“For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter…” —Deuteronomy 32:32
At the age of sixteen I was committed to the Pontiac State Hospital in Pontiac, Michigan. It was the most traumatic experience of my life. I experienced horrific forced shock treatments in a freezing cold, ancient building that was falling apart around me. It’s no wonder the hospital eventually lost accreditation and had to close—of course, that was decades after what they did to me there.
I have a lot more to say about my experiences at Pontiac. But you might wonder, “More about Pontiac? Why? You were there over 60 years ago. Why not just forget about it?”
It all goes back to when I first got out of the state hospital. I had terrifying thoughts and dreams, and I was trying to cope with them and my memory, learning, and speech and other problems by myself. I desperately wanted someone to help me and do something about Pontiac, but no one would even listen to what I had to say. It felt as if they were telling me I didn’t count. I was angry, very angry, and I never got over the hurt. Not a day of my life has gone by since without my thinking about Pontiac and the way I was treated. If nobody else was going to do anything about it, I was! Inspired by Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor who wrote about the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, I decided to write about Pontiac.
I sat on the idea for a long time before I tried to write anything. My first attempt didn’t turn out very well. A friend suggested the online UCLA writer’s program. I began in 2007 and obtained my Certificate of Completion in 2010. I’d retired the year before, and now I had time to write about Pontiac. Several years on I attended a lecture at the local Hilton hotel given by Robert Whitaker, author of Mad in America and founder of the website by the same name. I posted my first publication on my state hospital experiences there, Committed at 16: Memories of a State Hospital, in 2020.
Those responding to my article were very supportive, yet I didn’t know how many were willing to believe what I said without knowing more. I also wondered myself how much of what I remembered about Pontiac was true after so many years. As best I could, I tried to verify what I wrote by means of The Detroit Free Press archive and other reputable sources.
The Dangerous Conditions inside the Building
Pontiac was built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and many of its problems stemmed from its age and poor condition. It was first opened as the Eastern Michigan Asylum in 1878. The name was changed to the Pontiac State Hospital in 1911, and it became the Clinton Valley Center in 1973. At the time I was there in 1960, the original building was still being used and held around 3,000 patients.
This is how I described what it was like inside in my first article: “It was January when I came in, and the bedrooms had little heat and smelled awful… Most of the day, I had to sit on a hard wooden chair [doing nothing] in a large room with maybe twenty or more others. The chairs were lined up beneath windows on three sides of the room. [There was] more heat than the bedrooms, but it was cold next to the windows… I had to have permission to use the bathroom, half [or more of] the toilets were clogged up, and the doors on the stalls were missing.”
Sounds almost unbelievable, right? Conditions so brutal they were practically torture? I sometimes wondered if I was misremembering. Certainly, plenty of people didn’t believe how bad it was.
But now I have corroborating evidence. It truly was that bad. Maybe it was even worse.
Here’s how Boyce Rensberger described the conditions in The Detroit Free Press (“A Look Inside the Hospital: The Heart Rendering Things We Found,” Feb. 2, 1969): “At Pontiac State Hospital men, women, and children live in a 90-year-old building with no electric light in bedrooms. What little heat there is comes from hallways and floats near the ceiling of rooms that are taller than they are wide… At Pontiac, the dingy walls have not been painted in years… In many patient rooms, plaster is cracked and in several… whole square yards have crashed to the floor. Such deplorable conditions would be bad enough for healthy people but in a state institution these deplorable conditions are home and hospital to sick persons who already feel rejected by society… [I]f the state fire marshal was to enforce the law… [Pontiac would] need at least $20 million immediately for new construction.”
In 2020 I wrote, “The food [at Pontiac] ranged from unappetizing to plain unhealthy. There was too much pulp in the orange juice for me, and a lot of times the fruit looked just plain rotten. For dinner they might have a fatty piece of meat in a gooey sauce. Maybe there’d be a part I could eat, but the rest had too much fat for me to chew. By the time I went home, I’d lost considerable weight and had big holes [i.e., recession] in my gums. My dentist told me it was due to vitamin C deficiency, and I would lose my teeth if it went on. I also was buying a lot of candy and ice cream [at the hospital] canteen with money my mother sent, which led to no end of cavities. A lot of times, it was eat that or go hungry.”
My dentist told me I had scurvy, the only case he’d ever seen in his years of practice. It’s best known as a disease of sailors centuries ago who went on lengthy voyages without access to fresh fruit. But after I started taking mega-doses of Vitamin C, my gums grew back. I also had to make weekly trips to the dentist to fill all the cavities I had.
