Authors: Scott Spencer
Tags: #ebook, #book
No prison. No juvenile home. And, if my parents were willing to pay for something private, no state institution. I was judged psychologically irresponsible and assigned to a psychiatric hospital for one year, until my eighteenth birthday, after which my case could be reviewed. It was not even a real conviction; the time in the nuthouse was parole.
My parents’ aversion to psychiatry was so deeply ingrained and so reflexive that they could have just as easily related to my being sent to a seminary. (“Let’s consider ourselves very, very lucky,” my mother said through her tears, but I knew that she would soon be thinking—if she wasn’t already—that as deadly as prison might have been, it would have been something I could hold in common with Stalin, with Eugene Dennis, with the Spanish Freedom Fighters, and thousands of other revolutionary heroes, whereas time in a mental institution would put me in league with some chain-smoking wisecracker, Oscar Levant, say, some pampered little fool in love with his own feelings.) I was, however, relieved at the judge’s decision and felt, by and large, that I’d been treated fairly. I could have imagined a complete excusal—and often I fantasized it, the judge saying, “David didn’t mean to do it,” and leaving it at that—but the prospect frightened me. I thought a measure of punishment would be best, all around, and I was grateful that this punishment would be in a private hospital, with rolling green lawns and adolescent flip-outs from privileged, tolerant homes. The judge had indicated that my assignment to psychiatric care could be reviewed after a year, but I felt that with any luck and one or two sympathetic ears to hear the truth of my feelings, to sense the enormity and stability of my feelings, I would be out in a few months, ready to pick up the thread of my life at the point at which I’d snapped it.
The judge devised his sentence after a parole officer interviewed anyone who might give the court a sense of my character. (“It’s like a cockamamie FBI check-up,” said Arthur. “The FBI,” said Rose, nodding and looking at me with sorrowful intensity—trying to remind me of who I
was.) The parole officer spoke to the psychologists who’d tested me. And he spoke to me. (He was a young man, Japanese, longing to pass for friendly. “Why do
think you set their house on fire, Dave?” he said, in a cagey voice, as if it were the first time anyone had put the question so directly. I stammered out the beginnings of a reply and then lowered my face into my hands and wept—out of habit, partly, because I cried constantly during those weeks, out of helplessness, and, in a peculiar yet undeniable way, out of boredom, because that fire, for all of its horror and devastation, was just a
of my life, a
of my heart’s passionate destiny, and it seemed atrociously unfair that now it was
that was important.)
The parole officer spoke to my teachers at Hyde Park High School, who told him I was a good student. He spoke to my few friends and he spoke to my friends’ parents. I don’t know what he learned—that I liked astronomy, jazz, baseball, that I read books, baked cakes, and liked to turn the volume off the TV and supply absurd, dirty dialogue in a variety of voices. He asked me to give him the names of past girlfriends and he spoke to them and their parents. I doubt very much that Linda Goldman told of relieving me of my virginity in her family’s paneled basement—one of the only paneled basements in Hyde Park. The Goldmans were business people and devoted their basement to pleasure: a wet bar, two couches, a Ping-Pong table, and an octagonal poker table covered in tropical green felt with circular recesses for stacking chips. No, I don’t think Linda breathed a word of our afternoon’s struggle; I don’t even know that she remembered it. All that could have distinguished my turn from all of the other afternoons she’s spent with such tender self- destructiveness was the sound of her father’s voice rolling through the heat ducts, saying, “I could have sworn there was a chicken leg in the refrigerator. I could have
it.” As to other friends, including girlfriends, they were a part of the world originating with my parents. Though my father in particular didn’t want me to be a typical “red-diaper baby,” that is to say, a child of Communists who associates exclusively with other children of Communists, the pressure of the times and my parents’ own nervousness left me, by default, with a vast majority of friends whose parents were friends of my parents. And, of course, none of them said anything to the parole officer that put me in a bad light. The parents, Rose and Arthur’s friends for decades, were probably expert in their testimony, and the children, having learned by osmosis the careful language of political harassment, were probably smooth and earnest and absolutely faultless in answering their questions.
