Asylum

Asylum

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Overview

"Perhaps the most honest and haunting accounts of the struggle for mental health in literature." — Observer
This dramatic memoir recounts an eight-month stay at a Westchester mental hospital in the early 1930s. William Seabrook, a renowned journalist and explorer, voluntarily committed himself to an asylum for treatment of acute alcoholism. His sincere, self-critical appraisal of his experiences offers a highly interesting look at addiction and treatment in the days before Alcoholics Anonymous and other modern programs.
"Very few people could be as honest as Seabrook is here," noted The New York Times, "and it is honesty plus the talent Seabrook has already had that makes a book of this sort first-rate." This edition of the soul-baring narrative features a new graphic novel–style introduction by Joe Ollmann, who also created the cover art.
"With zombies in vogue and his books coming back onto the market after decades out of print, maybe old Willie Seabrook, the lost king of the weird, can finally get the recognition and infamy he earned." ― Benjamin Welton, Vice.com

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486798103
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 09/16/2015
Edition description: First Edition, First
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 686,699
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author


Journalist and explorer William Seabrook (1884–1945) possessed a fascination with the occult that led him across the globe to study magic rituals, train as a witch doctor, and sample human flesh. In addition to publishing more than a dozen books, he wrote for The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Reader's Digest, and Vanity Fair.

Read an Excerpt

Asylum


By William Seabrook

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 Joe Ollmann
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-80631-0


CHAPTER 1

ONE THING they don't punish you for is swearing at the doctors. I didn't know this. So when I did it I wasn't abusing a privilege. I didn't know anything yet — except that everything was all wrong. One of the big ones with a belly and a beard, oozing authority, had come around after breakfast, and I was telling him.

"For Christ's sake," I said, "what kind of a dump is this? I came here for seclusion. I came here to be locked up. I thought I had rented a nice, quiet cell. And you stick me in a wide-open show window, in a God-damned illuminated dog kennel without any front where people come walking in and out and prodding me with sticks every minute of the day and night. I spent a hell of a night. And just now, by God, they chased me out of that hole and made me come out here in this public movie lobby while they change the straw, or make the bed, or something."

I had been brought in late the previous afternoon, polite, quiet, articulate, and able to walk without staggering, but drunk as a Bandusian goat, and now, after some black coffee which hadn't stayed down and a cigarette which tasted awful, I should have been pouring myself a half tumbler of Scotch if I had been back in the penthouse, but I was so astonished at what had been happening to me, so resentful and angry, that I wasn't even thinking about liquor — for the moment. I was thinking that my friends had muffed it again, and of telephoning them to come and get me out. I was thinking, and getting sorer every minute, of what had happened since they had left me.

They had left me in the outer office — or rather I had left them — after we had sat around nervously, talked to some doctors, smoked cigarettes, and signed some more papers. A pretty little red-haired woman, plump, trim, smooth, and sandy, like a nice apple dumpling, a sort of musical comedy, pocket-edition, prison matron with a bunch of keys chained to her belt, came and stood like bait in the doorway.

I said my friends would just come along and see me settled.

No? We would say good-by here?

Well, my one friend would just come along and see that everything was all right.

No, everything was already settled. Everything was all right. I would just tell them good-by and go along now with Miss Baxter.

But my handbag, my pajamas, a detective story that ...?

No, all that would be attended to. No, I needn't bother about my hat and overcoat. I would just go along now with Miss Baxter.

I felt in my pocket to be sure I had cigarettes and my lighter, said good-by to my friends, and went with Miss Baxter. She didn't say anything. She led me through a long hall like a hotel lobby, richly carpeted in red, with pictures and steel engravings of the Parthenon, King Lear's daughters and William Tell. We walked the length of a city block and turned a corner and kept walking along a continuation of the same hall for another block or so until she came to a heavy door, and we were now in another corridor, narrower and barer, which went on in the same endless way.

She walked briskly ahead, sometimes glancing back or dropping back beside me. She was pretty and I thought I'd like to say something to her. There were red lights over some of the doors and I thought of saying something that I decided not to say. I said instead:

"I see you've got traffic signals. Why didn't we take a taxi?"

She smiled mechanically and said, "Yes."

After passing through more doors and finally unlocking a heavy double one, and walking what seemed a mile or so more, we came to another long hall, a corridor wing, furnished like a Radio City lounge or Peacock Alley in the old Waldorf, including the grand piano, except that it had a lot of open bedrooms opening off it on both sides; a small blond young man in white said, "My name's Gilmore; how do you do, Mr. Seabrook," and a big dark young prize-fighter in ordinary clothes but with a white jacket said, "My name's Dan; how do you do, Mr. Seabrook," while Miss Baxter melted away.

I had never walked so far under one roof since I'd visited the Palace of Versailles. I said to them, since I supposed I was supposed to say something:

"Break out of here? Why, a guy couldn't find his way out unless he hired a Cook's guide."

