In the few old black-and-white photos that exist of my great-uncle Jimmy, he is never smiling. A thin, narrow-faced young man with black hair swept back from a prominent forehead, he peers warily at the camera like a skittish animal, ready to flee at the first sign of danger.
Sometime when he was in his twenties, in the years immediately following World War II, my great-grandparents had their youngest son committed to Medfield State Hospital in the countryside southwest of Boston. Was he schizophrenic, bipolar, or perhaps just deeply depressed? It’s hard to say, since my family barely mentioned his existence and had little contact with him for decades. The only thing I ever heard my grandmother or great-aunt say about Jimmy, since their husbands rarely spoke about him, was that he was shy and didn’t mix well with people.
Just mentioning Jimmy’s name in my grandfather’s presence was enough to send him into a sputtering fit of rage, which was then followed by a gloomy silence that might last for hours. It definitely didn’t help that my grandmother wielded her brother-in-law’s name like a club against her husband, castigating him with his failings as a brother, that he never visited Jimmy year after year, which eventually ran into decades, and this no doubt flooded my grandfather with guilt.
My mother, on the other hand, had no reservations about telling me of the quiet and gentle uncle she remembered from her childhood in the 1940s before he went to Medfield. She told me that when she was training to be an RN in the early 1960s, she did her psych rotation at Medfield and saw Uncle Jimmy often, since he apparently was well enough to be allowed outside on his own to do landscaping and work on the farm on the hospital grounds that supplied much of the institution’s produce and milk. She said he remembered her and would wave and call out to her, and seemed happy to be outside working.
But I heard these stories from my mother, ironically, years after I had visited Medfield with the St. John’s Catholic Youth Organization group in my early teens during the mid-1970s. The church youth group went there once or twice a year to put on dances and holiday parties for the patients, and though my friends and I didn’t belong to CYO, we wormed our way along on a few of the trips not out of a sense of community service or compassion, but more so because we were titillated at the idea we could meet some genuine crazy people.
Had I known at that time that a relative of mine was there, I probably never would have gone on those trips, out of sheer adolescent embarrassment. Though even if I had encountered him, Uncle Jimmy and I had never met and would not have recognized each another anyway, and for privacy reasons neither patients nor visitors disclosed their last names.
After the federal mandate in the 1970s to move as many psychiatric patients as possible to less restrictive, community-based housing, the patient population at Medfield, which at its peak was over two thousand, and in some years outnumbered the townspeople, began to decline dramatically. Eventually, in the 1980s, Uncle Jimmy left the place where he had spent the majority of his life and was placed in a group home in Weymouth, a suburban town that bordered Quincy, the city he was born in and where his remaining family members still lived. But even with this new proximity, his two living brothers (a third had already died), including my grandfather, rarely, if ever, visited him or inquired about him.
Perhaps the dual burdens of both the shame of having a mentally ill family member, and the guilt from ignoring him, kept them away, because neither were cold-hearted men, but their youngest brother was not a topic that was open for discussion. Their wives, however, took matters into their own hands and paid Uncle Jimmy occasional visits. In 1999, at seventy-six years of age, Uncle Jimmy died of cancer, no doubt related to his fifty-year history as a heavy smoker. His oldest brother, my grandfather, Anthony, had died four years before; I wonder if Uncle Jimmy even knew. His only living brother, my great-uncle Albino, would live another two years, but as far as I know my grandmother and Albino’s wife, my great-aunt Gilda, were the only members of the family who attended Uncle Jimmy’s wake, since Albino was notified of his death as next of kin.
Years passed and I didn’t think much about Uncle Jimmy until I started to pass through Medfield to visit one of my sisters at her home southwest of Boston, or while kayaking the Charles River, which ran through the town, right at the edge of the old hospital grounds. When I learned that the grounds were now open to the public as a recreational and historic walking area, I knew this was my opportunity to try to integrate the family’s past there with everything I knew.
It was a humid summer day as my wife and I walked around the gate that blocked vehicle access to the grounds. We ascended a potholed road up a hill that soon passed the white-columned administration building that I remembered from my visits with the church group as a teenager. Then the Neo-Gothic-style buildings dating from the 1890s that housed the patients came into view—red brick, peeling paint, with slate roofs and arched windows, which, now, along with the doors, were completely boarded up to keep the curious out. Without knowing the history it could have been mistaken for an old college campus.
