The Anna Fragments

Category: 

Hybrid Poetry by Elisabeth Weiss

Winner of the 2015 Talking Writing Prize for Hybrid Poetry

 

"album80004" ©  Janel

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance?
— Theodore Roethke

I drive over the Queensboro Bridge and follow my GPS
until it lands in a spot I recognize:
a towering white-sepulchered building.
I pull to the curb and look up.
I remember her at the window, waving goodbye.
Anna in her flowered housedress.
Anna in her blue cardigan.
Anna’s clear stockings rolled down.
Anna and her long, white hair wound up in a bun.
Anna larger than life,
her profile like a proud Indian warrior.
Anna not giving in.

            None of us really knew her. How could we? We didn’t visit often. We couldn’t. My father hated driving on the Long Island Expressway on weekends because of the heavy traffic. After working as an attorney for the state all week, downtown at Broadway and Chambers, he was often irritable and stressed when requests were made for his free time. My mother, trapped by her own phobia of driving over bridges,
couldn’t or
wouldn’t drive off of Staten Island. She was particularly
afraid of the bridge’s outer edge.
“If you love me,” my mother often said when I was older and at the
wheel, "you will stay in the inner
lane.” And so I did.

            There were many
conversations we avoided
back then. In place of truth

KINOT 1
Reconstructing Anna

    Anna bows her head and studies her nails,
blackened, dried and cracked. How beautiful and
strong they were once. Since moving to New York
and leaving her family behind, the pushcarts and
crowds in the streets wore Anna down. She began
to panic in large buildings. Visiting the Flatiron,
then the tallest building in New York City, she had
to run out onto the street just to catch her breath.
In the Bronx butcher shop all the housewives
pushed around her, screaming in Yiddish, “a
shmalta chicken, a shmalta chicken,” and she was
horrified. “How incomprehensible,” she thought, “
and how uncivilized.” After all, she was American
born.

     The New York Anna desired was full of
glamor: Fifth Avenue’s satin gowns, pearls and
furs and pin-curl hair, ostrich plumes,
Prohibition’s speakeasies with the smoky,
shadowy gaslight and tin ceilings reflecting the
coppery warmth of an evening out without
responsibilities. Anna, trained as a stenographer,
first worked for Breittholz Brothers Furriers and
then became the wife of the blue-eyed brother
who was a travelling salesman. Paul joked and
charmed the customers south of the Grand
Concourse, all the way to the Everglades. He was
on the road for many weeks while Anna was left
alone. City life became a ritual of shared spaces:
the elevators, the Oriental-carpeted lobbies, and
the velvet chairs in long, dark hallways when it
all began to close in on her and fold her into the
box of an apartment they rented until she
couldn’t get out of bed.

 

 

there were arguments about
weather, traffic, and lack of free
time on the weekends, arguments
about everything except the true
culprit: madness. No one
mentioned it to us kids until we
were old enough to guess why our
grandmother had been locked up
in a hospital for almost a lifetime.
Though my mother rarely saw
her mother, who lived in Queens
in the Creedmoor State Institution,
she never stopped thinking about
her. She stiffly addressed her as
“Mother.” The formality of that
name hung awkwardly over their
visits, which were infrequent but,
on my mother’s part anyway, full
of love and respect.

From Wikipedia:

The thirty-five years beginning 1881 experienced the largest wave
of immigration to the United States ever…. [O]ver two million Jews
emigrated to America, more than a million of them to New York.

These immigrants tended to be young and relatively irreligious,
and were generally skilled—especially in the clothing industry,
which would soon dominate New York's economy. By the end
of the nineteenth century, Jews “dominated related fields such
as the fur trade."

The German Jews, who were often wealthy by this time, did not
much appreciate the eastern European arrivals, and moved to
uptown Manhattan en masse, away from the Lower East Side….

From Mosby’s Medical Dictionary:

postpartum depression
Etymology: L, post + partus +
deprimere, to press down


an abnormal psychiatric condition
that occurs after childbirth,
typically from 3 days to 6 weeks
after birth. It is characterized by
symptoms that range from mild
"postpartum blues" to an intense
suicidal depressive psychosis.
Severe postpartum depression
occurs approximately once in
every 2,000 to 3,000
pregnancies. The cause is not
proved; neurochemical and
psychologic influences have
been implicated. Approximately
one-third of patients are found
to have had some degree of
psychiatric abnormality predating
the pregnancy. The disorder
recurs in subsequent pregnancies
in 25% of cases. Some women
at risk for postpartum depression
may be identified during the
prenatal period: those who have
made no preparations for the
expected baby, expressed
unrealistic plans for postpartum
work or travel, or denied the
reality of the responsibilities of
parenthood. Depending on the
severity of the disorder,
psychoactive medication or
psychiatric hospitalization may
be necessary.

