Wednesday, January 16, 2008

One flew east, one flew west

Wire, briar, limber-lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew east, one flew west
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest

Remembering the Winnebago Mental Health Institute, Ken Kesey, and all who fly. More later, but for now, I offer this music and video.

* * * *

Reading Ken Kesey's book is something of a rite of passage in 10th grade English classes here. I was thinking of my daughter this morning, knowing that she left for school with only the last few pages yet to read on the bus. I cannot imagine starting the day with that ending. But she's young and she didn't have Jack Nicholson's face before her. I was nearly out of college when I saw the movie. It left me stunned, nearly unable to leave the theatre.

I used to react intensely to movies then. All the sturm und drang of the late '60's and early 70's used to roil in and out of me without much provocation. The combine. Michel Foucault. Jefferson Airplane.

Only a few years later, however, I found myself working not in mental institution but, strangely enough, in the middle of one. My first job out of college was with a Supported Work Program site located in what had been an abandoned building in the middle of the grounds of the Winnebago Mental Health Institute. I'm not certain, but I think it was the only remaining building of those originally built (and depicted above). The state allowed the program to fix up the building and operate from there.

Our program was one of 13 across the country as one of the early projects designed and funded by Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation. The target groups nationwide were delinquent youth, single mothers on AFDC for two or more years, and ex-offenders. Our non-profit sponsor had applied on the basis of a unique proposal to include persons with mental health problems, trying to see if persons recently leaving or about to leave institutionalized care would be helped by the four-step transitional work program. As it turned out, we did not get all that many people being released from WMHI, nor did administrative staff like myself have anything to do with the institution, even though our building was literally in the middle of the grounds. Yet everyday we had to drive by the one maximum security building to get to our parking lot.

I don't know if it ever had a McMurphy, a Bromden, or a Nurse Ratched. Certainly the counseling and support staff in our own program was full of caring people who were more concerned with helping people than trying to make people conform to any more social norms than what people needed to try to be self-supporting and not overwhelmed by much of the chaos in their lives. My job was to take our internal research data and weave it into narrative reports to MDRC, state and local funding agencies, and to work alongside the Director in meeting and working with advisory board members, social service, and vocational rehab people. I loved the job and the people, but the funding was precarious, so eventually I left to go to law school. I hoped to do criminal defense or poverty law when I graduated. I did do that for awhile, but somehow I never made it inside a place like WMHI.

Googling this morning, I was surprised to find that MDRC still is very much in business. Supported Work, at least in the form of our R&D project, is long since gone. WMHI, sadly, has been in the news due to questions about deaths that have occurred there.

I can't quite explain what all that place conjures in my mind. It was the beginning of living in the real world, in some ways, the underside of life barely seen before. I learned even more later practicing law, with all the frustrations inherent in trying to help people with just a few of their problems only to see other kinds overwhelm or undo what little I could do.

Those are just bits and pieces of what I remember. The rest is rolling around in the Fog Machine.


o-mom said...

And hasn't it been a long strange ride?

BooCat said...

Klady, I spent most of my youth living in a house on the grounds of the big state hospital in Alabama where my father was on staff. All those old Kirkbride plan hospitals are/were formidable. Most have been or are in the process of being abandoned and/or torn down. I had never been afraid living there as a child and had been on every ward doing volunteer work or accompanying my father on rounds by the time I was twelve or thirteen.

Later, I worked there in the staff library, medical records and finally in personnel. When we worked late in an office that had been a ward, we often heard voices in the hall or other noises that would end in dead silence if you opened your office door to check. We always worked in pairs when we did overtime. One night in personnel, there was a loud crash in the hall with the sound of shattering glass, as if one of the big drug cabinets had been overturned. We we opened our office doors, I at one end of the hall, my co-worker at the other. There was nothing to be seen and it was as quiet as a tomb. For once, the hairs on the nape of my neck stood strait up. We decided to call it a night and finish what we were doing early the next morning in the cold light of day.

klady said...

I never heard of (or forgot? maybe learned in a sociology class years ago) about Kirkbride plan hospitals. Had an interesting read about them.

The old building I worked in had most recently been used (years ago) as a nurses' dormitory, so I wonder if it would have had the same sounds.

I'm trying to imagine what it must have been like growing up where you did. I met someone from around here last year whose father was a chaplain at the local state mental hospital (now a prison, I think), and she recalls attending services there often, playing music and otherwise helping. Definitely gives one a more complex, fuller view of humanity, I would think, from a young age.