They both smiled mechanically and said, "Yes."

I learned weeks later that they'd both written it down that same night in my chart-book. They write down anything a patient says about death, escape, or suicide, whether it seems to make sense or not. The first thing written about me was that I was thinking of escaping by bribing the attendants.

I had been drinking since seven that morning, even more conscientiously than usual, knowing it would be the last for a long while. My friends had not interfered. What difference did one last day make? I had finished a pint before they came to get me, and had finished the last of a second pint in the car coming out. I had been so continually soaked with it for nearly two years that it didn't make me shout or sing or want to fight. It was about six o'clock now, of a winter evening, December, 1933, a couple of hours since I'd had the last drink, and I was beginning to sink. When they showed me to one of the open bedrooms, I flopped down on the bed. They were saying something, politely, when I went to sleep or passed out.

I guess they wakened me in a little while. The blond one who said his name was something had a pair of my pajamas, slippers, and dressing gown. The big one who said his name was something else helped me un dress. I went to sleep or passed out again.

In what might have been a minute or an hour, the big one alone was shaking me, and telling me that I would have a nice shower now and get weighed. I had been so habitually, normally drunk all the time for so long a time, that when I wasn't completely unconscious I focused better than occasional drunks do. I told him that I never took showers at night and that I weighed a hundred and eighty-nine pounds. He looked at me, sizing me up, then suddenly turned human and stopped calling me Mr. Seabrook and said, "Come on, fellow, I'll help you; I can't help it, you know, it's the rules."

And when I wouldn't, he went away, but before I could go to sleep or pass out again, he was back with another older man in a white uniform who didn't look exactly like a nurse or like a doctor either, who said:

"My-name-is-Dirk-how-do-you-do-Mr.-Seabrook; sorry, but it's the rules that all patients who walk in must have a bath and be weighed the same day they come in."

I said, "Who in the hell are you?" and he said, "I'm the superintendent on this hall. Come on. We'll help you. But you don't want us to take you."

I had never been a fighting drunk, so I went along. I thought they would let me alone for the rest of the night.

The next one who waked me up was a young female nurse with a tray who said:

"I'm-Miss-Pine-how-do-you-do-Mr.-Seabrook; how would you like some supper?"

I said:

"For the love of God take it away, and stop calling me by my name like a Statler hotel parrot, and since you look like you might have a kind heart, please shut the door when you go out and tell that army out there to let me alone until morning."

She said she was sorry, it was against the rules to shut the door, but if I didn't want my supper wouldn't I sleep better if I had a glass of milk and some crackers?

When she went out, I got up and shut the door myself and noticed that it had no lock on it and turned off the overhead light which worked by a button near the door and went to bed and noticed that the room was still suffused with a blue light. It was coming from a hole in the wall protected by heavy glass and grating so that you couldn't break it or turn it off. I pushed a chair against it, with my bathrobe draped so that it made the room dark.

In a little while a new male one, who didn't say his name was anything or how do you do, tiptoed in, removed the chair and bathrobe and lef t the door wide open.

I said loudly, "For the love of Christ can't you even let a guy ..."

He said, "Rules. Not so loud please, you'll wake the other patients."

I said, "Do you mean to tell me anybody sleeps in this God-damned bughouse?"

He went out and I lay for what might have been an hour or so and went to sleep again and woke up again, and the bright electric light was on and another new male one was there with a bottle of vaseline and some thermometers and a watch.

He told me I'd be let alone from then on, and presently, though I noticed there was another one reading a book, with a shaded lamp, in the corridor across from my door, I passed out again and was asleep or unconscious for what seemed forever, until I awoke with a flashlight in my face and standing over me was the biggest one I had seen yet, all in white, but big as one of the Fifth Avenue traffic cops. He was certainly worth looking at, when he moved the light out of my eyes so I could see him. He looked like something out of a good murder drama or the Big House, but now on the side of the law, hard-boiled but melancholy. He should have had a nightstick and a badge and an automatic, but he hadn't, and his pockets weren't bulging. All he had beside his big flashlight was a glass eye. My playmates told me later that a fellow on one of the "back halls" 1 had taken his real eye as a souvenir, and many of the nurses believed this too. Officially he was supposed to have lost it in the Saint Mihiel salient. Neither story was true. His name was Tibbett and he was the night superintendent (which means night watchman) of the whole works. His duty was to look at each patient in the whole rambling "hospital" at least once in the night to make sure they weren't dead or something. I swore at him that first night, but he was all right. He would have been a good person to write a book about. We lent each other lots of books later, all crime stories.

When he continued on his round, after flashing his light in my face, I was more irritated than I'd been when he was there. I began to think that if it had been a mistake to put me in precisely this sort of place, the mistake would soon rectify itself. If I had to spend many nights like this, I'd soon be raving and foaming at the mouth.

