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A Mind That Found Itself: An Autobiography

Creator: Clifford Whittingham Beers (author)
Date: 1910
Publisher: Longmans, Green, and Co., New York
Source: Available at selected libraries

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This new feeling of comparative contentment had not been brought about by any decided improvement in health.


It was due directly and entirely to an environment more nearly in tune with my ill-tuned mind. While surrounded by sane people my mental inferiority had been painfully apparent to me, as well as to others. Here a feeling of superiority easily asserted itself, for many of my associates were, to my mind, vastly inferior to myself. But this stimulus did not affect me at once. For several weeks I believed the institution to be peopled by detectives, feigning insanity. The government was still operating the "Third Degree," only on a grander scale. Nevertheless, I did soon come to the conclusion that the institution was what it professed to be -- still cherishing the idea, however, that certain patients and attaches were detectives, -- an idea which persisted until my period of depression came to an end. From June 11th, 1901, when I first arrived at this hospital, to August 30th, 1902, when the active and troublesome phase of my illness began, I was treated with consideration by doctors and attendants alike. Fortunately, in all hospitals for the insane, patients in a passive condition are pretty likely to receive kind treatment.


For a while after my arrival I again abandoned my new-found reading habit. But as I became accustomed to my surroundings I grew bolder and resumed my devotion to the newspapers and to such books as were at hand. There was a bookcase in the ward, filled with old numbers of standard English periodicals; among them: Westminster Review, Edinburgh Review, London Quarterly, and Blackwood's. There were also copies of Harper's, Scribner's and The Atlantic Monthly, dated a generation or more before my first reading days. Indeed, some of the reviews were over fifty years old. But I had to read their heavy contents or go without reading, for I would not yet ask even for a thing I desired. In the room of one of the patients were thirty or forty books belonging to him. Time and again I walked by his door and cast a longing glance at those books, which at first I had not the courage to ask for or to take. But during the summer, about the time I was getting desperate, I finally managed to summon enough courage to take books surreptitiously, and, I confess, it was usually while the owner of these books was attending the daily service in the chapel that his library became a circulating one.


Though this institution, unlike most institutions, had a library, presented and endowed by a person interested in the work that was being done there, that library, which was kept in an adjoining ward, afforded me no pleasure until I had become sane enough to ask for favors. Later investigation has convinced me that the libraries in existence in hospitals for the insane are not made the most of; for it frequently happens that those most desirous of reading are least likely to ask for books. Instead of being kept in one ward books should be distributed and re-distributed throughout the several wards. The slight chance of their being damaged or destroyed is more than offset by the good they may do.


The contents of the books I read made perhaps more of an impression on my memory than most books make on the minds of normal readers. To assure myself of the fact I have since re-read "The Scarlet Letter," and I recognize it as an old friend. The first part of the story, however, wherein Hawthorne describes his work as a Custom House official and portrays his literary personality, seems to have made scarcely any impression. This I attribute to my utter lack of literary interest at that time in writers and their methods. I then had no desire to write a book, or any thought of ever doing so. Not until the day I regained my reason, were my literary ambitions born.


Letters I looked upon with suspicion. I never read them at the time they were received. I would not even open them; but generally, after a week or sometimes a month, I would secretly open and read them -- forgeries of the detectives.


I still refused to speak, and exhibited physical activity only when the patients were taken out of doors. For hours I would sit reading books or papers, or apparently doing nothing. But my mind was in an active state and very sensitive. As the event proved, everything done or said within the range of my senses was making indelible impressions, though these at the time were frequently of such a character that I experienced great difficulty in trying to recall incidents which I thought I might find useful at the time of my appearance in court.


My ankles had not regained anything like their former strength. It hurt to walk. For months I continued to go flat-footed. I could not sustain my weight with heels lifted from the floor. In going down stairs I had to place my insteps on the edge of each step, or go one step at a time, like a child. Believing that the detectives were pampering me into prime condition, as a butcher fattens a beast for slaughter, I deliberately made myself out much weaker than I really was; and not a little of my inactivity was due to a desire to prolong my fairly comfortable existence, by deferring as long as possible the day of trial and conspicuous disgrace.

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