            My mother must have
felt powerless when she
badgered my father for rides to
Creedmoor. Only occasionally,
he relented. What follows is
Anna’s story, a woman
imprisoned and suppressed by
her circumstances. It begins on
October 1, 1927, one-and-a-half
years after my mother was born.
There was nothing in the
records to suggest that my
grandmother might have
suffered from postpartum
depression. There was no
research on it at the time. There
was no name for it, and there
was certainly no cure.

            Only one visit to
Creedmoor stands out in my
mind. Anna was allowed
outside. We sat on a park
bench together. I was wearing
sunglasses that were plastic and
dirty. I spit on the lens, and
Anna told me to never do that,
to only use soap and water and
wipe them clean with a soft
cloth or else they would scratch.
Why have I held onto this piece
of logical advice? It was the
only time I remember her
acknowledging me.

           The more I read about
state mental health hospitals in the
early 1900s, the more I learned that
they began with good
intentions.
There's this from the
Kingston Lounge blog about Brooklyn:

"Queens's Creedmoor State Hospital (now Creedmoor Psychiatric Center) had its humble beginnings as the farm colony for Brooklyn State Hospital…. A prevailing theme in the treatments of the period was that fresh air, a rustic environment, and

KINOT 2
Intake Creedmoor Division, Brooklyn State
Hospital 10/01/27

    Holding her cordovan lizard pocketbook against
her chest with an air of defiance and
defensiveness, Anna proceeds to answer the
questions in a small, pea-green painted office. She
sits erect, haughty, on a high-back chair, her
chestnut hair pulled into a swooping bun with a
tortoiseshell clip. She is serious, determined,
exasperated, waiting to get to the bottom of all
this.

    The transcriber sits to her right with a memo pad
and takes shorthand, transcribing every word.

How are you feeling today, Mrs. Breittholz?

Well, I feel a little bit more shaky than I did when I came
here.

Tell me why you came.

Why I came here. They told me they were sending me to
Central Islip for a rest. There was no way out of it. If I
resisted, I would be taken by force.

Who told you that?

The nurses.

Where?

In Bellevue Hospital.

     Anna shifts her weight and crosses her
nyloned legs. After the birth of her second
daughter, her calves seem to have grown excessive
and weighed down the flesh in her Spectator
pumps. The birth progressed rapidly so the baby
was born in the apartment, before Anna could
shake Paul awake in the early morning hours of
February 17th, 1926. Most women gave birth in
hospitals without their husbands, often given a
combination of morphine and scopolamine, which
acted as a painkiller. The drugs took away a
mother’s memory of the event as a whole, while
also taking away her self-control. Because of the
loss of control, women were often tied to beds for
not only their own safety but for the safety of the
hospital staff.  They made sure to use soft
materials like lamb’s wool that would not leave
marks on the arms and legs of these women so
their husbands wouldn’t question hospital
practices.

     Anna knew she was happy to be alone and
alert during childbirth. She wasn’t afraid. The baby
came more easily than her first daughter. She
reached down between her legs and guided the

From “The Unfinished
Promise of Willowbrook:
Twenty-Five Years of
Unnecessary Despair

for New Yorkers Living
with Mental Illnesses”
:

In 1965, U.S. Senator
Robert Kennedy visited
the now-infamous
Willowbrook School on
Staten Island, unannounced. Afterward, he declared
the “wards were less
comfortable and cheerful
than the  cage in which
we put animals in the zoo.”

shoulders out,
first the left and
then the right.
The baby was
bloody and slick
with white. But
nothing hurt.
Anna placed her
baby daughter,
with chord
uncut, on her
chest and
covered her
with a cloth
warmed from
the oven like a challah on a Friday night.
She sighed. The night was ceremonial, quiet.

 

 

From supportedbirth.com:

The battle for Twilight Sleep
symbolized the battle for
Women’s Rights.

This was the period when the
early feminists were demanding
the right to vote, serve in the
army, receive equal pay for equal
work, use birth control, form
women’s colleges, and end male
domination.

At the same time, the anti-
feminists were the wealthy,
well-connected women, who
called Feminist demands such
as equal pay, voting, and
especially birth control
“unnatural.” They were likely
afraid of their privileged lives
being derailed; they also held
an upper-class racism that
sought to out-reproduce the
immigrants and working class.
Removing the “torture” of
childbirth meant that upper-class,
better educated women
would have more babies.