I was at Pontiac for only a short time when they made me have shock treatments (AKA: electroconvulsive therapy, ECT, electroshock, or, simply, shock). The treatments always began with a heavy male nurse giving me a shot of scopolamine in the butt to prevent me choking on my saliva or vomiting during the procedure. Then, he had me put on a loose-fitting hospital gown, had me wait in an unheated bedroom (it was winter!) where others were waiting, and locked the door. I couldn’t help shaking from the cold and thinking about what horrible thing was going to happen next!
It wasn’t long before the door opened again, and the male nurse started calling us out into the hall, one-by-one. Each time, I started to panic, thinking it would be me. Sometimes I heard loud screaming in the hall, and suddenly it would stop. I wondered just what was going on. Once or twice, somebody refused to go, and two big men came in and carried them out screaming. Finally, it was my turn, and I went out in the hallway. There was a stretcher with a white sheet and pillow, and people were standing around it.
As I described in 2020:
“I had to lie down on a stretcher, and then the doctor would wrap a tourniquet around my arm and have me make a fist. Then he injected me with something and released the tourniquet. In seconds, I couldn’t breathe. It was so terrifying and painful it goes beyond words to describe! … Later, I found out the doctor must have injected me with a muscle relaxant (e.g., succinylcholine chloride, known as Quelicin or Anectine) without putting me to sleep first. A muscle relaxant is used to paralyze muscles, including those that pump the lungs. Putting a strong electrical current through someone’s head causes a convulsion of the entire body, and without the muscle relaxant could break bones.”
Nobody I talked to afterwards would believe somebody would do this to me! Years later, I came across it in Peter Breggin, M.D.’s book, Electroshock: Its Brain-Disabling Effects (1979, Pp. 167-8): “…A particularly terrifying ECT technique is the administration of modified ECT without prior sedation to render the patient unconscious. If the patient is not unconscious at the time of the injection of the neuromuscular blocking agent, he remains awake while unable to move a muscle or to breathe immediately before being knocked out by the electric current… I have come across two cases in which patients… were given ECT without first rendering them unconscious. One of my patients died… The other patient…vividly recalled a horrible sensation of suffocating or drowning just before losing consciousness during ECT.”
I complained about shock treatments and brain damage so much to my therapist, he sent away for my records from Pontiac to see what they said. They didn’t say anything about shock treatments being given to me in any unusual ways, but they did say I had between 20-30 bilateral ECTs—a high number of the most damaging kind!
Here is how I described what happened afterwards in my first article: “[For a long time I] had to struggle to find the words to say simple things. What came out wasn’t always what I wanted, but something that rhymed or was similar in some way. Likewise, I had a hard time finding words when I was working on school papers, and a lot of trouble with spelling, punctuation, and grammar… With some effort I’d been an “A” and “B” student at my high school before I was placed in the state hospital, but after I eventually returned I had to struggle to get “B’s” and “C’s.” A big chunk of my past learning was lost, and it was much harder to learn new things.”
Many years later, I learned that there is a word for this: aphasia.
The Grip of Terror!
When I returned to my high school after being at Pontiac, I couldn’t stop the painful thoughts about Pontiac and shock treatments that kept coming into my head. I had trouble concentrating on what was going on in class and doing my homework. At times it was so intense I’d walk into a busy street without paying attention to what was going on. Sometimes people walking by saved me just in the nick of time, or else drivers stopped just before they hit me. I also had trouble going to sleep and terrifying dreams at night. Things were so bad for a time, I thought I’d end up committing suicide. Even now—over sixty years on—I still have daily thoughts about Pontiac and nightmares about being lost and someone making me feel like dirt that remind me of how I felt back there.
Was this a new mental disorder or more of the same? When I was having so many terrifying thoughts and dreams, there wasn’t a specific psychiatric diagnosis for it. Then, whatever problems I had the state hospital would say were “schizophrenia.” Now, it probably would be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is defined in the DSM-5 as happening after “exposure to actual or threatened death.” It is described as involving recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive recollections of the event … intrusive, vivid, sensory, and emotional components, that are distressing… [and] distressing dreams that replay the event itself or that are representative or thematically related to the major threats involved in the traumatic event.”
Pontiac Loses Accreditation; Forced to Close!
I thought there was so much wrong with Pontiac, it should be closed immediately. But at the time I was there that was like banging your head against the wall. It wasn’t until 19 years later that it lost its accreditation and 18 years after that it finally closed. How did it survive so long and what brought it down?
