What is it about madness that so fascinates? Is it a tentatively acknowledged fear that the grasp on sanity is tenuous? Or is it an attraction to the honesty of insanity, the letting go of our internal guard in exchange for freeing the deeply buried urges inside of us?
A couple of decades ago, perusing the crammed shelves of a used bookstore, I picked up a copy of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. The story of Joanne Greenberg's experiences (told through the character of Deborah) is stunningly eye-opening, with stark descriptions of the patients' characters and behavior, and of the treatments they received, off-set by the intelligently sharp wit Greenberg possessed even then. One passage that's always stuck with me takes place after several patients gang up on one of the ward attendants and Deborah is called upon to explain what took place:
"Well... Hobbs came down the hall and then there was the fight. It was a good fight, too; not too loud and not too soft. Lucy Martenson's fist intruded into Mr. Hobbs's thought processes, and his foot found some of Lee Miller. I had a foot out, too, but nobody used it."
... Deborah knew why it was Hobbs and not McPherson... Hobbs was a little brutal sometimes, but it was more than that. He was frightened of the craziness he saw around him because it was an extension of something inside himself. He wanted people to be crazier and more bizarre than they really were so that he could see the line which separated him, his inclinations and random thoughts, and his half-wishes, from the full-bloomed, exploded madness of the patients. McPherson, on the other hand, was a strong man, even a happy one. He wanted the patients to be like him, and the closer they got to being like him, the better he felt. He kept calling to the similarity between them, never demanding, but subtly, secretly calling, and when a scrap of it came forth, he welcomed it. The patients had merely continued to give each man what he really wanted. There was no injustice done, and Deborah had realized earlier in the day that Hobbs's broken wrist was only keeping him a while longer from winding up on some mental ward as a patient.
That's it, right there. Experiencing the insane is to walk the fine line between Hobbs and McPherson. When I found out that I lived only a handful of miles from the sanitarium at which Greenberg was treated, I was of course elated. The place was Chestnut Lodge, in the historic district of Rockville, MD, a huge Addams Family-ish building set on 20 or so acres of huge old white oaks (the chestnut trees after which it was named fell victim to blight many years ago). In its time, the Lodge was world-famous for its treatments. A few decades later, those same treatments would bring it notoriety, as the doctors there clung to ice-packing and electro-shock, along with psychoanalysis, while the rest of psychiatry turned towards chemical treatment.
For years I would drive by and peer at the building through the foliage, wondering what went on behind the windows on the upper floors. But I never went there. Even after the hospital closed and the building sat empty, I never stopped the car, never got out and wandered under those trees to see what the place looked and, more importantly, felt like up close.
As it sat empty, a developer bought it and the grounds and began to build luxury homes behind the main building. The Lodge itself was apparently to someday become million-dollar condos, which would bring an end to it being a hangout for the homeless and partying teens.
And now it's gone. At 3:00am this past Sunday morning, ninety-five firefighters responded to a call that the building was on fire. The condition in which it was left apparently made it ripe for burning, and it ended up nothing but a shell. When I finally had a chance to drive by this evening, demolition had already begun and all but the rear portion of the building had been reduced to piles of bricks. But I snagged some memories of what was left, and finally spent some time close enough to see through those mysterious windows, and to wonder, for one final time, about the people who had once passed through those rooms.
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