The cause of Twilight Sleep
united them both. The prospect
of painless childbirth cut across
battle lines, uniting feminists and
anti-feminists in a shaky coalition.

hard work could help restore the faculties damaged by diseases like dementia praecox and hysteria.

"So it was that in 1912, Creedmoor unofficially opened with an initial populace of 32 patients deemed curable; the farmland was worked, which in turn meant less expense for the pantries of the local state hospitals. But the overcrowding typical of

dementia praecox
dementia prae·cox (prē'kŏks') n.
Schizophrenia. No longer in
technical use.

public mental hospitals in the first half of this century soon took hold at Creedmoor, which was granted status as an independent psychiatric hospital, and which grew exponentially—by the ‘50s, there were over 8,000 patients housed in over 50 buildings, including the high-rise hospital which is still in use.

"But with the advent of Thorazine and similar antipsychotic medications, and the trimming of state hospital budgets (especially under Reagan), deinstitutionalization occurred. The state hospitals were emptied, and large portions of most of the campuses fell into disuse. Creedmoor was no exception."

           Aiding the movement was the 1972 Geraldo Rivera expose of Willowbrook State School in Staten Island. He uncovered "a host of deplorable conditions, including

 

overcrowding, inadequate sanitary facilities, and physical and sexual abuse of residents by members of the school's staff," according to the Wikpedia entry on Willowbrook.

           My grandmother was finally
discharged from Creedmoor,
though she was resistant to any
attempts to place her in the
community and said she would
never leave the ward. Her release
precipitated my mother’s initial
breakdown, which coincidentally
had many eerie similarities to her
own mother’s psychotic delusions.

           How is madness inherited?
What are the fine lines that
connect us? A few years back, my
sister requested records from
Creedmoor, but there was a
problem. They would only be
released to the next of kin.
Since my mother was in an
eighteen-year bipolar phase at
the time, her sister Meriam signed
the papers. The documents came
to us. Concealed within was the
voice of my grandmother,
essentially silenced since 1926.
We have come to know her only
through these few transcribed
interviews and doctor’s reports.
We have her Oriental rugs. We
have her Limoges. But with her
records, her words return her to
us and give her a voice finally,
which is loud though fragmentary.

       *          *          *          *

With Anna gone, Paul sent the
girls to boarding school, then
camp, then boarding school. It
went on like this for years. My
mother, too young to attend
classes, drew pictures instead.
She played with the big boys,

who would tease her. Told she
could be in the school play, she 

KINOT 3
People Have Tongues and Can Speak and Say
Whatever They Like

I
Well, I have an apartment on the first floor
and those boys have been throwing cherry pits
into my windows again.
It certainly doesn’t make sense to clean the house and
it isn’t very pleasant to stay in the kitchen and
have things thrown in at you.

That morning I got up with an awfully funny feeling
that someone was choking me, and I said, “Oh, stop, stop!”
And then all my nails turned black.
Remember the nice nails I had, Dr. Smalley?

My mother’s fingernails
were thick and
healthy and
always long. She asked the
manicurist to leave nail
polish at the
little half moons above her cuticles.

When she held my hand, I
would bring her hand to my
mouth and bite her nails.
“Stop it,” she would exclaim.
Later, I would do it again.

And those boys throwing cherry pits into my windows,
do you think the mother put the children up to it to annoy me?
Well, the way she answered, one would think so.
I am certain about it, Dr. Smalley.
Those boys
played with wooden guns and shot rubber bands.
It’s the newest craze. The mother’s voice called: Come on, Stanley!

II
The windows were open and people looked in
and the housekeeping, I couldn’t keep up with it.
So, I folded my best clothes and linens into a trunk
and let the rest go.
I fell asleep with two stones in my hand.
The superintendent entered. What did he expect
to see?
I went down to the police station to complain
about the boys and the cherry pits
and the guns
and the mother
hollering, Come on, Stanley!
And I wound up in Central Islip for a rest.
Come on, Stanley!

 

 

wrote a letter to her father
asking for her favorite red shoes.
They never arrived. Years later,
she realized she had been too
young to write and instead sent
scribbles in an envelope. 

When she didn’t like the food at
Camp Achva, she asked her
sister to pick vegetables from
the garden. Her big sister
complied, then got into trouble.
The rest of their lives, she never
forgave my mother for anything.

So, housekeepers raised the girls.
There was the Hungarian. She
told Lydia to take out the garbage,
so my mother promptly opened
the window and threw it down
many stories to the street.

On a hot day in first grade, my
mother took off her underpants,
thinking it would cool her down.
She told her best friend, who in
turn told some of the boys. The
boys chased my mother all the
way home.

