I was born in 1954 in rural Indiana. My mother was 18 at the time, my father 28. They rented an apartment above my father’s mother and her husband, a locomotive driver in the yards of a steel mill. Soon after my birth my mother began leaving me downstairs with her mother-in-law. My parents worked all day while I stayed downstairs with ‘Grandma’ and ‘Grampa.’
When I was four, my parents left for California. I never saw them again. I was adopted by Grandma and Grampa. My grandmother became my adoptive mother and an unrelated man became my adoptive father.
I must have been affected by the disappearance of my real parents. I started gorging on candy and became severely introverted, morose, and prone to temper tantrums. I lost any desire to talk to Grandma or Grampa. And there were no other young children nearby to play with.
When I was four and a half, my new mother enrolled me at a nursery school in the town center. But my behavior and mood deteriorated further. Although I was already potty trained, I began soiling the seat of my pants. I also stole things from the school. I was expelled.
I had not lost control over my bowel movements. I just didn’t want to poop. I tried to hold it all in, but so much pressure built up that even tightening my gut muscles and crossing my legs could not prevent some poop from escaping my body.
I was taken to various doctors. On one occasion, at a hospital, a group of people in white coats put me on a surgical table and gave me an enema. As it began to work I thrashed about, trying to cross my legs while the attendants struggled to hold them apart. I was screaming in rage and shame.
My adoptive parents were no longer young. Grandma was about 51. She tolerated the situation for several months, but eventually I was told that unless I ‘straightened myself out’ I would be sent to the Larue D. Carter Memorial Hospital in Indianapolis, over 100 miles away.
I thought it was a bluff. I believed that they loved me. Would they really take me to a faraway place and leave me there? I thought they were trying to scare me into using the toilet. But I couldn’t. They must know that!
But in March of 1959, two months after my fifth birthday, they packed some clothes for me and we all got in the car and drove south. I was thinking: ‘They are really putting on a good show!’
The drive down Route 41 seemed to last forever. We traveled so far south that I noticed a change in the early spring landscape from the frost-encrusted earth of our home area to beds of budding flowers.
When we reached the hospital everything had already been arranged. My parents took me up in an elevator to the third (top) floor and led me to the left down a long corridor. Finally we stood before a huge thick door of dark varnished wood. This was Wing A-1.
Beyond that door ran a hallway with doors along both sides. At the end was a large dayroom with several round-topped tables and many small chairs. The upper half of the wall at one end of the dayroom was a partition of shatterproof glass with embedded close-mesh wire. A door led into the nurses’ station, where black women clad in white sat keeping an eye on the many children as they played and moped about. At the other end, metal double doors opened onto an open-air patio where I could see kids playing.
As we approached the glass partition, a black man wearing a lab coat came through the door, greeted my parents, and introduced himself as Doctor B. He told us that I had been assigned to a room and a bed that my parents could view before leaving.
At that I freaked out. I ran to the nearest door along the hallway because it displayed a picture of a toilet. I entered the first stall and crapped out a turd that was huge and hard as a rock. It hurt terribly. Then I ran back to my parents and Dr. B, grabbed Grandma’s hand, and tugged her along to show her what I had done. The four of us looked into the toilet and saw the monster turd. But it made no difference. My adoptive parents left me there crying. The people whom I trusted had betrayed me. I decided then and there never to love or trust anyone ever again. Later I concluded that I was myself unlovable.
I was in a fog. I spent the next several days walking along the walls of Wing 1-A, sliding my finger along the wall as I went. I was the only new kid on the wing. None of the other kids tried to talk to me. Nor did I speak to any of them.
After a week or two another child arrived — a little girl. I watched her walk around the wing with her finger on the wall for several days, just as I had done. For the next two years that I lived in the hospital I watched every new kid do the same thing. No one told them to. It was just what new kids did.
After I had ‘settled in’ I started to take more notice of my surroundings and make connections with a few of the other kids. One of them was Tony, a pleasant-looking boy who usually sat at one of the tables in the dayroom, looking around and smiling. He had a shock of blond hair hanging forward over his forehead. Once I noticed him I took an immediate liking to him.
