Legends of Myself 17

Posted on May 9, 2011


Continued from Legends of Myself 16


19. A Death in Bedlam

Tom sang of Bedlam:

Of thirty bare years have I

Twice twenty been enraged,

And of forty been three times fifteen

In durance soundly caged.

On the lordly lofts of Bedlam,

With stubble soft and dainty,

Brave bracelets strong, sweet whips ding-dong,

With wholesome hunger plenty.

In picture, the untender walls of Bethlem Royal Hospital—Bedlam—look a lot like the walls of Essondale, British Columbia’s own iconic psychiatric hospital.  But Bedlam derives its fame, such as it is, from a much earlier era.  Filmed, Bedlam would be a b-movie Hammer Film starring Boris Karloff or Vincent Price.  When my grandmother entered Essondale’s walls, however, it was already 1956, and there were very few sweet whips ding-dong on prescription there.

Each era has its own psychiatric iconography—seldom flattering, often much deserved.  Where once they merely chained and whipped the insane, disturbed and strange, in the modern era (meaning in this case the 1950s) they made some pretence—and even had some success—in curing them.  Where, of course, they needed cures.  There were pills and strait jackets and rooms with padded walls.  There were shocks and shaved heads and surgeries.  In the afternoon, everyone could gather round for fairy tales and dream readings by Uncle Jung and Grandpa Freud.

But in the matter of the struggle between doctors and patients, drugs and invasive therapies can be made to stand in for whip and shackle.  Filmed, the sinister side of our modern cuckoo’s nest, the institution’s assertion of control, can be represented by a movie starring Jack Nicholson.

(Except that particular movie got the genders wrong.  Written by a man, I guess.)

Plato was a fool.  It is always dangerous to trust an aristocracy, even when that aristocracy is composed of doctors or philosopher kings.  Some of the leading doctors in the 1950s were the same arrogant souls of the 1930s and 1940s who cheerleaded the master race and the pseudo-science of eugenics, sharing that unhappy distinction with the American Cattle Breeders Association.  And like the cattle breeders, the doctors sometimes mistook what was good from their own point of view for what was good for the cow, or for the patient, as the case might be.

How does it happen that my grandmother came south for treatment for alcohol abuse and wound up dead in Crease Clinic?  My Uncle Jim’s opinion, expressed at my father’s funeral four and half decades later:  “Those doctors murdered my mother!”

Certainly they were more than a little careless.

Aristocrats seldom mind the poor.  Beggars get poor pickings in the wealthy part of town.  Just ask any beggar.

And people without power and status, past getting their needs neglected, are always much more likely to be abused.  Countless court actions in relation to residential schools, schools for the disabled, orphanages, juvenile detention facilities, group homes, foster care and, yes, mental hospitals, have made this truth all too clear.

By going to Crease Clinic at Essondale, by putting herself in the charge of doctors who would not naturally respect her, Granny Alice—a woman, worse, an Indian—was doing a dangerous thing.  The situation was a sociological recipe for abuse.  And for the kind of reckless experimentation which ultimately ended her life.

In our century, so far as I know, electroshock is recommended only for cases of extreme depression, and the technology used today—still considered brutal—mitigates somewhat the memory loss and disorientation commonly produced by the earlier methods and models.  Electroshock isn’t, on the other hand, prescribed as a treatment for substance abuse because there’s no proof that it helps.  There was even less proof of effectiveness in 1956.

So, in the absence of any proof that the treatment worked, it was an experiment , really, that the doctors were doing to Granny Alice when they strapped her to a table and inserted a plug in her mouth.  That’s to stop you from biting your tongue, dear.  It was in the spirit of let’s-see-if-this works that they turned the current on and sent a jolt of electricity through her brain.  The convulsions were expected and normal.  That’s the reason for the restraints, the buckles, the leather.  That’s why they strapped her down to the table.  It wasn’t pretty.  It was kind of—you know, experimental—tough love.  You expected her eyes to roll up in her head.  That always happened.  You expected…  But they didn’t expect her to die.  Oh no.  That was a mistake.  They didn’t expect her heart to stop.  They didn’t expect to unbind a corpse from that table.

I’m sure somebody wrote a polite memo explaining how sorry they were.  How sorry were the doctors.  How sorry were the board of directors.  –And asking, how should they dispose of the body?

My grandmother was just a quaint old Indian lady with a sixth grade education and a backwoods accent.  Hierarchy inevitably mitigates conscience.  How much did her social unimportance soothe the guilt?  How quickly did it let the doctors bury and forget her?

How much could an old Indian woman matter, except to me maybe, who had lost his mother, who had lost his sisters, whose family and options were becoming perilously thin?  Grandparents can often rescue a childhood when parents die, and my grandmother had already begun that job.  She could and might have continued as my substitute parent for another decade, as needed—and there was going to be need.  But now she lay dead on an Essondale table, the victim of dubious, unchecked, unsupervised medical experimentation.

And whatever the doctors may have told themselves once they had cleared Granny Alice’s body away, that maybe her death didn’t matter as much as other people’s, I know that wasn’t and isn’t true.  Looking back through all the events that followed, I see that the death I hardly noticed at the time—because I knew nothing of what death was, and, besides, I was in the care of my father—was critical in shaping my childhood and was critical in shaping me.

In many important ways my life was born of an electroshock machine.


Continued at Legends of Myself 18

Posted in: autobiography