My mother slid on the rocks in
Crotona Park wearing a fur coat.
She ripped her pockets to
shreds. Paul’s oldest brother
reprimanded her, then repaired
her coat and made a matching
one for her doll. She left the
doll outside a public restroom
because she didn’t want it to
get dirty. When she returned,
the doll was gone. 

My mother was asked to share
a five-dollar bill won in a
Depression-era movie theater
raffle. She said, “Certainly, I’d
love to share this with my
darling sister” and proceeded
to rip the bill in two, giving her
sister half.

One day, three furrier brothers
left Poland. They left behind
their mother, another brother,
and two sisters. They arrived
in
a city so poor they had to
share
one suit. So, one
brother
worked in the day and
wore
the suit, and another
brother
worked in the night
and wore
the suit. The third
brother
stayed home.

There is another story. A letter
arrived, marked only with Paul’s
name, the word “furrier,” and
“New York City.” When he read
it, he cried. He said, “They
killed everyone in my town.”

There is another story. Paul
returned to Poland just once
and saw his mother again. An
enormous rock he remembered
from childhood became a small
one. How do we tell the story of
what we cannot see? Of what
we cannot know? Do we say,
“I ran to my mother, and I
sobbed, and she held me to her

 

KINOT 4
Ideas of Electricity

When the pinpricks began I knew it was
happening again.
My blood was being sucked out and something
foreign was being sucked in.
There are markings on my stockings to prove it,
look!
There are enemies here I cannot name.

My husband is not my husband.
An imposter is in his body.
He sneaks out at night,
confiscating the goods of other women.
His eyes follow me through cornfields where dust
storms
make the whole world dark for days.
Here in the hospital they shoot dope into me and
call me a dirty Jew.
The nurses have the audacity to wear my clothing,
cut up and resewn.
During the night they cut up and resew my body
too
with their long scissors and needles.
All the parts don’t fit together again
which is why I am so tired and cannot move.

like I was a child again?” Do
we tell our child, “I never saw

my mother or our house with
its matchstick roof or the shul
with the long pine bench of men
davening because everything
was obliterated and all that was
left was the rock?”

There is another story. Paul
wrote to Freud for advice
about Anna. Supposedly,
Freud wrote back explaining
that Anna was mentally ill
because she took college
courses. Right out of 1001
Nights in “The Ox and a
Donkey.” Sometimes, a father
cannot cure his child. Even
himself.

When Lydia’s sister turned
sixteen, Paul rented a hall
and bought her a floating
dress of crinoline to wear.
It was iridescent. When
my mother turned sixteen,
she and her girlfriends rode
their bikes, bought candy,
went back to her bedroom,
and ate it all while sitting
on the floor.

 

For these things I weep                                                                                     
                                                                                                           for I am in distress
    my innards burn                           
                                                          my heart is turned within me    
And my heart is faint                                                                                                                          
He dragged me from the path and mangled me and left me without help                                                                                   
They mock me in song all day long                                                                  
                                                                                      What can I say for you?
                       With what can I compare you, daughter?
To what can I liken you, that I might comfort you
?                                                                                                                  
I am in torment within
My heart is poured out on the ground                                              

 

                                

Watching my parents sitting in the
grass on a windy day eating an
avocado. Happiness like that. High
moments. They go round
and
round in me.

On parole, Anna packed the
girls for camp, but it proved too
fatiguing. She was left alone
with them and locked the eldest
out. She cooed to her infant
that she was her only real baby
and held her tight. Anna’s own
mother and sister once claimed
responsibility for her, but she was
always returned to Creedmoor
within months.

       *          *          *          *

If you saw the nervous flick of
my mother’s heavy eyelids, if
you saw her look away as you
were speaking, you’d know how
easily she could disappear, a
wispy vapor. What happened in
her beginning years inhabited
the thick air around her. It made
others nervous. Her intensity.
Her shiver. Made her care for
the neighbor’s kids as her own,
made her never raise her voice,
made her a shelter to the lost,
the vagrant, the disabled, the
palsied, the lonely.

My mother’s ashes inside a tin
inside a square cardboard box
inside my file drawer, waiting.
My father wanted her to be

From auschwitz.dk:

But the Chiger family miraculously
managed to escape the liquidation
of the ghetto by hiding in stench
and darkness in the sewage-filled
sewers of Lvov for 14 months amid
rats, filth, and the constant
pounding of rushing water. When
heavy rain fell, the water nearly
reached the ceiling of the sewer
and Krystyna and Pawelek's
parents had to hold their children
above the waterline so they could
breathe. They had to pick off each
day's lice and cope with dysentery. 

