be electrocuted. Mary’s staunch Catholic parents enrolled her in a devout fundamentalist Catholic school where they hoped to save her. Mary predictably became more twisted. At sixteen, Mary set a nun on fire and carved her to death with a broken bottle, saying, “The Devil made me do it”.
While residing in maximum security, Mary had etched (using a nail file) `666′ in the skin of her arms and legs. She also scratched and carved it into furniture. Mary produced many a dark artwork. I took her drawings home every chance I got. I was learning that it’s not what you do, but what you get away with and how you get away with it that matters.
I don’t often see frightening hands, but Mary’s were scary. Her very stiff fingers curled inward like Susan Atkin’s (Charles Manson) creepy hands on the left. Mary’s skin was hard, dry, coarse, and reddish. She chewed her nails relentlessly, leaving them red, raw, and sore. Mary was self-critical to the theme of total self-hatred. I wished I could help her let go of her irrational terror, but Mary’s soul was hardboiled from a hellish reality of having to grow up in everyone else’s fundamentalist hypocrisy and insanity.
Mary had a huge crush on me. She was the first to arrive at the art room and the last to leave. I felt a little nauseous when I was alone with her. Even though I was repulsed, I always smiled and acted nice. One day, Mary generously offered to give me a quickie blow-job under my desk. I imagined Fred’s drawings and how easy it would be to become one of his vignettes. Then I thought about all of the abusive shepherds who physically and spiritually rape the lambs they were entrusted to protect. Did the terror of shame, guilt, and disgrace trigger their erotic fantasies? Was the fear of being caught a turn on? When did the Devil sow the seeds of evil so deep within their psyches?
Mary was hovering over me and monopolizing my attention. I got abrupt and impatient with her. The dark rings beneath her eyes began darkening as Mary began feeling rejected. When Mary left, Satan was hard at work, preparing her for evil that night on her ward. It was a full moon. The staff on her ward should have been more vigilant. They’re not lunatic asylums for nothing. After stealing the ‘six’ and ‘nine’ balls from the pool table, Mary loaded them in a black wool sock and nearly beat a new patient to death while she slept. The woman was there for a few days for psychiatric evaluation. Mary said she didn’t like the way the woman looked at her. I imagined she’d think twice before shoplifting again. I felt guilty and responsible. I should have said something.
Gene was the most incredible artist in the hospital. He’d been a successful commercial artist and advertising executive. Scuttlebutt was he’d created some of those TV ads that everyone loves to remember. Gene was unique. He lived like a celebrity on his ward. His private room, the only one, was outfitted with his own furniture, library, audio tape collection, and state of art stereo system, Bose headphones, and a grizzly bear rug.
Gene could have been free if he had wanted freedom and behaved accordingly. I tried to make good sense to Gene and convince him to become an active member of the real world. Gene made his own good sense. He had little interest in worldly freedom. He was free to love his literature, music, and art. I felt a bit jealous of his inner freedom.
A dark satanic aura shrouded Gene. His 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, Gene slit his girlfriend’s throat from ear to ear. She not only survived, but didn’t press charges, then forgave him. But Gene couldn’t forgive himself. He told me he’d do it again.
Gene was the patient Dolores caught in the art supply closet with Janice. Gene and I had many philosophical discussions and co-created several artworks that I still cherish along with this life size pastel portrait which he drew of me. I think he very subtly captures my dark side.
Benny was Gene’s buddy. He was a strong fit black man in his early thirties. Benny’s phobia of homosexuality drove the former transit policeman to a bar full of gay men one late night with an automatic weapon. After freebasing crack, Benny slaughtered eight men.
Benny was uncooperative. He came up bi-yearly for forensic review. He believed he’d be set free one day, but was always rejected. One staff psychologist told me there was a ‘secret’ agenda to never let him go. It was in everyone’s best interest to humor him. If he found out, he’d lose hope, become violent, and need to be permanently medicated.
Many patients were named after biblical figures and famous people. There were dozens of patients named Mary, Faith, Angel, Grace, and Hope. Whatever their parents had hoped, the reverse happened. Jesus Jefferson was double trouble. Jesus was Puerto Rican. He was the angriest patient in the hospital. Rejected countless times by forensic committees, Jesus had nothing left to lose. Everyone including staff steered clear of him.
Jesus had thrown his girlfriend, 3 year old child, and dog from a 17th story window. They died instantly when they hit the ground. Jesus had no remorse and never spoke of the incident. I had a fantasy that Jesus could be a powerful production manager in a patient run manufacturing business. Two staff psychologists agreed with me, but Jesus was too unpredictable and angry to ever be given any real opportunity to have responsibility.
There was never a dull day in the art room. The handsome young patient, just admitted, had cut his mother’s heart out and ate it with her favorite fork and knife on her favorite plate while reclining in her favorite chair. Another man was found combing his mother’s hair on her mantel piece, weeks after he had cut her head off. The entire residence was laden with lunatics and addicts who’d committed violent acts under the influence of rage and/or drugs. Schizophrenics, sociopaths, psychotics, and pathological liars flourished. One sociopath managed to have a Rolls Royce delivered to the hospital entrance as a result of conversations he had with a dealer from a pay phone in the hall of his ward.
If only I could put all of this talent to good use…
Author’s note: This is fiction set in the mid-eighties. Calling my protagonists ‘Patients’ is politically incorrect. ‘Clients’ and ‘Residents’ are used with less negative connotations and implications. For the record, I don’t call sick people ‘crazy’ or ‘lunatics’ in real life. My artwork has been altered and fabricated by me to fit my story.
Stay tuned as I get to know more patients and prepare to teach vocational classes.