I was six years old, and so, finally, all the symptoms of my supposed mental illness, playing in the back yard making mud pies, running away from the big children when they threatened me, picking flowers from our neighbor’s garden, fighting with my little sister, and especially, being born to a crazy mother, came to a head. And now I was officially a schizophrenic, proving that the disease was inherited.
And Miss Callaghan declared that I was to be taken to Bellevue Hospital, to be made an experimental animal for Doctor Lauretta Bender. She was one of the leading child psychiatrists of her time, and she needed foster children to try out electric shock treatment on us. How interesting to see what might happen!
And the child welfare agency that was supposed to protect me was happy to provide the children.
I remember nothing of how I got there, and very little of what I actually experienced during that time. But, very unusually for a shock victim, I have a few memories, memories of events that occurred over and over.
Now, writing as an adult many years later, I can only imagine all the terror I must have felt when I was torn from my foster parents then. But maybe it is merciful that I can’t remember.
At Bellevue,I slept in what seemed to me, small as I was, as a gigantic hallway; cold, echoing at night with strange and frightening noises, with a ceiling as high as the sky. There were windows even up to the ceiling, but they had not been cleaned for many years, and the hallway was always dark, even during the day, even when the sun was shining outside. My bed, furnished with a hard filthy mattress that smelled very bad and an olive drab blanket, was all alone in the hallway.
I didn’t know why I was kept alone in the hallway. I wanted to be with the other boys on the ward. I remember vaguely being told that the ward didn’t have enough room, but why didn’t they put some other boy out there so I would have someone to talk to?
And there was no one to hear me cry, which might have been just as well, because they said my crying was a symptom of my illness, and maybe if I kept crying I would be there for the rest of my life.
And there was no one there at night to hear me scream when the man came to rape me.
Sometimes Doctor Bender would appear during the day, coming through the elevator door in the middle of the hallway, surrounded by her protectors, many aides who seemed to worship her, or maybe they were just afraid of her, as I was. Sometimes she would pass very close to me, looking at me, but not acknowledging me, as if I didn’t exist.
And it was cold, so cold. It was a New York City winter, and I only had one blanket, though sometimes the kinder attendants would put another one on my bed. But it always seemed to disappear. I would wake up shivering, but couldn’t find any position that would keep me warm.
And I thought about home, about my parents and my little sister, and the nice teachers I had in school, and I wondered if I would ever see them again. Sometimes right after the shock treatments, it was very hard to remember home at all, and all I knew was the world I knew right then, of shock treatments and loneliness and cold.
I wanted it to be over and I wanted to die.
Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream…
Most mornings, all of the boys were marched to the other side of the hallway, to the girls’ ward. There we were supposed to sing and show how happy and normal we were, but I almost never did. The attendants would try to pressure me to sing, telling me how not singing was a sign of my illness, and I should sing if I wanted to get better.
On the mornings when I was going to get the shock treatment, I didn’t get any breakfast, so I knew what was going to happen. On those mornings, while the other children sang obediently, I would cry without stopping.
Soon, three attendants would show up and start to drag me down the hallway, to a room close to the boys’ ward where the shock was given. They had learned to provide lots of staff for this, as I fought so hard that it was impossible for any one person to control me.
“I won’t go to the shock treatment, I won’t!” I kicked, tried to bite my captors, tried to escape their grip. But they dragged me down the hallway and threw me violently onto the shock table, where several of them held me down. A rag was stuffed into my mouth and down my throat, making me choke.
And that was the last thing I would remember, until I woke up in a dark room somewhere. Often I would wake up in the same room with Stanley, a very big boy of about thirteen. I was terrified of Stanley, though I don’t know why. Whatever the reason may have been is lost in the black hole that the shock had created.
I had learned to try to memorize my name, concentrate on my name so I would remember it after the shock. Teddy, I’m Teddy, I’m here in this room, in the hospital. And my mommy’s gone… I would cry and realize how dizzy I was. The world was spinning around and coming back to it hurt too much.
I want to go down, I want to go where the shock treatment is sending me, I can’t fight any more and I want to die…and something made me go on living, and to live I had to remember never to let anyone near me again.
The man came to my bed, my isolated little bed in the big hallway, and grabbed my head and forced my mouth against his penis. Then he tore off my hospital gown and tried to turn me over. I fought back, and he grabbed me and slammed me down, hitting my head against the bed frame and stunning me…
My bottom hurt all the time and I was bleeding. I had a terrible taste in my mouth that wasn’t really there but never went away.
My father came to visit me, and I told my daddy what the man was doing to me.
I was crying, as I almost always did.
“Daddy, please make him stop. Please don’t let him do that to me.”
My father looked very upset.
“I’ll talk to the doctor about it.”
He visited me again.
“Teddy, you imagined it. The doctor says you imagined it.”
I imagined it. My daddy says I imagined it.
My daddy doesn’t care what happens to me.
I want to die.
Almost every night the man came to my bed in the big hallway and raped me. And then it stopped.
And then one night I heard a little girl screaming across the big hallway. I recognized her voice. She was a beautiful child about my age who I saw sometimes on the girls’ ward. She was getting shock treatment too, because on the days I didn’t get breakfast, she didn’t either. Like me, she didn’t sing either, she didn’t sing and celebrate our happy childhoods like we were supposed to. She was much more affected by the shock treatments than I was, and said almost nothing, just smiled vacantly.
It must have been her bed that I saw in the hallway when we were led to the girls’ ward to sing and celebrate.
I heard her almost every night in my sleep, waking me up, although during the time of the shock treatments, I never was either fully awake or fully asleep.
And even now, so many years later, she sometimes comes to me in my dreams, the beautiful little girl crying out in terror and pain.
And so, in May 1944, after being being raped and killed over and over, I finally was released from Bellevue. The little boy who had been taken there to be tortured didn’t exist any more. All that was left of him was a few scraps of memory and a broken spirit, and the rest was ashes in a giant dark pit, mixed with the ashes of the hundreds of other children who had been tortured and burnt alive by Doctor Bender, a leader of her profession.
It was two months after my seventh birthday, but I don’t remember my birthday. I don’t remember anything about the next few months, but eventually I found myself at home in the Bronx, trying to remember who I was.
I was so terrified now that I would cling to my mother and I was afraid to go out for a while.
Finally, I took my tricycle and rode it all over the neighborhood, very confidently, as I had always done, for I knew every block. But suddenly I realized that I didn’t know where I was, and I panicked. Somehow a kind neighbor got me home, but I was scared to ride my tricycle any more. I used to have a sense of freedom, that I was a big boy and could ride it anywhere, but that was gone now.
And a little boy named Karl, about my age, came to our house to visit me. I was told he lived very near to us, on the corner just two houses away. And I was told he had been my best friend, but I didn’t know who he was.
Miss Callaghan said my memory loss was a very bad sign. It meant I wasn’t getting better.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.