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Shutter Island - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
cbertsch
cbertsch
Shutter Island
As has long been the case, my parents' house is dotted with various organizational projects my mother is in the process of undertaking. Historically, she has not brought that many to completion. In recent years this tendency has been exacerbated by health issues, so that the time I'm spending in my parents' house has felt a little like an archaeological dig. Given the layer of dust coating some of the out-of-the-way books and collectibles downstairs, "Herculaneum" comes to mind.

The difference, though, is that most of what has been discovered in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius is taken to be a slice of everyday life as it was being lived the day the volcano blew. The things I keep running across as I move from room to room, by contrast, are artifacts, not only from my mother's past, but from her parents' past. So it's more like I'm at an archaeological dig excavating an aborted archaeological dig, if that makes sense.

Anyway, one of my finds was a letter written by my mother's sister. I never heard about Helen growing up. My grandmother Jean never mentioned her. But I did know that my mother had slowly pieced together the story of Helen's being pushed away from her family after years of mental troubles. Perhaps, though, there was more to the story than that.

Here's the text of the letter, written to my mother's father, Al Rights, who was an English professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Apparently he was willing to correspond with Helen after her own sister had ceased to maintain contact. The "Charles" referred to here was Helen's husband. "Suzy" was my mother's older sister. "Stevie" -- short for "Stephanie" -- is my mother:
Norwalk State Hospital
Norwalk, Calif.
June 10, 1948

Dear Al--

We can only write one letter a week here, so that's why you haven't heard from me. I know Charles has been handicapped, too, because of working 18hrs. a day. I certainly have tried to get in touch with you.

I was really happy to hear from Papa and you. I wondered many times how you all were. I had written several times but got no answer (before the hosp.)

Charles tells me you wrote to the hospital here + described my case. I think it's a shame you didn't write Charles first because, since he is my husband now, he especially should know the gruesome details! Hospitals, having so many patients to take care of nowadays, are very apt to make mistakes on medical records or else get things confused. You see, many times -- as you must have noticed -- the hospitals have neither the time nor money to be interested in individual patients. Sometimes, I (having had the experiences, after all) think relatives of patients would be better off not asking so many questions of doctors + psychiatrists who are no qualified to answer, anyway, for obvious reasons. You see, relatives very often get wrong impressions that way.

For instance, right now I feel perfectly healthy and perfectly able + willing to earn my own living. I am not sick in any way, but I have to remain here (I suppose) until the authorities are convinced that I am all right. So far as my life is concerned, I have made bad mistakes many times, I admit; but so far as insanity is concerned, I am not now -- nor was I ever nor will I be in the future -- crazy!!! Regardless of what any psychiatrist says in any state. Perhaps that is difficult for you -- a layman and a relative -- to understand. But it's true. Also, I am now even more than ever interested in mental hospitals and in mentally sick persons. Also, I expect to do something about them. But that will come later. Perhaps someday we can talk it out.

I hope you are well. And Jean. You haven't mentioned her. Is she all right? I realize it is very seldom her habit to mention herself where I, her sister, am concerned. Sometimes I wonder what relative I have -- a sister or a brother. How are Suzy and Stevie? I wish I could see them! Papa simply raved about his "grandchildren." I am glad to hear Papa is well, at least, as possible. He seemed to be more contented by his last letter than at any time yet.

In one letter I rec'd from you, you said you would send my typewriter to me. Well, when I get out and get a permanent address, will you please send it on? I'll certainly need it to make my living eventually. At the moment we are living in Calif., but from all prospects for one reason and another we expect to move on. Charles is not happy in his present job. (Neither am I!)

Well, I won't bore you further except to tell you that perhaps you have gotten the wrong impression about mental hospitals and their routines. In any case, it does not warrant or give anybody the right to say, "I told you so!" It's about time people face facts so far as "nervous breakdowns" are concerned! As you must know, that term could include anything; it is so general in its meaning and so vague! You see, being a patient here and there, I've got feelings. Just because I have been in mental hospitals does not necessarily imply that I am, was, or will be "mentally sick." Even if I were, it is no disgrace! I am just a little tired of people "feeling sorry" for either Charles, you + Jean, or me on a/c of 'insanity', cause half the time "they" don't know what they are talking about. I hope this clears up a few things for you. After all, Al, you are too smart a man to judge people or conditions just by "looking" or "hearsay." And if you do judge "thataway," then you have no right being a teacher + influencing minds! And believe me, all is not what it appears to be -- either in Church or the hospital.

Love,

Helen Ingram Burger Schulzman

P.S. No hard feelings!
I find this letter hard to read for several reasons. The author's struggle to escape the taint of mental illness is painful to witness on its own terms. The way her sister -- my grandmother -- denied her adds to the poignancy of her situation, especially since I believe that she and her sibling shared an inclination to the sort of "high-strung" behavior that once led many young women to be diagnosed as neurotic or worse. Then there's the fact that the addressee is my grandfather Al, who died before I was born. Even when I was very little, my mother used to say that I had a lot of her father in me, a claim that my subsequent interests and career path powerfully reinforced. I can't help but feel personally hailed by Helen's reaching out to Al. And, finally, the fact that my mother is currently a prisoner -- literally, since they have restrained her to prevent her from reinjuring her head -- in an institution where people keep coming in to check her mental powers makes me perceive the connection between her longstanding wariness about the medical profession and the extreme antipathy towards it that her mother expressed and which Helen, apparently, had every reason to share.

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susandennis From: susandennis Date: February 24th, 2010 05:59 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Wow. What a thing to find. It was written the year before I was born. I remember reading something in my teens about how impossible it was to prove you were sane once you were labeled otherwise and thinking how very ridiculous and frightening that was.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: February 24th, 2010 06:40 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Indeed. I've discovered more of Helen's subsequent story and it's even more heartbreaking. She had trouble adjusting to "reality," certainly, but maybe that's because it wasn't a reality she wished to inhabit.

(Oh, and thanks for posting this comment. It's always great to hear from you!)
susandennis From: susandennis Date: February 24th, 2010 06:49 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'm such a crummy commenter. I read and comment in my head a lot :)

I do love that Helen's letter and story survived so many years.
st_ranger From: st_ranger Date: February 24th, 2010 06:08 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Wow, thank you so much for sharing her letter! It was so poignant for me, as someone who has spent years in mental hospitals myself. The sad/funny thing is that not much has really changed from 1948 to 2010:
The patients are still warehoused, their diseases are barely understood if at all and treated with experimental processes (like the electro-convulsive therapy that gave me 2 years of amnesia), and they (we) are stigmatized for life not just by strangers but by our own families. Once we actually get out of the hospital and try to re-acclimate to "real life" we're denigrated as leeches because we can't make a living in regular society. Yep, 60 years but it's the same story.
sanpedrosula From: sanpedrosula Date: February 26th, 2010 02:21 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
my god. poor lady. i certainly meet the 1950s criteria for mental hospital incarceration even as I speak (write)!
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