Judge Rogers gave us a week to conclude my adolescence in Chicago and get me ready for Rockville Hospital, which was about one hundred miles downstate in the town of Wyon, Illinois. I was still, of course, forbidden to contact any of the Butterfields—or even to make enquiries after them. It was made clear to me that the Butterfields, Hugh in particular, had been the outraged party in my case. Hugh had petitioned the court a number of times; the only evidence that had tempted Rogers to be less lenient with me had come from Hugh. This wounded me without surprising me and I felt that terrible sickness you get when you must acknowledge the righteousness of your attacker. I understood and, in my woozy, isolated, heart-mad way, even
Hugh’s complaints against me, his right to want me punished with crushing severity—but I also had to believe that Hugh was alone in this, that Ann, and certainly Jade, did not align with him. But as to making a desperate attempt to reach them—I didn’t even know where to begin. I didn’t know where they lived. Were they in a hotel? Had they divided up and stayed now in two or three separate houses? Had they gone to stay with Hugh’s parents in New Orleans, or with Ann’s mother in Massachusetts?
I wrote a hundred letters I didn’t dare send. I wrote to Keith, to Sammy, to Hugh. I wrote more than a dozen letters to Ann and more than seventy-five to Jade. I wrote apologies. I wrote explanations, rationales, and attacks on myself that might have exceeded their most bitter impulses. I wrote love letters—one of which was signed in the smeary blood of a sliced fingertip. I begged and remembered and I pledged myself with an exile’s choking ardor. I wrote at dawn, I wrote in the bathroom, I woke in the desolate middle of the night and wrote and wrote. I wrote poems, some copied, some composed. I made it clear to the world that what Jade and I had found in each other was more real than any other world, more real than time, more real than death, more real, even, than she and I.
Then, on a Friday, the day before my parents were to drive me down to Wyon, a letter arrived for me. It was cleverly concealed in a Student Peace Union envelope, of which I was a member and with which my parents associated the better things of my former life. It was casually, impersonally addressed D. Axelrod, and it arrived with an issue of the
which I’d been given a subscription to by friends of my parents on my seventeenth birthday. My mother handed me both the magazine and the Student Peace Union envelope—a little meanly, I thought, for what could it have contained? An announcement for a meeting I would not be free to attend? I tore open the letter in full view of my parents and there, in a script so perfectly devoid of idiosyncrasy that it was hard to believe it was written by a human hand, much less a young, trembling hand, was a letter from Jade:
“David, oh David, I want you to be all right.”
I wasn’t to hear another word from her for as long as I was in custody.
The man who built Rockville Hospital was named James Marshall Nelson. He built it along sleek modernist lines (modern in the 1920-ish, Bauhaus sense, that is), shooting for and achieving a plush functionalism: curving staircases that were nearly impossible to fling yourself down; wooden floors with the somber walnut tone of inherited wealth and the high gloss of immaculate efficiency. It is said that Nelson built the hospital for himself because he suspected he was going mad and he wanted a hospital he could call home. Nelson, an heir to a rural banking fortune, had served in World War I and after that so-called Great War ended he stayed in Europe, where he apparently was introduced to Sigmund Freud. Freud did not analyze Nelson, but when the young heir returned home he nevertheless called himself one of Freud’s disciples and he devoted his wealth and soul to something called the Wyon Mental Hygiene Foundation.
When Rockville was built, Nelson used his considerable wealth to recruit a number of psychiatrists. I’ve often wondered what sort of doctor would have consented to set up his practice in Wyon, Illinois. The farmers and businessmen who were within range of the hospital’s services would rather have hung themselves from the rafter of a barn than set foot in the place. It was used occasionally by local drunks who wanted a place to sober up, rather than be teased at home or in jail. And it quickly gained a certain folkloric notoriety: mothers threatened to send misbehaving children there, husbands suggested to reluctant wives that they spend some time at Rockville, and, naturally, there were persistent stories of the place being haunted, of orgies, of hidden German generals, of rapes and transformations.
When the banks failed in 1929, Nelson’s banks failed with the best and the worst of them. The Foundation was quickly penniless, and the last of the staff departed leaving a fifty-bed hospital with forty-nine empty beds—the only patient was James Marshall Nelson himself. He lived alone in Rockville, transferring himself from his room to the chief physician’s stern little suite. He treated himself and took voluminous notes on the progress of his self-analysis—these notes, edited by his cousin Marie Nelson Abish, were published in the 1950s under the title of
The Interior Pilgrim.