The culmination was when the one with the vaseline and thermometer came back while it was still pitch-black dark 'outside the window and blazed the light on and said brightly, "Good morning," and I heard a carpet-sweeper in the hall, and asked him what time it was and he said, "Six o'clock," and I said, "What time is breakfast?" and he said, "Quarter to eight," and when he had pulled the thermometer out of me and read it I said, "Well, for Christ's sake, get me a cup of strong black coffee," and he said, "Maybe you could have a glass of warm milk but you'd have to see Mr. Dirk and he won't be on till seven."

So that by eight-thirty when the doctor came around and asked me how I had spent the night, I was so mad that for the time being I forgot all about being a drunkard, and was so exhausted and stimulated by rage that the missing customary morning half-tumbler of Scotch wasn't even present in the back of my head. It couldn't have been a deliberate part of their psychic therapy, but it worked that way. They had eventually brought my breakfast, and I had drunk some coffee and eaten part of a piece of toast. I hadn't wanted to dress, but I noticed that I couldn't have dressed anyhow. All my clothes had disappeared. I had looked in the wardrobe and bureau drawers. They were all stark empty. Everything else had disappeared too — my wrist watch, lighter, matches, cigarette case, pocketknife, a medal of Saint Christopher. As for my handbag containing safety-razor, toilet articles, toothbrush, etc., I never saw it until seven months later. Just now the only things left in my room were the pajamas I had slept in, slippers, and bathrobe from which I noticed the tasseled cord had disappeared. Later that morning I found on the bare, empty bureau my own toothbrush and paste, in an unbreakable mug, and beside it my spectacles and the half-finished detective story. Underneath the mug was a penciled note, addressed to nobody and signed by nobody, saying that they hadn't found any comb or brush. A nurse, who wouldn't have been there if Mack Sennett had seen her first, came in and said I would now go out in the lounge. I said I would stay in my room, but would she please find my cigarettes, or give me one, and a light. She said I would now go out in the lounge, but that I couldn't smoke in my room anyway, and that she would give me a cigarette and a light when we got out there. I asked what about my clothes and she said they had been sent to be marked, but that I didn't need them now. I said, well, I'd stay in my room until my clothes came back. She said that I would now go out in the lounge. She was as hard as Peggy Joyce used to be and nearly as beautiful. She was the same Miss Pine who had brought my supper the night before but I was seeing her for the first time now. I wondered if they were all like that, and if it was part of the treatment.

She talked out of the comer of her mouth, as if she meant it to be tough, but as if she were play-acting it as nurses do when they want to make children obey.

I followed her down the long corridor past other bedrooms to where it spread out, at a right-angle, into a big room which seemed to be a sort of combination smoking room and library, with armchairs, leather couches, long tables with magazines and newspapers, card tables, a big grandfather clock. There were a dozen or so patients who didn't look like patients, fully dressed, flopped here and there, smoking, reading their morning paper, while two white-coated young men hovered unobtrusively, occasionally striking a match to light somebody's cigarette, or do some other trivial services. It was like the lounge of a good hotel — still more like a club. It seemed all very quiet, well-bred, and clubby. Nobody paid any attention to me, except for an occasional glance. Nobody bothered me, or even stared at me, but I resented it nevertheless. For months, since I had been permanently and habitually soused, I had refused to go into places like hotel lobbies where there were people I didn't know. Even aboard the Europa, coming back from France, though there happened to be people I knew aboard to whom I could have confessed what ailed me and have been sure of their sympathy, I had stayed in my room with the door shut. I had a neurasthenic — if not actually psychopathic — agoraphobia, the disease opposite of claustrophobia. I wanted to be shut up. I wanted to hide. I wanted to be by myself where people couldn't break in on me. This was, in part, why I had wanted to be locked up, and why the idea of a real big-league modern insane asylum, even though this term was "archaic" and it was now a "mental hospital," had been a welcome idea. Even the idea of a padded cell had been a welcome idea, suggesting seclusion and peace. What I had been subjected to instead for the first twelve hours, is what I have just written here, and what I had been telling the doctor.

He looked at me for a while without saying anything. He looked down at my hands and then looked some more at me, and finally grinned and said:

"Well, that's a new one-if you are not kidding me. We'll try to make you more comfortable, but I am afraid we haven't precisely the accommodation you say you were looking for. The fact is we haven't any cells, padded or otherwise ..."

"Look here," I said, "I wasn't kidding you, and I don't know whether you are kidding me or not, but, by God, whether you call it a cell or not, you've got to find me a quiet room somewhere, where the door can be shut at night, for I tell you right now that if you think I'm going to stay here another night, commitment or no commitment, if it's going to be like last night was ..."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Asylum by William Seabrook. Copyright © 2015 Joe Ollmann. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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