|Buffalo State Hospital, closed in 1974. Photo © Shannon O’Toole
[image: A dilapidated interior hallway of a former state hospital.]
Most people don’t have the foggiest clue what’s bad about institutions. What’s bad is something you pretty much never hear about, which is the violence it does to people’s insides at a very deep level. And that can’t be stopped by just removing the things that LOOK bad and throwing a layer of glamour on top.
Please, please, please everyone who talks about this in the past tense—STOP. This is still going on. Everywhere.
I think too many people get the wrong kind of idea. They will think that this is over. It’s not.
They will think that the awfulness and cruelty of an institution is measured by the size, the shape, the physical beauty or lack thereof, the amount of money funneled into it.
And those things are not real.
And those things—the belief in those things—are hurting and killing people still.
People don’t understand what’s behind the worst institutions I can possibly imagine. They think I’m kidding when I say it. Understand that I’m saying this as someone with experience of institutions that people often remark (from my photographs) look just like prisons, and institutions that look absolutely lovely to anyone who doesn’t have to live in them.
The worst institutions have lots and lots and lots of staff. They have beautiful grounds that people are more or less free to walk around on. Every room is decorated in ways that suggest a regular, pleasant house—and if anything is stained or broken someone fixes it, washes it, and paints over it within a day. There are no locks on the doors.
All of the staff are gentle and would never physically abuse an inmate. They are highly trained at redirecting and calming anyone who becomes violent. If you go outside, they follow you at a discreet distance, where they think you can’t see, to give the illusion of freedom and privacy. Their every movement and tone suggests sweetness and gentleness.
But they treat everyone as if they were somewhere varying, between infancy and four years old. With everything—everything—that entails.
Because they do not use physical restraint, they have to restrain you in other ways. They do it by such skillful manipulation that if you ever find out you were being manipulated, it’s long after the fact. If you confront them on it they’ll sweetly and politely tell you they have no idea what you mean. And they will continue to somehow always get you to do what they want, or else to feel awful about not doing so.
Glamour is a word that can refer to a kind of faery magic that can make a hovel appear to humans as a splendid palace. I often use the word to mean a similar kind of deception—a beautiful facade over a terrible reality. I make it part of my life’s work to see through glamour. And I see a whole lot of glamour used in conversations about institutions.
The above institution I have just described has a layer of glamour over it as well. If you look beneath the surface, it’s utterly horrifying. Most people don’t know how to see beneath the surface. Even when you personally are in such a situation, it can be hard to see.
You feel as if there is something pressing down on you, muffling and suffocating. But when you look around, there’s no outward sign of it. So why are you not happy? You must be an awful person to feel so awful when all these nice staff people are doing so much to make you feel at home. You look around, you try to search for what is bothering you, and it’s nowhere. But you’re in agony. Whenever you think nobody’s looking, you cry, sometimes it feels like you’ll never stop. Deep down inside you, you know something is going terribly wrong. But trying to pinpoint it is like trying to get a firm grip on a cloud.
Get a glimpse under the glamour and you see that all that has happened is a bunch of substitutions. They stopped locking the doors, but they started following you everywhere and subtly guiding you where they want you. The institution itself is positioned so that even if you tried to run away you couldn’t get anywhere. They stopped restraining your body, but their manipulation is like a permanent set of shackles on your mind. Their sweetness in manner hides the fact that they are sweet to you the way they would be sweet to an infant—even when you’re pushing sixty. Treat you like that long enough and you begin to respond and structure yourself like an infant, and the damage that does inside can’t be calculated.
I literally have nightmares about that type of institution. When I’m wrapped up in the glamour, this terrible calm takes over. It feels like something soft and smooth pressing all over my skin, and the temptation is to surrender to it and feel its fake calm, fake happiness. Then I wake up and want to vomit I am so terrified and disgusted with what I’ve just experienced.
This past summer I attended a recreation program for DD (developmentally disabled) people. And it was so much like a replica of my nightmare it was scary. Sometimes I would get smothered under the glamour, other times I wanted to scream. I cried more that week than I normally do in years, yet I was at every turn made to feel as if the problem was me. I can be so very passive but even my most passive wasn’t good enough for them.
One day I looked around and saw that everyone there was older. From the era of big institutions. Where they were used to being treated like this, and mostly could out-passive me any day (which is scary because I can get very passive). I talked to a woman whose roommate goes there—she said she goes in a grown woman and comes out acting like a young child. And not in a way that’s just her self-expression—this is one of those places that molds you into that form.
To survive in a place like that something inside you has to break. It’s impossible to fully explain to someone who hasn’t been in that position. Something inside you has to die. And it doesn’t die any less because you got one of the “good” (read: glamour-covered) institutions. The same forces are crushing down on you either way, the difference is cosmetic.
The worst part of institutions is not physical violence, obvious forms of abuse or neglect. It’s not even the experiences you don’t get to have. It’s the damage that is done right down to your soul, by living under the power of other human beings. Glamour makes no difference. Prettiness makes no difference. Size makes no difference. Even length of time makes less difference past a certain point than you’d think.
Until you understand that damage—what it is, what it means, where it comes from—you will never get rid of institutions. You have to understand it on a very intimate level or you will reproduce it without knowing what you’re doing.
I still can’t tell you how long I was institutionalized. I can tell you roughly the amount of time I lived in mental institutions and other residential facilities. But that’s not the same as the amount of time I was in institutions. I call what I got when I got out, “community institutionalization.” That’s where you live with your parents but you spend most of the day being driven between various places—segregated schools, segregated day programs, segregated rec programs, each one with institutional power structures behind it. I remember mental institutions where they walked us to different parts of the grounds for different parts of the day. There’s not so much difference between that and being driven.
The transition between a locked ward on a mental institution and later periods of my life was so absolutely gradual that by the time I was “free.” I never noticed. That’s how they wanted it. I simply created the institutional walls around me wherever I went. That’s why I put “free” in quotes. If I had been someone else, I would have been free. Because I was me—because of my particular history—I was not. There were invisible walls all around me and I certainly never noticed the real ones were not there. Which was exactly the purpose behind what was done to me. They didn’t think I could function outside an institution so they carefully built one inside my head, making me truly unable to function anywhere.
I can get over the physical violence. The attempts on my life. The neglect. The sexual abuse. The parts of “normal life” that I missed and still am missing. So long as I physically survive (which even the recent rec program almost avoided) I will and can get over these things.
I am not sure to what extent I will ever get back the parts of me that died in order for the rest of me to survive. Every now and then I notice I’ve gotten a little bit back, and I think that finally everything will be okay. And then a little time passes and I realize how much is still gone.
I’m not even saying I can’t be reasonably happy. But there are parts of me I still have no idea if I will ever get back. Those parts weren’t destroyed by ugly bare rooms, horrific physical or sexual abuse, the loss of normal experiences, or any of the rest of the things most people think when they think of bad institutions. Those things happened to me and they are bad. But on a real basic level they are not the cause of the problem.
The cause of the problem is a certain exercise of power. Of person over unperson. And in order to survive it the inmates have to become as much of that unperson as they can manage. And that does violent damage deep inside the self, that can be incredibly hard to repair. It’s violent even when it comes with purported love and sweetness and light.
And until people can stop forcing us to damage ourselves in this way, institutions will continue. That, not anything else, is the core of what is wrong with them. But it’s much harder to put that into songs or images or even just words, that the average person would comprehend.
(I wrote this in response to a Dave Hingsburger post. Andrea Shettle asked me to post it.)