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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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EARLY in March, 1903, having lived in a "violent ward" for nearly four months, I was transferred to another -- a ward quite as orderly as the best in the institution, though less attractively furnished. Here also I had a room to myself: in this instance, however, the room had not only a bed, but a chair and a wardrobe. With this elaborate equipment I was soon able to convert my room into a veritable studio. Whereas in the violent ward it had been necessary for me to hide my writing and drawing materials to prevent their loss, in my new abode I was able to conduct my literary and artistic operations without the annoyances which had been inevitable during the preceding months.


Soon after my transfer to this ward I was permitted to go out of doors and walk to the business section of the city -- two miles distant. But on these walks I was always accompanied by an attendant. To one who has never surrendered any part of his liberty such surveillance would no doubt seem irksome; yet, to me, after being so closely confined, the ever-present attendant seemed a companion rather than a guard. These excursions into the sane and free world were not only a great pleasure, they were almost a tonic. To rub elbows with normal men tends to restore the mental poise of one whose recovery is imminent. The casual passer-by, as a rule, does not distinguish patient from attendant, if, indeed, the identity of either is suspected. And the knowledge of this fact gives the patient a feeling of security which hastens a return of that self-confidence so essential to the success of one about to re-enter a world from which he has long been cut off.


It is to be regretted that those in authority at a state hospital are unable to send many patients on such little excursions as I have just mentioned. I know that the doctors would be glad to grant such privileges more freely if a sufficient number of attendants were available for the purpose. Few institutions are provided with an adequate force of attendants. Yet the States could well afford to employ men and women for no other purpose than that of acting as escort and guard for those patients whose recovery is only a question of time. Such treatment would surely shorten the period of convalescence, and the earlier discharge of the patient would offset the increased cost of treatment; for "it is an accepted postulate by specialists who have examined the question that every recovery from mental disease, no matter what the cost of obtaining it, is a saving to the State." (11) In every community, I believe, there are men and women who would be glad of the opportunity to perform such service -- for a few hours each day. One of these persons could be called in whenever a regular attendant could not be spared for the purpose. Especially would this scheme prove feasible in those institutions (and there are many such) situated near a college or university. The students would thus be able to make appreciable additions to their income during their term of study and, far above the financial gains, they would develop a richness of character which must come to him who helps to lift a burden from the sorely afflicted.

(11) See Dr. J. Montgomery Mosher's Fourth Annual Report of Pavilion F, Department for Mental Diseases at Albany Hospital (Albany, N. Y.).


My first trips to the city were made primarily for the purpose of supplying myself with writing and drawing materials. While enjoying these welcome tastes of liberty, on more than one occasion I surreptitiously mailed certain letters which I did not dare entrust to the doctor. Under ordinary circumstances such an act on the part of one enjoying a special privilege would be dishonorable. But the circumstances that then obtained were not ordinary. I was simply protecting myself against what I believed to be unjust and illegal confiscation of letters.


I therefore need not dilate on the reasons which made it necessary for me to smuggle, as it were, to the Governor of the State of which I was a ward, a letter of complaint and instruction. This letter was written shortly after my transfer from the violent ward. The abuses of that ward were still fresh in my mind, and the memory of distressing scenes was kept vivid by reports reaching me from friends who were still confined there. These private detectives of mine I talked with at the evening entertainments, or at church. From them I learned that brutality had become more common, if anything, since I had left the ward. Realizing that my crusade against the physical abuse of patients thus far had proved of no effect, I determined to go over the heads of the doctors and appeal to the ex-officio head of the institution, the Governor of the State.


On March 12th, 1903, I wrote a letter which so disturbed the Governor that he immediately set about an informal investigation of some of my charges. Despite its prolixity, its unconventional form and what, under other circumstances, would be stigmatized as almost diabolic impudence and familiarity, my letter, as he said months later when I conferred with him, "rang true." The writing of it was an easy matter; in fact, so easy, because of the pressure of truth under which I was laboring at the time, that it embodied a compelling spontaneity.

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