When anyone approached him he would quickly clap his hands over his large green eyes and exclaim: “Tony hiding!” His voice was excited, joyful and giggly but at the same time frenzied, almost maniacal. If it was a staff member who needed him, then he or she would take Tony by the elbow or shoulder and lead him away. He would fall silent and drop his hands from his eyes.
A couple of times I tried to talk with Tony, but he never said anything except “Tony hiding!” At my last attempt at conversation with Tony I tried to pry his hands away from his eyes and yelled, “I found Tony!” He freaked out and ran around the corner and down the hallway. I guess Tony didn’t want to be found.
There was a taller, skinny girl on the wing named Cindy. She was probably eight or nine years old and had a head full of dark curls. Cindy never spoke a word. She would only grit or grind her teeth.
I liked Cindy. She and I would play the card game War for hours on end at one of the tables or on the floor. Often there wasn’t enough time in a day to finish a game because we were playing with 200 or more cards from five or six partial decks.
Cindy’s eyes would gleam when she was winning and lose a bit of their luster when she wasn’t. I cannot recall her ever smiling. I asked a staff nurse what Cindy’s problem was. We kids had learned from the staff that each of us had a ‘problem’ that explained why we were at the hospital. The nurse replied that there was nothing physically wrong with Cindy. It was, she said, a ‘mental problem.’
The next day I went up to Cindy with a sharpened pencil and asked her: “If there was a shot that could make you talk would you take it?” (we kids were all afraid of shots). Cindy nodded. I told her that I had a shot like that and pushed the pencil point into her bicep. I did not jab, but I wound up pushing really hard. Cindy’s eyes grew distressed and her mouth flattened into a grim line, but still she made no sound apart from grinding her teeth. Although the pencil point did not pierce her skin, it left an ugly dent. The next day I snatched Cindy’s arm and bit her as hard as I could. She made no sound, nor did she struggle or try to pull away. I released my teeth’s grip and she walked away.
I did not want to hurt Cindy. I was trying to make her holler. If she was deliberately keeping silent a sudden shock might catch her unawares and make her cry out involuntarily. Then she would be allowed to go home! Surely that was what she wanted. I wanted to go home.
Later a therapist’s assistant came up and asked if I had been ‘tormenting’ Cindy. I said no. He bit me hard on the arm. I started screaming and struggling. He continued to clench his teeth — even harder, it felt — and then suddenly quit.
“Just because Cindy can’t talk,” he told me, “it doesn’t mean that she can’t make herself understood.”
Cindy never played War with me again.
I was placed in a third-grade class of five or six kids, all about my size. The teacher, a black woman, used the Montessori method, encouraging us to learn but allowing us to proceed at our own pace.
There weren’t any black kids on the wing. There weren’t any white adults either, except for a therapist I had whose name was Ann.
I was assigned to sessions of Recreational Therapy and Occupational Therapy. In RT I tried to play a trumpet but wound up banging on a small xylophone, making drawings, and playing with clay, often with other kids from different wings of the hospital. At OT I made a copper ashtray for my adoptive parents by pounding a circular piece of sheet copper into a wooden mold. I also wove a small multicolored rug on a loom for my dog Scamp to sleep on.
Other ‘therapies’ were less benign. I have vivid memories of ECT. I was taken to a chair in the basement of the hospital building. I was administered a shot while standing and then seated in the chair. In anticipation of the shot I tightened the muscles in my buttocks. The black guy administering the shot told me to relax or else it would hurt. But I couldn’t or wouldn’t relax and it hurt like hell. When I was seated, silver-colored dumbbells were placed on my temples and wires were attached to different points all over my head. It hurt and I said so. The guy hooking me up said: “We’re just pulling your hair to wrap the wire around.”
I was often woken at night and given what I was told was a sleeping pill (!). On a few occasions I was given a gelatinous red capsule. A bad headache followed. I was put to bed in the middle of the day and slept. When I awoke it was already dark.
