Everything New Is Terrifying Again

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Gypsy Hill, Virginia, was founded in 1732 by Donald L. Packard, a railroad tycoon from Liverpool, England. He built his railroad which opened trade and growth to the North Eastern seaboard. After 400 homes, a bank, and five bars were constructed, the next set of buildings to go up in town comprised a mental institution. The Central Lunatic Asylum, a pristine example of Colonial revival architecture, opened in 1825, a crowning example of central Virginia’s newly materializing humanist policies.

Most of the picturesque and enjoyably walkable downtown was built between 1880 and 1910, tucked nicely in and around small but steep sloping hills, and surrounded by pink dogwood and Cleveland pear trees. It’s one of the finest Victorian small towns in America. In the pure sunlight illuminating brilliant blue skies, it feels like heaven. But when the gray, smoky fog rolls in over the west side of town, like soot spiraling up from a factory, you can’t help but think hell is on the way.

The asylum provided an aesthetically pleasing place to recover. Treatment centered around patient comfort, and participation in outdoor activities. Rooftop walks helped take in the majestic grounds and lush mountainside. Large common rooms connecting corridors encouraged socialization, as did group garden work. It was a natural therapeutic approach to psychiatric care. But after the Civil War, it turned into a dismal failure.

Insane asylums around the country suddenly became little more than warehouses for the dregs of society. The beautifully ornate structures common to the era proved to be dangerous to the patients housed inside them. In an effort to obtain better recovery outcomes, extreme techniques soon replaced the more principled philosophies of the past.  Restraint, seclusion, and frontal lobotomies soon were a part of health practice. Patients were involuntarily sterilized as a way to genetically improve the quality of the population.

This modern bit of torture, sterilization, became known as eugenics, eventually collapsing after society fully realized the extent of the horror science had unleashed into the world. The Central Lunatic Asylum’s population gradually dipped and later was converted into a state prison. From that point it closed after only twenty years because of a lack of inmates, where it fell into neglect and decay.

As with everything else in American culture, circumstances always end up traveling down Commerce Highway. A large, wealthy investment group (is there any other kind?) bought the twenty acre property, renovating the buildings into condos.

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The first female to grace the doors of Central  Lunatic Asylum was Margaret Thornberry, an elementary teacher and resident of Gypsy Hill. Margaret and her husband Richard, one of the few bankers in town, had two children, and were regular church-going folk. Richard complained to authorities that he couldn’t take his wife’s overt enthusiasm for church anymore, that her behavior was breaking their family apart. Margaret was brought to the asylum for evaluation, diagnosed with “religious excitement”, and was admitted.

Margaret told the asylum staff she felt all along her husband was trying to get rid of her, and this seemed like the most honorable way to do it. Naturally, the townspeople could sympathize with a husband dumping his wife because he was a respected banker, and she was accused of being crazy. Upon reflection, Margaret did sing louder than most in church, the parishioners gossiped. She talked on and on about the Lord to such a degree sometimes you couldn’t get a word in edgewise. She was always smiling, as if immersed in a rapturous state, even when there shouldn’t have been anything to smile about. Most parishioners now had understood why Richard had her taken away. They all prayed for her health… in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Margaret kept a journal those first few months. Bed bugs were common. Rats woke her up occasionally, running over and underneath her blankets. Sleep on those nights was impossible. Of course, there was nothing the staff could do to help. After several weeks the problems disappeared. For purposes of monitoring her recovery progress, Margaret wondered if these creatures had been placed in her room as an experiment.

But the odd occurrences continued on a regular basis. One day after the evening meal, she returned to her room and saw a bible on the table. Asylum policy forbade personal property of any kind on the premises. Again, thinking it might be a test, she decided to avoid it altogether and never open it. Now she wondered if she was the experiment.