 KINOT 5
Lakewood and Other Pleasure Resorts

To the same hotel to which we have referred there is a
reading room where no one is permitted to utter a word.
To a man seeking refuge from the “strife of tongues,” such
a place is heaven on earth. No hotel gossip-monger can
reach him there. Not even his wife can talk to him.
                                    — ad for the Lakewood Resort, circa 1900

 

Steamship moguls and steel barons built
Georgian mansions
in the Gilded Age, in the pine belt of New Jersey
seven miles from the Atlantic.
I swim their pools with abandon and volley on
their courts
grace their lush gardens in my promenade
take tea in luxury in my mink and pearls
all the while my thoughts are a tilt a whirl, a
carnival ride, an exhibit at a dime museum. The
barker will call you in.
Who, after all, is more worthy of this quality and
charm
than I, a Jew, who has been sent for respite in the
country
far from the clamor of the raised El
and the glare of humanity?
Ordered by doctors to rest,
in this quiet paradise
where formerly only Christians were granted
permission,
I handle the teacups with dignity and grace;
fine china, the delicate weaves of Turkey carpet,
full-bodied wines.
I have a second sense, a third eye.
I feel the next world war brewing inside.
Is it not the plight of an outsider
to smell danger and go toward it
as much as one knew, back in Europe, the ghetto
boundaries
could be circumvented through the sewers?

 

 

with him. I met the shrouded
body in the driveway outside
the chapel. I opened the plain
pine box. The tin jammed, then
twisted open. A little wind blew
up, and bits of my mother flew
into the blueness of Fairview,
New Jersey.

I still cannot bear to throw the tin
of her away. What if there is one
ash, one remnant, one speck of
DNA? Some days, I want to lick
the remainder of her, finish the
whole of her, she who created
my body, who cradled my body,
who bled for me, she who sang
and rocked and spoon fed the
emptiness within her with all of us.

What is it like to grow up without
a mother? A tree
without leaves.
A withering.

Away, I become like you
An empty boat, floating,
adrift
                                                 —Tu Fu

       *          *          *          *

Paul gave up guardianship. He
annulled the marriage and
married Tanya. My mother
never accepted the replacement.
I have no idea how often she
visited Anna. She graduated,
became a bookkeeper for the
furriers, then worked in Greenwich
Village. She met my father on a
blind date in an Italian restaurant
up a few stairs. She had coffee.
He ate a full meal.

She later told him he was half
handsome. She was never
good at settling.

Paul moved to Florida, found
another wife. “Rose, if I forget
you,” he told this one, “may
my right hand wither.” Years later,
Paul found wandering the
streets, unsure of where home
was, taken to a nursing home,
asked, “If this is my home,
where is my key?”

 

 

I’ll take care of Daddy, and you
take Mother.

There was no dispute.

When New York State released
Anna to community care in
1975, she was placed in the
Vanderbilt Nursing Home in
Staten Island at my mother’s
request. Anna, dying of breast
cancer, refused surgery. She
said she'd lived long enough. 

My Mother’s Laughter

Her deep guttural laugh, head
thrown back, delight.
Openmouthed. Then the lilting,
at first ladylike. A tremor begins,
held a moment too long, a sound
emits, low howl. She catches
herself, regains control.

My mother began to slip.
Nervous. Suspicious. Trying
on guests’ glasses and shoes.
There was soap on everything.
She scrubbed and scrubbed.
Nothing came clean. She
followed groups of cars over
bridges. License plates meant
something. She visited
childhood friends, knocked on
their doors, and asked to see
their basements. No one was
allowed to sit on the floor



KINOT 6
Parole

In view of the fact that her husband is in comfortable circumstances
and can hire a maid to look after the patient, it is thought by the staff
that she could be on parole.

People move so slowly around me
Are they underwater?
Maybe I didn’t eat enough
of the right foods
or didn’t have enough to eat
or didn’t like the changes
I didn’t have a thought
Always gossiping you know how neighbors are
And the children, two rosebuds
Handed off to me
What was I to do with them?
People entered the house and spoiled things
And used all kinds of language
I was waiting for someone to say, Uh, she’s dusting
you
You know like when you’re sweeping, a little dust
will rise
When the cherries started to come out
When school let out, when the sun fell into the
cracks
When the children played outside again
When the windows were open
It all started again
I packed the children’s tiny pinafores and rompers
How could I have not?
When I said anything to him she said,
Stanley, come on now, don’t mind her

 

 

because there were spores. The
shades remained down all day.
People were looking in. The
plumbing began to leak.
Nothing was ever repaired.
Showers were short. There was
a bat on the curtain. The ceiling
was Scotch-taped. The kitchen
faucet exploded. Counters
cracked. She followed people
home from supermarkets. From
the back, they looked exactly
like someone she had loved.