Then there was the ice tub. Excited kids and kids having fits were given a bath in ice to calm them down. The bathtub had a canvas covering with grommets along the edges attached to hooks along the rim of the tub. The ice tub was also used as a punishment. Once I peeked through the huge keyhole in the shower room door when the girls were in there showering. I got caught and was put in the tub naked while all the girls watched. I felt so ashamed.
Occasionally, even in winter, we were taken on outings to Holiday Park in Indianapolis. This was a large park with a stream running through it, woodland, bushes, and a crumbling building we were not allowed near. Black people were not allowed in the park and the white supervisors who took us on this outing were people we never saw at other times. They were bossy assholes, constantly looking at their wristwatches.
On one of these outings I was scrambling across a field with a bunch of other kids in a sort of race when I stumbled and skidded forward on my chest. There, in the grass, not a foot from my face was a little furry brown and cream-colored baby bunny rabbit. I was in raptures! Its startled little eyes were looking into my own. Seconds passed. I wondered where the mother rabbit was. The bunny was frozen stiff with fear and trembling. I wanted to share this experience. I’d never been so close to a wild rabbit in my life and this one, being a baby, was so cute. A few kids were standing around.
“Hey, look, a rabbit!” I yelled.
“Where?” asked Chris, right behind me. I was still looking at the bunny.
Chris spotted the rabbit and barely missed my chin as he tried to kick it. The rabbit bolted.
“Don’t hurt it! Don’t hurt it!” I yelled.
But Chris took no notice. He ran the baby bunny down and kicked it into the air. It had only run a few feet. It had probably never had to run for its life before and its young legs were immature and inexperienced. It had made a swerve and a dodge or two but ended up flying and spinning through the air over a distance of at least ten feet. I ran over to where the bunny lay dead. Its little eye, kicked halfway out of its head, still looked startled.
“You killed it! You killed it!” I screamed.
I was sobbing, wracked by the realization that it was my stupidity that had gotten the bunny killed. I was filled with guilt, anger, hate, and fury. A murderous rage came over me and momentarily overwhelmed all the other feelings. I wanted to kill Chris. I wanted to hurt him. I wanted him to die. I wanted him to suffer. But I was also scared of him.
One night a black orderly named Alan who worked at the hospital and a buddy of his took me and another kid off grounds and drove us to a small bowling alley. It was late for us — maybe 7 or 7:30 pm. The alleys were not automated: we kids reset the pins and returned the balls to the players.
On the way to the bowling alley I told Alan that I was scared of werewolves. We were passing some huge gasoline storage tanks with flashing lights around their tops. “That is where Wolf Man lives,” Alan told me, pointing at one of the tanks. “Naw” I replied, “he’d drown.” But Alan explained that the tank was filled with gas that was like slush. That was what Wolf Man ate when he wasn’t eating people or blood. That really freaked me out.
Next to the hospital, connected by an underground tunnel, was a building with an enormous swimming pool. Once in a while the kids from our wing would get to swim there.
Some of us could swim really well. Others, like myself, could hardly swim at all. Sometimes I jumped off a diving board with my lifejacket on, but usually I stayed at the shallow end and dog paddled.
One day there was a girl named Betty in the pool. She couldn’t really swim either. She was thrashing about only a couple of feet from the side of the pool and screaming “Help!” whenever her head was above the water. Two supervisors were right there, chatting and apparently ignoring Betty’s screams.
I liked Betty and I wanted her to like me, so I jumped in to save her. As soon as I got close enough she grabbed my head and pushed me under the water in a desperate attempt to raise herself. Afraid that she was going to drown me, I lifted both of my feet and kicked her in the stomach, then pushed off from her and banged my head on the overflow gutter at the edge of the pool. I was gasping and trying to catch my breath after damned near being drowned by Betty when a supervisor jumped in, gripped the side of the pool with one hand, reached out with his other arm, and pulled Betty over to the side.
I was sent to the shower room to wait until ‘pool time’ was over. I decided right then and there that I would never try to help anyone again. My experience with Betty confirmed my earlier experience with Cindy. I knew better than to try explaining my actions. My explanations would be seen as manipulations to get myself out of trouble.
