Asylums: A Letter to My Uncle
From Shenley to Bethnal Green via Hill End - with Nellie Bly and David Chapman for company
Asylums are edgelands, marginal places we locked unhomogeneous people up in to store them out of sight, as if they were objects and not humans. They often sat geographically on the no-man's-land boundaries between residential towns and cities - edgeland buildings within edgeland settings. In 1407, Europe's first insane asylum, Bethlem Hospital in London (one of the very few that still runs as a psychiatric hospital, and the etymological source of the word 'bedlam') began admitting people, and from then until the 1990’s with the Care in the Community Act (which eventually closed all asylums) we treated our sick in a variety of different ways, all behind walls and unseen. Many of these treatments were unimaginably barbaric.
Asylums are also archives, records of the emotional and bodily manifestations of thought patterns that are unwelcome in the mainstream narratives of life; whether those records are stored in local or national history archives, or as the memories stored in the soil that the building once stood on. We must not lose this thinking, these memories, those archives. When something exists on or as an edgeland, it is often harder to see. When we don’t see it exist, we can’t see it disappear either.
With the death of different places, different environments, different histories and different bodily forms of moving through them, forms of thought die too.
Rebecca Tamás, Strangers: Essays on the Human & Non-human
In 1887, a pioneering reporter named Nellie Bly feigned insanity in order to be admitted to an asylum and expose the abuses within, speaking of “the deep-seated neglect and even contempt with which ‘poor unfortunates’ are treated by the legal system and society at large.” She endured ten days of horrific treatment - not even the worst it offered - before her release was secured, as planned, by colleagues on the outside who broke her cover. Can you imagine being that brave?
Although conditions of care have changed unimaginably since then, with kindness featuring much more largely in how we treat people, the original Victorian power system that created and upheld abuses of vulnerable people has not changed as much, and when power systems remain in place, the ability to abuse the marginalised within them does too. It doesn't matter how many well-meaning policies of care are written up - people are still invisibilised, just in different ways: now with more words and less walls, their right to receive equal witness, compassion, and fair treatment still often ignored. In 2018 I pursued a mistreatment case with the NHS mental health trust I received care under, and won - not money, but acknowledgement, an apology, and a rectification of my medical record which they had lied in. They had tried to weaponise words to disempower and silence me.
Enduring structures of “power over,” like patriarchy, white supremacy, and rigid capitalism, have limited most individuals’ power for so long that it is difficult to imagine another way. Only very gradually does human consciousness come to a selfless use of power, the sharing of power, or even a benevolent use of power.
Extract from Growing in Power, Richard Rohr
There exists an empty platform, at a disappeared station called Hill End, which lays on the disused St Albans to Hatfield branch line. It closed in 1951 and is now a 6-mile long walking route. From the cracks in the asphalt bursts soft moss and spiky weeds, nature asserting herself, reminding us gently that one day she will swallow all of our creations up again into source; she will swallow all of our pride when we are gone.
If one person sat on the platform edge at Hill End, a friend or lover could rest their head in their lap by standing where the tracks once lay. The straight and flat ghost-line landscape acts like a wind tunnel, carrying old whispers that howl past your eardrums, a cacophony through a canopy of trees. If you listen carefully, you can still almost hear the plea of the guard; "stand behind the yellow line!" If you stop for a bit, and allow your eyes to blur, everything looks like an old sepia photo.
The station was built to serve Hill End County Mental Asylum, which itself closed in 1995. A walker wouldn't know this, were it not for a graffitied plaque detailing the history of the institution. An incomplete history, nobody ever having taken down the patients words, as history then was still usually written from the top down not the bottom up. Some voices got through though - a drug-addicted nineteen year old poet called David Chapman followed in Nellie Bly's footsteps, less than a century later:
A groundswell of anti-institutionalism dominated the 1960s, from the anti-psychiatry of R D Laing to Government policy such as that voiced by Enoch Powell. In the midst of this, in 1964, a young poet named David Chapman (1944-1976) was admitted. Upon his release his account of his experience was published under the title 'Withdrawal', and included photographs of the patients and Hospital that he had taken with a smuggled-in camera.