Afterward, my father found
her wandering in Concord,
a neighborhood below our hill,
with a box of old clothing.
“Where are you going, Lydia?”
he asked. A Lincoln in the
drive. The door open. Keys
fallen on linoleum. The dark
hooves of my runaway heart.

In St Vincent’s Psychiatric Center,
my mother swore all the novels
in the day room were rewritten.
Because there’s one thing left
to do, and I won’t do it,
Elisabeth.

All this time, Anna was behind
her, breathing her breath.
Holding her. Anna the icon,
perfectly polished, placed on a
metal pedestal. Mother. The
harsh coldness of the word.

Two syllables. Gutteral. Anna
died in the summer of ‘76. Paul
came to the funeral. He wanted
to see her. Verboten in
Judaism. I was there when they
opened the casket. Her long
gray hair spilled out. “This is
not my Anna,” he told us. I
went off to college, leaving my
mother shaky, bereft.

After school, after grad school,
after a stable decade, after
we all left home, after she found
a dog wandering the streets
with a rope wound tightly around
his neck, after she stopped
smoking and then started, and
after we married and had
children of our own, she took
flight once more.

Her anger was a storm directed
at my father. She walked out
of everything. She ranted and
pushed. She threw gold teeth.
She would not sign documents,
taxes. She kicked him out,
piling furniture against her door.

And so the years went.  Search
and rescue. Dumbo Drop. Drive
and scoop. Boston to New York. 

 

KINOT 7
The Living Museum

Located in the grounds of Creedmoor Psychiatric Center,  the Living
Museum became a space where each participant could create art and
develop a sense of ownership and foster their inherent creative talents
in any sphere.

Look how the art studio
in the former dining hall
bursts at the seams with joy:
soup cauldrons
filled with mannequin legs
strait jackets hanging from rafters
like flags from countries you’ll never visit.

The world can’t offer sympathy
because most encounter
such disorders on subway platforms
and in movie theaters.
Those people, my kind, were put away.

When Freud came to us in 1919
with his Five Lectures, at Clark,
suddenly there was meaning everywhere:
in the slip of the tongue,
the dream, the shock.
Modern treatments followed:
lobotomies, chemical straitjackets.

They weren’t for me.
I was too old already,
for the idealism of Andre Breton,
Jean Dubuffet or Oppenheim.
Art Brut thrived when I could not, gentle daughters.
What good can art do except remind you
of all you cannot be?

From Bolek Greczynski,
founder of the Living
Museum:

In here, nous sommes
tous les indésireables

we are all undesirables—
but that is not our
problem but yours, the
spectator from outside.

I am trapped,
bruised, kept, shakier each year.
I am being erased.
The lunatic in me
doesn’t care.
I sign myself in.
I’ll never touch you again
or come near.
Brittle words of little use make an awkward flight
from my mouth and go to pieces,
two stones of my heart.

 

 

A Sunday phone conversation:
“Good thing you called
because your mother’s on
the floor and can’t get up.”
“Did you think of calling an
ambulance?” I asked.
“Nah, she’s fine. I got her
a bowl of cereal and a comb.”

To the ER and out. Refusal.
X-rays. Signing out against
medical advice. Crawling on
all fours from the taxi back into
the house.

When we were admitted, we
slept head to toe, until I shifted
the wires that measured
her vitals. In the early morning
hours, I sprawled onto a
makeshift bed between chairs.

In rehab, we got her back.

Ravenous, her loving us.

Released and returned. My
father was in charge of evening
pills. She tried to put them in
his mouth. They pushed.
Fought. She made her way to
my house. In her suitcase: one
bra, one pair of pajamas.

Dementia had set. We walked.
We had her hair done, her nails.
She followed me around the
house. She forgot what room
she lived in. She circled the
date. She forgot how to read.
She could no longer put
together parts of things. We
sang to her, her common refrain,
”Whatever will be, will be.”

From Wikipedia:

Female hysteria was a once-
common medical diagnosis, made
exclusively in women, which is
today no longer recognized by
medical authorities as a medical
disorder. Its diagnosis and
treatment were routine for many
hundreds of years in Western
Europe. Hysteria of both genders
was widely discussed in the
medical literature of the nineteenth
century. Women considered to
have it exhibited a wide array of
symptoms, including faintness,
nervousness, sexual desire,
insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness
in the abdomen, muscle spasm,
shortness of breath, irritability, loss
of appetite for food or sex, and a
"tendency to cause trouble." In
extreme cases, the woman
might be forced to enter an insane
asylum or to undergo surgical
hysterectomy.

