Thursday, 20 October 2016

A strange sad walk though asylum history

It is late afternoon on a warm fall day. New England is quiet and crisp under a pale blue sky and waning orange light. I am alone in a clearing, surrounded by radiant autumn leaves and the cold uniform stones of a cemetery.

In the heart of rural Connecticut, just under a kilometre from a river that wends through the state down to the Long Island Sound, is the graveyard for residents of what was once the state asylum. It is a lonely place, set back from a tarmacked road so that you have to drive along a wide gravel path with the dust kicking up behind you.

The cemetery sits in the lee of a valley with the huge crumbling redbrick buildings of a 19th century hospital just up the hill. Many of those are still in operation but now constitute a network of modern mental health services; inpatient units, community outreach teams and assorted therapeutic services. Although only a stone's throw away, they seem a million miles from this quiet corner. 

An air of calm prevails, with nothing but birdsong and the rustle of dry leaves to break the silence; a quiet that has a grim resonance to it. Although cemeteries are usually places of memory and melancholy reflection this is a peculiarly sad memorial. Other such places I have visited in America are brimming with the stories of the people they house. Whole patches of Queens are devoted to huge granite slabs bearing Irish or Italian names. Walking through them one is struck by the vigour of transatlantic migration, the keenness of struggle, and the strength of kin. 

These stones have no names, instead each is inscribed with a number. A simple designation made by the state hospital at a time when the people who died in such institutions were overwhelmingly anonymous and alone. At first glance it appears a relatively small plot of land, but look at the slabs and you see them creeping up to mark the resting places of over 1600 people. 

It is almost unbearable to think about the individual chains of events that must have led to so many forgotten people being buried here. At a time when all varieties of psychological and physical suffering were grouped into a morass of stigmatized hopelessness, individual stories were routinely submerged beneath an ocean of pessimism and neglect. 

I find myself hoping that at least each burial was attended by a ceremony of some sort, that the staff on the wards had fond memories of the people they were saying goodbye to. At a conference earlier this year I saw historians of madness discuss the turn toward investigating their subject from the perspective of the patients. The anonymity of this secluded graveyard feels like a vivid testament to the need for that scholarship.

Happily there has been an injection of much needed attention here. Between 2001 and 2015, a coalition of people, including retired pastors and the Connecticut Alliance for the Mentally Ill, have overseen the construction of a separate memorial linking the numbers on each of those headstones to the names of those buried beneath. Now three larger slabs stand at the front of the cemetery, with a dignified reminder of the fact that so many humans are buried here. 

Two news articles covered the process of creating the new memorial. This long piece in the New York Times came out just months after the attacks on the World Trade Center, and compared the sheer quantity of numbered dead with the losses experienced in that disaster. This article in the local Hartford Courant marked the successful completion of the project. Both contain moving stories about families finally filling in the gaps in the stories of lost relatives. Multiply them by 1,686 and you can acquire some sense of the human scale.

How could it happen? What made it seem like an anonymous resting place was dignity enough for the people of this graveyard? The Times piece quotes the hospital's chief executive as saying "The reason the patients' names are not on the stones is not to protect their confidentiality, but so it wouldn't bring shame on their families", but that is only partly explanatory. Why was it possible for shame to outweigh the basic human expedient of recognition in death? The question produces a vertiginous feeling. How obvious it seems now that serried ranks of numbered headstones resembles more closely an anonymous mass grave than a respectful final resting place. Which of our current institutional practices will one day look so patently wrong?

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