November 27, 1946 is the last day I remember sitting in the comfort of my home by the stone fireplace built by my father. The warmth of the fire blanketed my skin as I read another housekeeping guide. I always wanted to expand my interests and pick up a copy of “The Pursuit of Love” by Nancy Mitford just for the hell of it. My husband prefers me to read my guides and pick up on the tips and tricks that are offered. I miss these moments alone in my home, before I was barbarically stripped of my freedoms and ripped from my home.
My husband told me he was taking me to the doctor. I never questioned why. I kept quiet until my eyes met the ginormous brick building in front of me. “Why are you bringing me here?” I whispered. “You aren’t well.” he responded. “But, I feel fine. No sniffles, no nausea. Daniel, take me home.” The words spilled out of my mouth.
“I can’t do that Louise.” I knew that Daniel was unhappy in our marriage, but divorce was not an option. We would be the talk of the church, and neither of us would be able to walk the neighborhood without looks of disgust. Would he genuinely consider getting rid of my presence by throwing me into a hospital?
“Daniel, I am not ill!” I screamed.
“This is what I’m talking about, there is no need to shout.” he responded.
I gazed at the sign along the road reading Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center, and in small lettering underneath it said for the care and treatment of the insane. I began to feel ill. “Divorce me!” I screamed. “Do not leave me here!” Before I could even deny my supposed insanity, men that looked as evil as my husband grabbed me by my arms and carried me into the facility. I kicked and fought as hard I could while my husband stood and signed me away to these people.
Tears and sweat had smeared my perfectly powdered makeup across my face as the men continued to walk down the long halls with the weight of my body in their arms. I was helpless and at their mercy. Men, women, and children stared at me from small rooms. Some carried sympathy in their eyes while others seemed intrigued, watching my obvious agony.
Once I was forced into my room, a heavy door closed behind me and the clinking of locks echoed through the hallway outside. I fell to the floor when a white uniform and black shoes came sliding through the thin tray shaped slot in the door. “Change into this, please. I will be back for any personal belongings soon.” a woman said to me from outside. I realized at that point, I was no longer Louise. I was a number written on a tag. 2356, to be exact.
I removed my heavy blue sweater and long matching skirt. Only one of my heeled shoes were left on my feet. I assume the other fell off while I was kicking at the men bringing me here.I was only left with one heeled shoe as the other fell off outside as I was kicking at the men carrying me into this asylum. My pantyhose were ripped at the ankles, and out of anger I stripped them from my legs and tore them to shreds. “I am no lunatic. I am not crazy. I am not meant to be here.” I repeated to myself, getting louder with each word. I dressed myself in the plain white gown and slipped the black shiny flats onto my feet.
A woman dressed as a nurse opened the door. I refused to look into her eyes as she spoke. “Follow me.” I no longer wanted to fight and did as I was told, in hopes of the many workers believing that I was sane. I walked out of the cell and followed this woman to a waiting room. It was uncomfortably quiet for the large group that was in there. “Sit here, please,” said the woman as she pointed to a cushioned seat in front of me. I sat and crossed my legs. A woman across the room was whispering to herself and scratching at her skin. Her gaze met mine and she immediately went still. To avoid being rude, I looked down at my gown, hoping she would look away. To my left were small children that seemed to be identical twins. They had fear in their youthful eyes that sent shivers through my being.
A tall man that I assumed was a doctor opened a door beside me. “24557, come with me.” his deep voice carried itself through the room. No one responded. The doctor cleared his throat, “24557!” he yelled. The woman from before stood up and reluctantly crept toward the door. Once she was close enough, the man welcomed her into his “office” and shut the heavy door behind him.
Minutes that felt like hours went by as we all sat in silence. Muffled screams from the room were heard by everyone. The young twins held each other’s ears to avoid the awful noise. A tear slid down my face when an older woman with eyes that carried wisdom sat down on the rug in front of me. “All will be fine, my child,” she said to me as her hand grazed my knee. I was comforted, in an odd way. The woman moved on to the children and held them as they shook with fear.
The doctor returned to the room, but the woman from before did not follow. “2356, come with me.” he said. My eyes opened wide, and my stomach began to ache. I stood up from the chair, my legs wobbling. I turned to enter the room, and the sound of the door locking behind me echoed in my brain. “Your husband tells us you suffer from symptoms including disorientation, delusions, and hallucinations.” he said to me as a nurse motioned for me to lay on the bed behind me.
“No sir, that is not true.” I said shakily. “Well, he would not have brought you to me if he was not concerned. I’m going to perform a quick procedure that will make your symptoms disappear.” he smiled. I noticed that he was wearing a small name tag that read Dr. Freeman.
Suddenly, everything made sense. I remembered seeing advertisements about a new procedure called lobotomy? All of the images in the advertisements and articles of people returning from the procedure with dark, swollen eyes came rushing through my memory. “What exactly is this procedure?” I whispered. The doctor and the nurse were no longer listening and acted as if I wasn’t even there. I frantically tapped my feet at the edge on the bed as beads of sweat rolled down my face. On a shiny metal tray beside me sat two metal ice picks. My eyes widened once more and the room around me began to spin. Another nurse entered the room, and they began strapping my hands and legs to the bed. I felt the tears running down the sides of my face without being able to wipe them away. One of the nurses then stuck a rubber plate with a handle on the end into my mouth.
I assume the woman saw the confusion in my eyes and said, “This is to keep you from biting your tongue.’’ I was no longer able to respond to anyone. I felt two objects pressing against each side of my head and without warning the doctor nodded at the nurse and my body began convulsing. I wanted to scream but it was all muffled, and before I could fathom the immense pain running through me.
*In order to write this narrative, I had to do a lot of researching to make the majority of the story historically accurate.
“1920-1929.” Fashion History Timeline, 11 May 2018, fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1920-1929/.
Eastgate, Jan. “Official Report: Brutal Psychiatric ‘Treatments.’” Citizens Commission on Human Rights, CCHR – Nonprofit Mental Health Watchdog, Scientology, 1 Jan. 1AD, http://www.cchr.org/cchr-reports/brutal-therapies/introduction.html.
Fabian, Renee, et al. “The History of Inhumane Mental Health Treatments.” Talkspace, 28 Sept. 2018, http://www.talkspace.com/blog/history-inhumane-mental-health-treatments/.
“Frequently Asked Questions About Lobotomies.” NPR, NPR, 16 Nov. 2005, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5014565.
Ugc. “Harlem Valley Abandoned Psychiatric Center.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 13 Oct. 2016, http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/harlem-valley-psychiatric-center.
Vann, Madeline R. “The 10 Worst Mental Health Treatments in History – Everyday Health.” EverydayHealth.com, 2014, http://www.everydayhealth.com/pictures/worst-mental-health-treatments-history/.
Wertz, Julia. “GALLERY: Harlem Valley State Hospital.” Adventure Bible School, 2014, http://www.adventurebibleschool.com/gallery-harlem-valley/.