KINOT 8
Diagnosis

The delusional formation, impatient.
Overproductive with ideas of reference
and persecution, egotistical, expansive,
poor judgment, impaired insight.
She insisted she was humiliated and insulted
for being among the other patients.
Sullen, suspicious. At first obedient, but later,
noisy and resistive.
She became hysterical and peevish.
Very opinionated. Not violent.

She sits by the window, shrugs her shoulders,
spreads out her hands.
She speaks freely with a somewhat affected and
airy manner.
Tidy and clean. She dresses well.
Delusions of persecution, of people molesting her, injuring her,
breaking into her house, gossiping about her
and passing remarks.
Auditory hallucinations, poor reasoning, childish
egotism.

Diagnosis: She has an obvious, undisclosed
desire to be free of her husband.

 

 

When she left, I wailed. I broke
open the source of my origin.
My connective tissues fractured,
my voice was a voice neither
sisters nor fathers could
understand. I held, then let go
of her hand.

For Anna

All those footsteps on the seashore.
The fishermen hauling their blue net in before dawn. You in the room upstairs, not sleeping.
 Who owns anything?
Anna, I am watching such a cold sea.

I cannot tell you.

Last year I thought I put you away but you kept reappearing,
falling out of my cupboards instead of sugar,
folding yourself into my linens until I thought for sure

I would weep myself mad.

Now I let you stay.

I feel your black breath
move across the table.
It is everywhere
in this house we share.
I make coffee enough for two

so used to nights like this:
listless, watching you unwind your hair. Why did you die all these years

and never tell me?

Fall 1976

When I was small, there was a
valley below. To the east was
the ocean. The far edge was
Sandy Hook, where my father
went deep-sea fishing, which
had something to do with the
long boots hung in the
washroom. And he was a giant,
and she was a giant, and they
inhabited the Earth long ago,
when animals crawled on
primordial bellies and ate
berries from their hands, and
pheasants flew from the deep
thicket of oak behind the
redwood house.

We are born without scars,
perfectly molded heaps plucked
from a coral bed of grief. We
are missing teeth and feel like
straw dolls in strong arms. We
are born and born again
through the years, and wind
whips through the walls as if
they were paper. Goodbye, water
sprites, you ragged and unruly,
you o husk of voice. Shush! Like
the angel who from womb to
womb teaches a baby the entire
Torah before it’s born, then
touches between the upper lip
and the nose so that all that was
learned is forgotten. Only the
slightest indentation that we
were here at all.

KINOT 9
Release

What happened to Anna was beyond her control.
Postpartum psychosis sometimes develops out
of postpartum depression or hits women who’ve
had previous psychiatric problems. Sometimes,
as in Anna’s case, it shows up out of the blue.
Psychiatrists aren’t sure what causes such a
sudden and powerful break with reality but they
know that changing hormones and the stress of
childbirth are involved.

Records for Anna between 1931 to 1966 do not exist.

On December 16, 1966, Anna’s status was changed
from “involuntary commitment” to “voluntary.”

In 1973, she was released, unwillingly, to the
Vanderbilt Nursing Home on Staten Island.
The records state: Obese, hypertensive, a mass
in left breast; she refuses all treatment.

Anna lived another two years.

Her husband stopped visiting her after Family
Picnic Day, 1931.

There were no other records of parole.

 

 

From E. Fuller Torrey:

Deinstitutionalization is the name given to the policy of moving severely mentally ill people out of large state institutions and then closing part or all of those institutions; it has been a major contributing factor to the mental illness crisis….

Deinstitutionalization began in 1955 with the widespread introduction of chlorpromazine, commonly known as Thorazine, the first effective antipsychotic medication, and received a major impetus 10 years later with the enactment of federal Medicaid and Medicare.

Deinstitutionalization has two parts: the moving of the severely mentally ill out of the state institutions, and the closing of part or all of those institutions… The magnitude of deinstitutionalization of the severely mentally ill qualifies it as one of the largest social experiments in American history.

Deinstitutionalization was largely a failure. Drugs were used as a panacea. Funding often didn’t reach the community level, and a percentage of the mentally ill became homeless or imprisioned.

