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I stood on the porch. Dark mesh screens rose fifteen feet high, divided by thin black iron poles that parceled the sky into parallelograms. Above me a ledge stuck out its tongue, dark and square, and made a long shadow all along one side of the porch. I had not spoken for over a month. I stood on the porch and saw everything in sharp relief. The silence pressed in on me and opened up with sound: keys in a remote hallway, feet shuffling on linoleum, a squirrel’s scuffle across the bare ground into leaves three stories below. Nothing was expected of me. I lay down on a battered couch and studied the sky.
Going into St. Vincent’s Hospital was like walking into a dream—first you notice something you assume is only an inconsequential detail, but it turns out to be what is most important. The hospital’s entrance was a stone arch. Inside, a fountain in the center of the foyer rose and fell. I heard angels singing in that fountain and was cheered. I called myself Joan (but answered to others calling me Annie) and knew myself to be Joan of Arc. I was glad that my messengers were here with me. In that moment my name faded out and hers remained on the screen, like a film credit.
I did not expect locked doors. I stayed on the adolescent ward for a couple of weeks before being transferred to 2 North, the ward for the “crazies,” “chronics,” and “psychotics” in the hospital. I didn’t have the slightest idea why, and I noticed I was the only young person there. I was a patient in a private psychiatric hospital now, the kind of place you only have nightmares about—red brick, far from the road, bars on tall windows. It even had high turrets. It was there, as a sixteen-year-old girl, that I stopped speaking for five months, from October to February. I realized that whatever I might say could be misconstrued and used to create a version of “reality” that would be unrecognizable, a kind of voice-over of my truths I could not bear. I embraced silence as though it were both protest and protection. As though, because in the end it was neither.
It was early and still dark when the nurse entered my room and injected a burning stream into my thin upper arm. The routine was familiar. Within ten minutes my mouth was dry, my tongue enormous and clumsy. Then there was the long walk in my blue robe (a present from my mother) through the hospital tunnels with another nurse, who crooked her arm in mine as though I were her guide. And then we were there. The tunnel opened into an underground waiting room, lit with lamps, a relief from the fluorescence of the tunnel. At first I thought, “Here are the grandparents,” because everyone there seemed unspeakably old. Then I saw that it was because they were all folded in on themselves, heads bent, chests concave, and breathing shallow. It was a waiting room, with magazines stacked neatly on a coffee table, but no one, no, not one person, was reading. To read is to be drawn away from the confines of the body and the present moment into another time and place. But everyone here was imprisoned in the immediate anguish that superseded the tedium of waiting, which might have, at another time, been relieved by reading.
Minutes later I lay down on a gurney in a small room and surrendered my St. Christopher’s medal from around my neck, assured that it would be returned later. Then came the tourniquet’s pinch, my hand going numb even as I was told to “make a fist.” A prick into vein, and then the tease, “Count backwards from ten.” But the dizziness at seven and the solid blackness at five or four made it impossible. The first time I went for ECT, they strapped me down with surprising gentleness, attaching the electrodes to my scalp. I was ready to be a martyr but at the last moment struggled with such ferocity that the procedure was abandoned.
I didn’t have a word for my anguish, not even a signal, unless it was this unexpected struggle. If this was my cry, it was so mute that no one could hear it.
I wakened with my mouth drier than before, if that was possible. Someone led me to a table where there was butter-soaked toast and a cup of orange juice. I didn’t know it then, wouldn’t know it until I returned to the world, to music classes and to school. I didn’t know that a little electricity to the brain in weekly doses adds up to oblivion. It adds up by subtracting all recently learned systems of notation and language. Gone, the capacity to read music (to play classical guitar and sing), along with algebra, geometry, and drawing in perspective. I could no longer read Virgil or even decipher my own coded alphabet. I couldn’t remember any French, and Latin, too, was gone. These things had fled, all to the same place—words for a lost city, street names, music, lines of poetry.
Joan drank the orange juice with relish. She savored the toast.
Once, in Latin class, my messengers spoke to me from the inside of a book cabinet. I threw my books off my desk, shouting, “Stop!” I’d meant to stop the girls’ voices around me so I could hear my voices more clearly, but class ended abruptly and everyone filed out. Sister Stanislaus brought me to the health room (an empty room with a cot and a crucifix) and locked me inside until my mother came to get me. Everyone, my family included, assumed I was on drugs. Only I knew that Michael the Archangel had assigned me a task: I was to find a way to translate the voices of angels for the world, to find words and an alphabet that would put an end to human suffering.
By swallowing every pill, tablet, and caplet I could lay my hands on I thought I’d make a start at dying without being burned at the stake. Then, just in case this was a laughable beginning, I opened up my wrists with a blade, as if I could open time itself. I didn’t expect so much blood. Under the skin, within the geography of my own body, I wanted to find the IGA at the corner of Tamm Avenue and Berthold, taste Wonder bread butter-and-sugar sandwiches, hear the chanted counting as everyone took off running in a game of hide-and-seek. I wanted to run in a pack of bare-armed children, run with endless energy, stung by mosquitoes as fireflies increased in glass jars. The sink filled with blood as I watched with disbelief.
I felt quite dizzy. I called the convent and spoke to my English teacher, Sister Bianca. I could not keep track of what was happening in this conversation. Sister Bianca brought my biology teacher along with her to the apartment. It was Sister Peter who tore up the pillowcases to staunch the bleeding (what would my mother say, I wondered). The arrival of an ambulance seemed overly dramatic. Just before the doors closed Sister Bianca leaned in and addressed me. “I think you did this because you wanted to live.” I did not respond. I sped into silence in an ambulance screaming through the night.