Some time later, Margaret took a rooftop walk with an attendant, admiring the breathtaking scenery, reveling in the fresh mountain air. Her mind was at peace for one of the few times during her stay. For all the wrong that went on there, they got one thing right. Nature did soothe the nerves. She released herself from her meditative state to find herself alone. Her attendant stood talking to Charles Watt, asylum supervisor, watching her as he spoke. “He certainly was disinterested in engaging me in conversation as we walked,” she wrote in her journal. “When I noticed he had left my side without a word a fear overcame me. His occasional glances at me while he spoke to the supervisor seemed to be checking to see if I would move close to the edge, or even jump, as several patients had before.”

Margaret spent the next year in the asylum, and divorced, but was never suspicious of any ‘questionable’ treatment thereafter. She had no way of knowing how much better off she’d be than Claire O’Brien, admitted fifty years later at the height of the eugenics insanity, because of “excessive promiscuity.” Claire was sterilized, no doubt for the good of society, spent two weeks recovering, and was released.

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Growing Up, Then Out

GarageDragon1It was back in high school when I noticed the change. Most of the seniors, all the cool ones anyway, hung out under the Senior Tree, the gathering spot for those who were going places. I was going nowhere. I knew this from the moment I entered high school and got a strong whiff of what my future held; stifling conformity, doing work I had no interest in for the benefit of others, yielding to the wishes of those more aggressive, and being asked to speak your mind when you knew damn well no one cared what it’s contents were.

Happily those days are behind me. I had a great time during those four years, but it had nothing to do with school. I lacked the desire for a career, whatever that meant. Ambition was nearly non-existent in me. When I recall the times roaming Hollywood, Santa Monica, downtown, and elsewhere in southern California going to concerts, museums, independent movie theaters and bookstores, and cooling off in the placid Pacific ocean, an inner peace comes over me that’s irreplaceable. It was the best liberal education I could have received… and I gave it to myself.

But back to the Senior Tree. Day after day, seniors stood underneath and around it, acting foolish while hatching plans for world conquest, commonly known as the path to success. Belief systems crystallized in conjunction with these plans, systems unalterable and impenetrable. I felt like I was living in a foreign land. All this preparation for the endless grind ahead made me queasy. I didn’t belong in that world. I understood I was going to have to work in some menial labor-intensive fashion, and I was okay with it. We all work to make other’s rich, if we’re not working for ourselves. At that point in my life I became aware that writing would be my release. It would make my particular ‘endless grind’ easier to swallow.

Meanwhile, I missed as much school as possible, graduating by two credits. That intentional calculation would prove to be the reigning accomplishment of my high school career.

Years later I’m in Virginia. The solitude has been life-changing, except for one thing. As I’ve matured I’ve seen that the Senior Tree has shape-shifted into a mysterious Dragon living in nearly everyone’s garage. It goes like this:

I’m walking through my neighborhood. It’s a delicate, cool morning with a touch of heat. The spring colors dazzle the eyes. About a block from home a regular looking Joe is standing on his driveway, doing nothing. He says hi.

“How’s it going?” I say.

“Good. Did you know I’ve got a fire-breathing Dragon in my garage?”

Instead of wishing him to have a nice day, I make the mistake of engaging him in dialog. I’m making an effort to be more a part of the human race, so in order to do that, I need to speak to the inhabitants from time to time. “Interesting. Can I have a look?”

He takes out his keys, presses a button, and the garage door goes up. There’s plenty to look at, but no Dragon in sight.

“”Where is it?” I ask, greatly anticipating his response.

“It’s right over there,” he says, pointing toward the door leading to the kitchen. “I forgot to tell you he’s an invisible Dragon.”

If that’s the case, I tell him, let’s spread flour on the floor to see if we can get footprints.

“That would work,” he says with disappointment, “but this Dragon floats in the air.”

“Well then, we’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.”

The man shakes his head. “His fire is heatless.”

I’m getting annoyed, and almost turn to go home. But I’m stupid, and press on. I point to the shelves on the wall. “I see you’ve got spray paint. Let’s spray around the door area and make him visible.”

“He lacks any material constitution. The paint won’t stick.”

“I think I left my oven on,” I say, walking briskly toward the safety of my front door and laugh. What’s the difference between an invisible, immaterial, floating Dragon who spits heatless fire, and no Dragon at all?

Inspired by a Carl Sagan parable