According to Gerald H. Smith, D.P.A. (“The Rise and Decline of Mental Health Hospitals in the State of Michigan,” doctoral dissertation, Western Michigan University, 1992): “Limited financial resources, a defensive administrative approach to problem solving, accusations of insensitivity, and the like, have been major drawbacks… [T]he mental health bureaucracy deserved much of the blame for problems.”
Boyce Rensberger, writing for The Detroit Free Press (“Penny Pinching Hamper Mental Health Programs,” Feb. 4, 1969), wrote that “few citizens and legislators really care whether the mentally afflicted get decent care and treatment. Even fewer understand the nature of the problem… [T]he popular conception of mental illness is still one of incurability. Legislators tend to reflect this attitude in their appropriations for the state hospitals.”
So, what did a committee of state legislators find out when they suddenly showed up at Pontiac after so many years of their hands-off?
“A group of state legislators Friday made a surprise inspection of the large state mental hospital in Pontiac and found encrusted dirt in the wards, a lack of proper treatment programs, staff shortages, and what appeared to be excessive use of sedatives…Dr. Robert Braun, representing the hospital administration, did not dispute most of the legislator’s findings.” (Kirk Cheyfitz, “Legislators Find Filth at Hospital,” The Detroit Free Press, Feb. 7, 1976).
The legislators were followed a few years later by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals (JCAH). “The state-run Clinton Valley Center [Pontiac was renamed The Clinton Valley Center in 1973] has lost accreditation… Clinton Valley director Anthony Drabki said the institution will not appeal the Commission’s Actions. [He] said the state legislature will have to provide money to make the extensive improvements called for… The Commission found the center had too few pharmacists, trained nurses, and vocational rehabilitation programs… Patients in wards found doing nothing or pacing the wards… In addition, the Commission found the center did not meet fire and electrical safety standards.” (Staff Writers, “Clinton Valley Adult Center Loses its Accreditation,” The Detroit Free Press, Aug. 31, 1979).
“[Michigan] Governor Milliken has recommended increasing next year’s mental health budget by $9 million to prevent the closing of the Clinton Valley Center and two other state care centers…[Patrick] Babcock [Director of the Department of Mental Health], said state hospitals and other care center are now operating ‘far below acceptable care levels…’ Babcock said he recommended closing the…facilities to prevent care levels from dropping even further…” (Patricia Chargot and Martin F. Kohn, “Aid Sought for Mental Care Centers,” The Detroit Free Press, Aug. 18, 1982).
Clinton Valley never received the funding from the state it needed to upgrade its facility and programs to meet Joint Commission standards. In addition, it lost its eligibility for Medicaid, Medicare, federal grants, and private insurance when it lost its accreditation. After a protracted battle to stay open, it was forced to close in 1997 and was demolished in 2000.
Too Little Justice, Too Late
After seeing what The Detroit Free Press and the other sources had to say, I am encouraged that my recollections of Pontiac were substantially correct. Its loss of accreditation made clear that the care provided by Pontiac/Clinton Valley was substandard. I would certainly agree with this from my own experiences. The newspaper articles I quoted don’t confirm many of the details of my story, but I think they show that Pontiac was a place where these kinds of things could happen. There are those who would try to deny, minimize, or justify the unjustifiable, but I feel stronger in what I believe about Pontiac than ever.
The Detroit Free Press did an excellent job in bringing to light the conditions at Pontiac, its loss of accreditation, and closing. I thought it made a big mistake, though, by not investigating the violence at the hospital. I’m sure it was there! I experienced it myself, and I saw others being beaten and humiliated. (Detroit’s other major newspaper, The Detroit News, didn’t have an online archive for the years I was interested in.)
As things now stand, it looks like so many got away with so much, and patients and families were left to cope on their own with the harm Pontiac did. Those working there clearly reneged on their professional responsibilities and ethical obligations. In cases involving assault on patients, they also broke the law.
Can Pontiac ever be held accountable? The statute of limitations for bringing criminal charges or a lawsuit to seek damages would have expired for many or most who were there. But it is still not too late to contact former patients and find out what they have to say about the hospital and the care they received. I’d also include anyone who’d been a patient at Michigan’s other publicly funded mental hospitals. Hopefully, it would help bring closure on the harm done to patients and their families, provide more information about the history of Michigan’s publicly funded mental hospitals, and give warning to those seeking to solve today’s problems by the large-scale re-institutionalization of the mentally ill. Other states doubtlessly had similar problems in their public mental health system, and they would be interested as well.
Perhaps President John F. Kennedy said it best at the signing of the Community Mental Health Act in 1963: “I believe that the abandonment of the mentally ill and the mentally retarded to the grim mercy of custodial institutions too often inflicts on them and on their families a needless cruelty which this Nation should not endure.”
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.
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