Hertfordshire County Council Archives & Local History, Hill End Hospital main record page
In 1999, I explored the local derelict Shenley Hospital with a mate. This one had closed in 1997. Those in charge of the shut-down had abandoned several boxes of paper medical records, left wide open, their contents risking total disintegration. I was too young, and too mad myself, to understand then what I understand now: the collective horror of what it means to throw away the record of all those lives, and what that in turn says about how much those people were valued. Wandering round those halls and wards we instead yelled like idiots, as unsure, troubled teenagers do, and imagined the echoes bouncing back to belong to the voices of the patients that went before us. Leaving the boxes behind we skipped nervously through shadows that might have been ghosts, trying to seem braver than we were.
Seven years before I paid that uninvited visit, a patient decided to go for a wander one day and somehow got through the gates. News spread fast of a deranged and demented escapee and the whole town thrummed with fear. People chose to imagine not that this man could be frightened, but that he could be dangerous, and in this moment of fear-induced forgetfulness I learned about my uncle for the first time, witnessing a history of him being spat out in disdain, the curtain of familial shame and silence that his story had been shrouded by, briefly lifted. Before I'd finished blinking though, it had dropped back down. It was made from heavy velvet, and like tired, heavy eyelids, it was impossible to lift again.
There are no photos of him, and I know only that he was committed somewhere in the East of England. His name was Howard.
Howard. I am reaching for some kind of memory of you but I cannot find it, I cannot access you. All I know is that we share similar thoughts, as I've been drugged and brutalised for mine too. Are we the same kind of mad? Did you know the grip of the knowledge that your mind was not your own - the intense terror of that? Did you visit the edgeland, the precipice, of madness - and watch in horror as you tumbled? Or did you not even know you were falling at all?
Did they treat your madness like it was sadness, or like it was badness? What did you look like? I want to touch the stubble on your face, kiss your forehead till all the lines disappear, smoothed out by my insane, desperate love; I want to touch the corners of your eyes until you close them and fall asleep.
I know you may feel forgotten. You are not. I wanted to tell you, Howard: I have seen those things too.
When I was an outpatient at Bethnal Green CMHT I once watched a distressed man get forcibly injected with anti-psychotic; two large male nurses pulling down his trousers in the waiting room to administer it into his arse until he quietened. I still cannot articulate how my entire body froze, or the absolute bone-deep knowledge that my uncle had experienced that treatment too. My throat felt wider than my head, full of the horror of it, a scream that refused to escape. After my appointment - one that also involved violence but that of the psychological kind, rather than the physical - I walked to Bethnal Green library, five minutes away, to calm down. Years later I discovered that the library used to be an asylum too.
The echoes of our lives don't just exist in photos and archival records, but in the concrete of the streets and the walls of the structures we build around ourselves to draw boundaries between our bodies. These echoes can be felt in our mapped environments everywhere - down alleyways, through parks, in buildings, on industrial estates, and car parks. They are stored in how we navigate towards places of care or brutality, and they are stored in our bodies that navigate. We carry it, trauma in motion, pain from our forebears in addition to our own. We don't know when this pain will stop piling up; if it will stop piling up. Sometimes, we don't know it's there at all, and go about our whole lives knowing only distantly that we feel uneasy and unwell. Sometimes, we cannot connect to other people’s bodies because of it, and our deep desperation to overcome that disconnection makes us cruel, and mad, and sad.
Really, we are all a little bit mad. Mad for killing each other, mad for loving each other, mad for thinking we last longer than a star in the sky.
So yes, you remember, this is the city you lost,
city of smugglers and violinists, chess-players and monkeys,
an opera house, a madhouse, a ghost church with wind for its choir
where two things were esteemed: literature and ships, poetry and the sea.
If you return now, it will not be as a being visible to others, and when
you walk past, it will not be as if a man had passed, but rather as if
someone had remembered something long forgotten and wondered why.
Extract from Exile, by Carolyn Forché - written for Odessa, Ukraine