I pictured my mother, who had died the year before Uncle Jimmy, when she was doing her nursing training there in her late teens, walking across the campus in her white uniform and cap from her dormitory, since many of the staff then lived on site. I pictured Uncle Jimmy, contentedly doing landscaping work in the fresh air, waving to her as she passed. As I took photos of the dozens of buildings spread over hundreds of acres of grounds, connected by walkways, lush lawns, and numerous shade trees, my wife remarked at what a peaceful place it was. I hoped that Uncle Jimmy had found a peace at Medfield that had eluded him in the outside world.
The visit to the old hospital grounds in Medfield stuck with me, and I researched the history of it on the Web and tried to further understand my family’s experience within the context of those times. Often families were told that the best thing they could do for a mentally disabled family member was to commit them, and before modern psychotropic drugs and other treatment options came into widespread use, many felt they had no other choice.
There was only one more source of information I had to turn to, in my attempt to fit together the pieces of this family puzzle: my great-aunt Gilda, now ninety, but still mentally sharp, was the only living member that remained of her generation who knew Jimmy, and no doubt could tell me things that weren’t going to be found anywhere else. I called her up and casually mentioned that I had visited the hospital grounds and was thinking about Uncle Jimmy, and asked her what she could tell me about him. Why was he sent to Medfield? She repeated what I had heard before from her and my grandmother: that Jimmy was shy, didn’t mix well with people. My grandmother, with her lifelong animus towards her father-in-law, also used to tell me that Jimmy was not treated well by his father, which she intimated was the cause of his problems.
Rather than try to tell my nonagenarian great-aunt that shyness didn’t get people committed to mental hospitals, I asked what else she knew about his time there. She said that in his early years at Medfield, into the 1950s, they would have him home for a visit at Christmas, but he became increasingly uncomfortable being away from the hospital, and would ask to be brought back right after the holiday, rather than staying at their house for a few additional days, as he once did. I recalled that my grandmother told me once that Uncle Jimmy stayed with them a few times as well, long before I was born, and that she was always afraid he was going to accidentally burn the house down because he often paced the house, chain-smoking at night after everyone was asleep. Knowing my grandmother and her neurotic, worrying, nature, no doubt Uncle Jimmy picked up on the fact that his presence made her nervous. No wonder he wanted to go back to Medfield, where he probably felt more accepted, and had more relative freedom and independence as he performed his work duties on the hospital campus.
But Aunt Gilda had another revelation for me that would prove to be even more surprising.
“Did you know your great-aunt Mary was in Medfield, too?” she asked me.
“What!?” I exclaimed. The only thing I had ever heard about this sister of my grandfather was that she died young, from a brain tumor, before I was born.
That was later on, asserted Aunt Gilda. Before that, she spent time at Medfield. I asked Aunt Gilda why she was there, and half-expected another benign, euphemistic explanation, like Uncle Jimmy’s shyness.
“She went berserk,” Aunt Gilda said bluntly. “Her husband left her and took their only child, a girl, and it made Mary go crazy.” It didn’t take me more than a few seconds to realize that Aunt Mary’s mental illness was probably the reason her husband left with their child, not the cause of it, but I kept that to myself. And also that the brain tumor that eventually killed her may have contributed to the psychiatric problems that got her committed to Medfield.
So Uncle Jimmy was not the lone family member with a major mental illness, as I had believed. And, I thought now, who knows what other psychiatric problems, short of requiring hospitalization, were swirling around in the family’s past, lost to time, shame and guilt, the keeping of secrets, and the passing of the generations? Perhaps the same could be said of many families, if one looks deeply enough, without even walking the grounds of an abandoned state mental hospital, where the ghosts of the past wait to be awakened.
Brett Peruzzi lives in Framingham, Massachusetts. His poems and prose have previously appeared in The Boston Globe, Exquisite Corpse, Sahara, Pine Island Journal, Boston Poetry Magazine, Gloom Cupboard, and other publications. He is currently working on a book-length memoir. Email: brettperuzzi[at]hotmail.com