In the emergency room, the burning of a nose tube in the back of my throat triggered the thought that I was already on fire. I fought to get up, but the doctors prevailed and pumped the pills from my stomach with alarming indifference. Then there was the strange tug of needle and thread while being sewn up (as I’d sewn my own stuffed animals).
I was sent to a ward for public patients, my bed in a large room, on the fourth floor of the St. Louis City Hospital, an old building with clanging radiators. I thought that the effort to die would change me in some fundamental way, or change the world. But nothing had changed. I lay in bed with an IV drip, wanting to pee almost constantly. The green walls whispered, hummed, and spoke strange syllables. Angles tilted and tables became flat, yet things didn’t drop off as they should have. In an open ward with rows of beds, in that public and very large space, the walls crept closer to my bed and enclosed me.
Hours later two psychiatrists came to see me. They asked me why I’d tried to kill myself, and then they guessed. “Is it that your boyfriend left you?” “Were you doing drugs? Flunking out of school?” “Maybe you wanted someone to notice you.” I decided I would not speak again until someone said something at least intelligent enough for me to try to answer. And so I entered silence with an attitude of insouciant power that belied a terrible vulnerability—it was the exaggeration of the teenager’s shrug, the ubiquitous gesture when speech fails.
Crossing over into silence, I was La Pucelle, the virgin girl guided by voices, the girl who would fight and win, and this time would not be killed.
Released finally from the constant companionship of my IV, I lay in bed and punched out a visual hole just above the light switch at the far end of the ward—and lined up the ends of iron bedsteads all down the row in one-point perspective. I turned to the other side of the room and shot a bullet hole through the window on the same horizon and had two points. To line up the beds in two-point perspective, however, I had to imagine being in a third space in the room where I could see both points at once. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite imagine this view, so I got up out of bed to see. When I did, I noticed the wheelchair down by the windows. It was an old one, high-backed with wooden platforms for the feet. The seat and back were an intricacy of cane work gone nearly white with age.
I spent hours and days looking at that wheelchair from my bed. Depending on the time, it was all honeycomb and lace, little hexagons of light against dark and light against brighter light. The verticals and horizontals switched places in a moment. It was a repetition of moving hexagons, a metric, all rhythm and syncopation. At night it was dark against darker dark. Its shapes stood out and it became all plane, arc, and infinity. One night I moved out of my bed and walked up to it. I sat in it. The seat edge hit my legs just below the knee and my legs dangled out like a child’s—it was that big. It was a home with an open roof and open walls. It was time itself and it was beyond all time.
I grew bored with the hospital routines. I took the wheelchair out for a little spin, as other kids might borrow the family car. At first I stayed on the ward. The old people smiled a little as I traveled up and down between the rows. I didn’t dare smile back, in case any of them wanted to make it an obligation to speak to them. Then, when everyone became used to seeing me in it and none of the nurses were around, I took it out into the hospital. In the corridor I found a group of men in white coats, all foreign doctors, waiting by the elevator. They smiled, as if charmed by the sight of a girl in a wheelchair, and the elevator opened and let them, and me, in, and leapt up for a moment and swept down, signaling each floor with a little “ching.” I got out in front of the gift shop, on the ground floor. I could have walked out the front door, but this did not interest me. I was content to roll around in the lobby, as if out on a ride, and look at the people, almost all black and visibly poor, chatting with one another, calling out to children who laughed and skipped over the tiles. With my bandaged wrists and wheelchair and dressed as I was in the costume of a hospital gown and robe, I imagined that I looked like someone who had a physical illness. I took refuge in this idea, turning the chair this way and that, smiling with a private pleasure. I was happy enough to be in a world in which I played no real part, knowing I had a part in another world that no one knew about.
This is my last memory before going into St. Vincent’s, waiting for signs from another world in which I had a part to play. My messengers had temporarily forsaken me, but I knew it was only a matter of time before the roaring became whispering and the whispering shifted to clear voices. The old, familiar sense of vastness and infinity was all around me, in ordinary things, most memorably in the wheelchair. I felt near to my own death, too, not because I’d tried to kill myself, but because I sensed that unseen others wanted me dead. The nearness of death made it imperative that I live in a world that did not follow the logic of linear time—so time skipped and jumped and ran backward into infinity.
What can I say about being in the hospital? Almost nothing. No more than I have said already.
It was May, in what would have been my junior year in high school, and my psychiatrist, after nine months of treating me, had finally arrived at a diagnosis: schizophrenia. When he told my mother that he was planning to transfer me from St. Vincent’s to Malcolm Bliss State Hospital for an indeterminable period, she put her foot down, saying, “There’s nothing so wrong with her that can’t be righted by coming home.”
Nothing had changed, yet everything had changed. I could see, as I climbed out of the art-room window onto the roof of Rosati-Kain High School, that I would have to jump or swing out to the nearest branch to get down. If caught, I could be suspended. Since I had just returned from the loony bin, maybe this sojourn on the roof would be forgiven. “I don’t want to be here,” I thought. “But I don’t want to go back to the hospital either.” I climbed back in through the window, took up my notebook, and tore out a page and began a letter. I wrote it to my father, dead since I was five, and addressed it to The Dead Letter Room, St. Louis, Missouri.
I don’t remember the letter. As an adolescent I barely remembered my father. His facial features and the sound of his voice had faded over the years. He was a familiar ghost, a present absence. I imagined him and my response to his death because I couldn’t actually remember him.