The first structure I saw on the hospital’s grounds rose out of the crunchy grass as I climbed a broad knoll. It was an impressively large building, especially for one located in a deserted field of crunchy grass, and I wondered if it would just keep rising until it lost its structural integrity and collapsed on me.
The buildings making up the once-great Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane (a PC name for the time) are flung over 296 acres on the side of Route 9 between Poughkeepsie and Hyde Park in Dutchess County. The hospital is one of the oldest psychiatric institutions in the US, its construction beginning in 1867 and continuing for almost 30 years.
Thirty years seems like an excessive fabrication time for ANY project begun after the invention of tools, but I saw where the time went as I walked the grounds—there are almost 30 structures still standing, but that description doesn’t do the hospital justice…I counted 12 wings on one of the buildings, 8 or 9 stories on another…the hospital was massive enough to house 6,000 patients at a time by the early 1950s.
I had only made it to the second building when a clue left by some helpful explorer opened up deeper territory.
The bottom half of the door was gone as though the Minotaur had rent it in half to escape to the surface. My knapsack scraped the door’s jagged edge as I ducked under it, and then I was in darkness.
I had two sources of light: a flashlight app on my phone—very bright, but it made my Droid’s battery drain like it was leaking; and a small headlamp—tons of power, but exceedingly weak. The blackness was so miasmic it was like moving through fog, and the headlamp could only pierce the brume for a couple feet. I had to bank on the phone lasting until I again reached the surface.
I had no idea the tunnel would stretch for so long. I picked up the pace each time I saw my phone’s power indicator tick downwards—ten minutes in, I was going as fast as I could without falling. Purple arrows kept leading me onward…I didn’t know to what, but I hoped I came upon it soon.
I approached what could have been an exit, but it was just a change in the tunnel—the ceiling dropped, the walls closed in farther, and I now had to couch while trotting through the gloom.
As the power indicator on my phone began its death-blinks, I saw my first natural light in more than 20 minutes. It wasn’t even the tunnel’s end, but I needed to get back to the surface.
I peered up the shaft. The surface was three stories above, maybe more.
I was trying to figure out how to snake my way up the shaft without having to chew a limb off when I saw a second light source down the tunnel.
The concrete tube opened into a brick chamber that looked like it should be filled with bodies.
I walked through a rotted door on the far wall and into an even scarier room, but, above me, the source of the daylight: a small porthole barely wide enough for my frame. I pushed all the air from my lungs, squeezed my shoulders together, and popped into the light like a newborn.
That’s the first metaphor that came to my mind, but a better one is: I escaped. I escaped into the light like a patient who’d had enough, wondering as I emerged if any loons had ever crawled through the same tunnels to freedom.
The Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane was considered the pinnacle of ethical treatment at its opening. Its architecture followed the lead of Thomas Kirkbride, who designed psych hospitals around the theory of Moral Treatment, a progressive philosophy at the time. In Kirkbride institutions, those that were defined as being too mentally aberrant to exist alongside normal people (or at least alongside people who were aberrant in the right way) were permitted to live with less abuse and confinement than at any public psych hospital in Western history. Of course, there was no such thing as a public psych hospital before the late 17th century.
The patients at the Hudson River Hospital were treated better than any mentally ill population that had been institutionalized before, though the mentally ill had only been institutionalized for a couple hundred years. Before then, they coexisted with the rest of the population. Everyone dealt with it somehow—all those loons running around and biting the heads off people’s favorite chickens, as they must have done—it sounds horrible—why didn’t Western society come up with the idea of psych hospitals thousands of years earlier?
I expressed earlier that the non-institutionalized population wasn’t made up of normal people—a term without a definition, since there’s no such thing as an ‘average’ person—but instead of those whose idiosyncrasies didn’t disturb the prevailing culture of the time.
There weren’t psych hospitals before 1600 because there were no need for them. There was no need for them because not enough of the human psyche had been medicalized—deemed to be unacceptably aberrant, something to be fenced off from the rest of society, hopefully forgotten—for psych hospitals to have patients.
The definition of what was human before psych hospitals was broader. And of course, this period took up the vast majority of homo Sapiens 200,000 year existence.
What’s considered normal right now can be the opposite of what’s normal throughout our history—I thought as I made my escape from the hospital grounds and into the surrounding forest.