Ann quit as my therapist. At our last session she explained that she wasn’t abandoning me, she really cared about me, but she just had to go back to school. It really didn’t matter much to me.
I was assigned a new therapist by the name of Jack Johnson. After introducing himself, Jack asked me where my family was from. But I could not tell him anything about my family. I didn’t have a family.
Jack was adventurous with me. He tried to gain my confidence. He did not make me sit in his office and talk, as Ann had done. Instead Jack and I walked the halls of the hospital, with me leading the way.
On one of our expeditions I led Jack through a utility door into a room with big electrical boxes on all the walls and a trapdoor of expanded metal grid in the floor. I asked him if we could see what was down there. He told me that it was the sub-basement and lifted the trapdoor open. I explored the sub-basement with Jack until I got tired.
Those expeditions were great! Jack came to the wing to see me. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. And he gave me a Duncan Butterfly yoyo! It was blue with sparkles. He taught me how to yoyo.
My parents took me home for a week. It didn’t work out too well. The night before I was due to go back ended with me sitting on the floor in a closet and screaming F—k you Anita at my parents as they sat at their kitchen table. F—k you Anita was a phrase carved into the dark wooden door of Wing A-1. I took it for a general curse, stronger than plain F—k you.
Late at night, after returning from the home visit, a nurse woke me up.
“Mr. Johnson is here to see you,” she said.
Jack was in the cafeteria. I said Hi! He told me that my parents had had a car accident on their way home. My father was OK but my mother had crashed through the windshield and flown almost 100 feet through the air. She might die. I wondered why Jack was telling me this. I sat there thinking about it in silence for a while. Jack asked me if I was OK. “Yeah,” I replied.
At the age of seven I was finally discharged. My parents took me home. My mother was still very much alive, though she had several scars on her face.
I still had to be taken to appointments at a local mental health clinic. I was prescribed 10 mg Thorazine tablets three times per day.
The hospital never did solve my ‘problem.’ I continued to crap in my pants until I was twelve years old. My mother took care of the mess. I refused to do so.
What eventually cured me was Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s book The Silent World. I talked my mother into getting me scuba diving lessons. She agreed, but pointed out that before I could go scuba diving I would have to ‘straighten myself out.’ I did.
My stay at the hospital had no impact on the problem that led to my admission. But it did exacerbate other problems and change me in fundamental ways. When I came out, I was not the same person as when I went in. I am a deformed product of that ‘cutting-edge facility’ and the ‘treatments’ I received there — social isolation, pills and shots, ice bath and ECT. I am still in a quandary regarding what medications I was put on, but I strongly suspect that they were responsible for some of the traits that became embedded in my personality.
Young children are vulnerable and defenseless. Psychiatric patients are only slightly less vulnerable and defenseless. When psychiatric patients are young children the vulnerability and defenselessness are at a maximum and abuse is inevitable. A mental hospital is no place for children to grow up.
So many well-intentioned folks ‘go along’ with whatever the ‘clown in the white lab coat’ recommends, simply because they regard him or her as an authority in such matters. The relatives of the troubled individual bow to the ‘professional’ judgment of the ‘expert.’ The experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram showed how perceived authority could induce well-intentioned people to deliver excruciatingly painful electric shocks to others despite their desperate pleas and screams of agony. It doesn’t matter that it was all faked because the experimental subjects believed that they were delivering the shocks. But they thought they were doing the right thing.
When my adoptive parents dropped me off at the Larue D. Carter Memorial Hospital on that fateful day in 1959 I’m pretty sure now that they were putting their trust in an institution whose staff — so they sincerely believed — possessed integrity, dedication, and professional expertise. They bowed to the ‘authority of the white lab coat’ and never looked back. I do not and never shall forgive them. All I ever wanted was a family who loved me and whom I could love in return.
A long and winding road led me through the land of alienation and apathy to that hospital, and from there onward into the labyrinth of the prison-industrial complex.
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.