 

 

 


Publishing Information

  • Theodore Roethke: Lines from “In a Dark Time,” The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (Doubleday, 1966).
  • Kinot 1 box: Excerpt from “History of the Jews in New York City,” Wikipedia, February 2016.
  • Kinot 2: How are you feeling today, Mrs. Breittholz? and other italicized lines are from the Creedmoor State Hospital patient records for Anna (author’s personal collection).
  • Kinot 2 left and right columns: Quote that begins "Queens's Creedmoor State had its humble beginnings" is from "Creedmoor State Hospital, Building 25" by Richard Nickel, The Kingston Lounge, March 31, 2008.
  • Kinot 2 first box: Definition is from Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, eighth edition (Elsevier, 2008).
  • Kinot 2 second box: Excerpt from “Twilight Sleep,” Supported Birth (supportedbirth.com) website.
  • Kinot 2 third box: Based on reference to “Dementia Praecox” in Oxford English Dictionary.
  • Kinot 2 fourth box: Excerpt from “The Unfinished Promise of Willowbrook: Twenty-Five Years of Unnecessary Despair
 for New Yorkers Living with Mental Illnesses
,” a policy paper by the Mental Health Association in New York State, 2002.
  • Kinot 2 and 3 columns: Quote about Rivera's expose is from "Willowbrook State School," Wikipedia, February 2016.
  • Kinot 3 box: Text by the author.
  • Kinot 4 Biblical passages: Excerpted and adapted from “Lamentations 1-2,” The Complete Jewish Bible on the Chabad.org website.
  • Kinot 5 Lakewood Resort ad: The author recorded this ad text while doing research for “The Anna Fragments,” but hasn’t been able to track down the original reference.
  • Kinot 5 left column: High moments. They go round and round in me. Lines are by Carl Sandburg from “High Moments” in The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg (Harcourt, 1970).
  • Kinot 5 right column: Lines by Tu Fu are from “Written on the Wall at Chang’s Hermitage,” translated by David Hinton, in The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, edited by Eliot Weinberger (New Directions, 2003).
  • Kinot 5 box: Excerpt from “A Miracle in the Sewers” about the Chiger family in the Lvov ghetto on the Holocaust (auschwitz.dk) website.
  • Kinot 6 opening: From the Creedmoor State Hospital patient records for Anna (author’s personal collection).
  • Kinot 6 box: Text by the author.
  • Kinot 7 opening and box: Excerpts from White Sale, Revolution Denied: From the Living Museum at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center by Bolek Greczynski, October 29-December 1, 1990, Amelie A. Wallace Gallery, State University of New York/College at Old Westbury (The Gallery, 1990).
  • Kinot 8: The italicized "Diagnosis" line is from the Creedmoor State Hospital patient records for Anna (author’s personal collection).
  • Kinot 8 first box: Excerpt from “Female Hysteria,” Wikipedia, February 2016.
  • Kinot 8 second box: “For Anna,” unpublished poem by the author, 1976.
  • Kinot 9 box: Excerpt from Out of the Shadows: Confronting America's Mental Illness Crisis by E. Fuller Torrey (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), reprinted on the PBS “Frontline” website under “Deinstitutionalization: A Psychiatric ‘Titanic.’” Italicized commentary by the author.

Art Information

 

Elisabeth WeissElisabeth Weiss teaches writing at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts. She’s taught poetry in preschools, prisons, and nursing homes, as well as to the intellectually disabled.

Her poems have appeared in many journals including London’s Poetry Review, Porch, Crazyhorse, Ibbetson Street Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Muddy River Poetry Review, and Paterson Literary Review. Her chapbook, The Caretaker’s Lament, was published by Finishing Line Press. For more information, visit Elisabeth Weiss's website.

On the hybrid nature of her piece, Weiss says:

'The Anna Fragments' began as a nine-part poem. It deals with how my grandmother’s life was shaped by her times. I added the preface as sidebar commentary and then added further definitions and explanations to enlarge and expand her story. The text resembles a page of the Talmud, which is how learned rabbis argued texts across centuries. Last summer at the Millay Colony in Austerlitz, New York, I completed the narrative by extending it to women in the following two generations. The combination of research, poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction mirrors Anna’s schizophrenic world, but I also hope it gives voice, in many different ways, to a woman who was silenced.

Comments

Powerful and searing. A

Powerful and searing. A gargantuan, beautiful, and creative telling, Elisabeth. Thank you. Anna's story continues to this day, renamed as Maternal Mental Illness; I know. My daughter Nora Elisabeth, a registered nurse, suffered it. She took the life of her handsome son, Leonidas, failed at her own suicide, and was sentenced to 25 years. At the sentencing, the judge called her evil. She now lives in an old prison with depressives, schizophrenics, paranoids, drug addicts, and women abandoned by their families. My grief moves at the speed of lava and reading your piece helped. Thank you again. Kathryn Gahl

I think we are just beginning

I think we are just beginning to grapple with the legacy of institutionalization -- and deinstitutionalization. This piece is a wonderful contribution to that grappling. I'm so glad I was able to read it.

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