The jottings seem to be the product of a mediocre, compulsively theoretical, and thoroughly impersonal mind—though Abish may have deleted her cousin’s warmth and agony out of some panicky sense of propriety.
Yet Nelson was vindicated. Though Rockville remained empty for years, not long after the appearance of
The Interior Pilgrim,
it was purchased by a group of psychiatrists whose discomfort with the mental health establishment (coupled, I suppose, with a sound business sense) led them to set up their own hospital. Though the surrounding farmlands and the newly burgeoning suburbs still offered no indigenous constituency, Rockville was soon known throughout the Midwest as one of the most humane, progressive institutions—a place where parents might send a baffling, tumultuous child and feel not only guiltless but hopeful. It was a place to be healed; the staff, including nurses and orderlies, were sympathetic to the range of human variety, and it was an unwritten motto that what one day is considered deviation
be recognized the next as sheer genius. Of course, those whose treatment was founded on such gentle grounds were bound to be privileged. The hospital tried to provide funds for an occasional under-class patient—a conscience-taxing process because the Rockville staff truly believed that nowhere else could a distressed young person find comparable care and it wasn’t easy to choose between the hundreds of petitioning, penniless patients. And what of those who were turned away? It was like condemning them to mistreatment, even abuse; it was like closing the doors to the Ark.
Had it not been for my grandfather’s money, I don’t see how I could have gone to Rockville. Even with their savings and the money put aside to help me with college, Rose and Arthur couldn’t have paid the $25,000 a year it cost to stay there. (Or so I assume. I never knew for certain what their financial situation was. Of all the vulgar, undignified things I was trained not to discuss, money was the most forbidden. I wasn’t answered when I asked how much my toys, my shoes, or even the meat on my plate cost. And if I’d asked them for a look at their Hyde Park Bank for Savings passbook, I would have been treated—to put it vulgarly but accurately—as if I’d requested they not flush the toilet so I might examine their feces.) But Arthur’s father, Jack Axelrod, had money, and though Arthur broke with his father by joining the Communist Party in the middle of law school, Jack remained, in a sporadic, long-distance way, my grandfather—expressing his thwarted tenderness as a kind of bogus Jewish tribalism: “You’re my only grandson. The others had girls.” Jack, retired from business and living a lonely life of leisure in one of those Florida retirement villages, had framed photos on his wall of my Uncle Harris, Uncle Seymour, and Aunt Hannah, and, where the picture of Arthur should logically have hung, a picture of me.
Resentful and maybe even a bit respectful of the alien values by which I was being raised, he never knew what to send me on birthdays or at Hanukkah and so twice a year he’d sent me $25—in cash, as if people like us might not know how to use a bank. I kept this money in a special savings account and one day, in the middle of my dolorous thirteenth summer, impulsively withdrew it to buy a plane ticket to Florida, leaving in the middle of the day with my bathing suit under my jeans and without a word to my parents. Jack kept me and my secret for two days, introducing me to his card-playing partners and winking at me to let me know these were not people who he
liked, watching me swim in his pool, and letting me have a half glass of imported beer with my supper. I told him I wanted to live with him, though I could not say why. I didn’t trust him to understand. And if he would understand, then I would have betrayed my parents to an enemy. I suppressed no tales of abuse or neglect. The truth was—or felt like—that I wanted to live with him because I was bored with my parents, bored with their gentle reminders, their sighs, their careful, closed faces. I was bored with how easily fooled they were, how effortlessly pacified and lied to, and I was bored with how they never told the truth of their lives to me. They were people whose central lie has it that nothing is wrong, nothing is strange, nothing is un- explainable or uncommon. I could have told my parents that every night I dreamed of traveling in a flying saucer and I woke every morning to find a small red stone in my closed hand, and they would have said, “Don’t worry, that’s very common at your age.” It seemed a much brighter prospect to live with my grandfather, with his memories of Europe and his rapacious commercial past of turning one dollar into two and two into twenty, and his frightening, exhilarating stories of firing a cutter who looked at him “funny” and firing another who grabbed a woman’s breasts, to live with that soft-bellied, granite-fingered man beneath the untiring sun, with the fragrant fuzz of imported beer on my lips and the lazy murmurs of the not-too-distant Atlantic in my ears.