Sunday, December 2, 2007

Crazy Ladies

Every now and then there's something I discover that carries overwhelming meaning for me and I have to share it. In this case, it's something I rediscovered.

In 1975, the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" came out. It was based on Ken Kesey's 1962 book of the same name and starred Jack Nicholson (post-"Chinatown" Nicholson, so there was huge buzz about it). The film was shot at our very own Oregon State Hospital (the water cooler thingy Chief Bromden throws through the window at the end is on display in the Administration building). Interestingly, after meeting with a particularly odious lawyer in connection with a legal dispute over the film's earnings, Kesey vowed never to see the film. He never did.

OSH is a bit creepy. First, it's really old. Established in 1883 as the Oregon State Insane Asylum, the original buildings that are still there look like they're from another time, almost as though they fell out of a wormhole. OSH may also seem a little creepier if you know anything about the history of mental health treatment and have some idea of things that were carried out in the name of mental health and safety. There were all manner of strange therapies that to modern ears sound more like torture (different "water cures" and insulin therapy for starters) and probably felt that way to the patients. It's understandable that many of the patients' families didn't know what to do with them (many were - and still are - genuine safety threats), but early psychiatric treatment stripped people of their dignity and other human rights.

Then there are the tunnels. There is a system of tunnels under OSH that are still used (at least in 1996) for transporting things around the hospital grounds (i.e., food carts) when it's wet outside (though I'm told the tunnels leak a little). The story is that the tunnels are part of a more extensive system that connected to the Capitol building. I don't know if that's true, but it's a little weird and adds to the mystique of OSH.

It probably also seems creepy to people because, to put it bluntly, crazy people are mysterious. They sometimes do very strange things and the average person (and sometimes the experienced clinician) doesn't understand why. OSH houses some of the most severely disturbed people in the state - people who have done things many of us consider "terrible."

So, back to "Cuckoo's Nest." Since I wasn't old enough to care about films in 1975, I can only imagine that there were different kinds of hype intended to get publicity connected to the film. One magazine (I can't find which) sent a photographer and social scientist to live on Ward 81 for 36 days.

Some of the images are disturbing. In many of them the women look haunted, terrified, despairing - because they are. Restraints, self-harm, during and after electroshock treatments. Scary shit. Real shit, though. It's a stark reminder of what women have had to deal with. Women, even the US (though it's at least frowned upon here), are still institutionalized for choosing not to conform to standard gender roles and expectations. Does this happen to white, heterosexual, middle-class men? Not so much (not that role strain isn't a genuine problem for men, but that's not my point).

Check out the photos. You may not like every picture, but you won't forget it.

By the way, as I was looking up some info on OSH, I found an interesting bit on the history of mental health treatment in Oregon.

The Oregonian did an interesting series a few years ago that included some amazing shots of some of the abandoned areas of OSH.