MARY ELLEN MARK: “Ward 81″ (1979)

By Karen Folger Jacobs

At first glance, they could be almost any group of women in any institutional lounge or day room–college students, staff personnel, or patients in any medical hospital. But on closer examination, differences become apparent. Bodies slump just a shade more than you’ve ever seen bodies slump before. Flesh seems to respond more to gravity than to muscle and bone. Even the youngest and most slender of the women–and there are lots of young women here–have the beginnings of pot bellies. There’s a general impression of poor or missing teeth, of eyes that don’t focus properly, of clothes worn so sloppily they look like hand-me-downs from some undetermined era.

And then there are the scars. Nearly every body shows some sign of physical abuse. Some bodies are battlegrounds.

One body separates itself from the rest–a skinny teenager with a limp. She approaches quickly and, cupping her hand around her mouth, whispers a single word: “Help!”

She looks no more than fourteen, and she’s shaking. “I’m nervous and upset,” she explains. “I’m nervous and upset because I’m in this place. It’s driving me crazy!”

She smiles. Her name is Gloria, and she’s not fourteen but nineteen. She’s been on Ward 81 ever since what she calls her “accident.”

“I threw myself out of a fourth-floor window.”

Physically, she says, she’s never been the same since, and she’s scared she never will be. She’s afraid she may never be free of Ward 81.

“Most women, after they leave 81, they come back,” she says. “They’re institutionalized. They’ve been behind barred windows and bolted doors, in locked rooms too long.

“I hate the bars on the windows,” she sighs. “They’re there to keep people like me from jumping out. But I hate them anyway.”

The windows on Ward 81 are covered by lengths of steel diamond-grid wire mesh that looks like cyclone fencing. They’re not bars, but they serve the same purpose, and that’s what the women call them.

“Look!” a strong voice booms out. “A beautiful black crow just flew by this window. I love those birds when they come flying by and nestle in the trees. They’re so cute! But I’m gonna close the curtains. I don’t want to see the birds through bars. If I can’t be out in nature’s beauty, I don’t want to see it!

“You’re real lucky,” she continues, “’cause I’m gonna tell you all about Ward 81. You know, yesterday I wrote a poem about freedom. I was gonna read it to you. But I decided not to, ’cause freedom doesn’t have any meaning in a nut house!”

Her name is Mary, and everything about her is exaggerated–the heavy makeup, the strong perfume, the scarf that glitters on her head, the loud rapid-fire voice. She’s a natural performer, dominating her space on the ward. She came to Ward 81 two and a half years ago, after being in a fire of questionable origin.

Mary is in her mid-thirties, and this is not her first bout with a mental institution. That began more than a dozen years ago. Somewhere outside is a husband she can’t remember, and two teenage children she hasn’t seen for years.

“Hey, want to see pictures of me and my children?” She produces old snapshots of two small children being held by a woman. The woman’s head is cut out of all the photographs.

 

 

“Mother looks better that way,” she laughs. “Ward 81 is not a fun place. Someone might visit and say, ‘Hey, this place isn’t so bad.’ But try living for two and a half years with only woman company in a nut house!”

“Ward 81 is where I met Mary,” another voice says very softly, “so there’s a good side to everything.”

Grace is a gentle-looking girl, as soft as her voice, and so quiet as to be almost invisible. But wherever Mary is, Grace is sure to be close by. She’s in her early twenties and has been a patient on Ward 81 for about a year. She is an unmistakable leftover from the hippie days of the sixties. A great mane of dark hair adorns her head and frequently falls across her soft, vulnerable face. Mary patiently brushes it out of Grace’s eyes as she would a child’s.

“I love Mary because she’s so pretty,” Grace declares, “and because she’s a good and loyal friend. I trust her because she loves me, and because, well, she hugs me a lot.”

“No matter where you’re at,” says Mary, “if you have someone who loves you, you can get by. I’d hate to be on Ward 81 alone.”

The relationship between Mary and Grace is obvious to everyone on the ward. The aides, who spend more time on the ward than any other hospital personnel, including doctors and nurses, are not pleased by their closeness. They would like very much to separate the two. The other patients rarely bat an eye. But sometimes they’re a little surprised at the conversations between Mary and Grace.

“Grace is my tomcat,” Mary laughs, “though I think he’s trying to be a tiger. Right, Grace? See, I got me a good man now. I don’t have to do all the dirty work myself. If I need someone to help me, I just call on Grace and he’ll be right beside me.”

“Mary, when we get out of here,” Grace promises, “I’m gonna take you out to a steak dinner twice a week.”

“That’s acting like a man,” says Mary. “Grace has given me all his love. What more could a woman ask? Who else could I trust in a women’s ward?”

 

 

“You’re…a…guy! You’re not…a woman…You’re a guy!” The slow, deliberate words are aimed at Grace by a fierce woman with an intense face, Henrietta, the most feared and respected person on the ward. She is labeled “combative and strong” by the staff, and everyone who sets foot on 81 is warned about her. She has been known to slug people who make her angry. She keeps her distance from most of the patients, though, speaking to them very rarely. The sound of her voice is enough to turn tomcat Grace back into a timid pussycat, and even the indomitable Mary is unnerved enough to move herself and Grace away from Henrietta.

Henrietta looks different from the other women on Ward 81. She has a sense of dignity, something rare on the ward. Her nails are always polished, her mouth lipsticked to match. She primps in front of one mirror or another, adjusting her clothes, fussing with her hair, applying and reapplying lipstick. Henrietta is obsessed with trying to escape. She will lurk in her doorway hour after hour, all of her earthly possessions in a pillowcase, her eyes glued firmly on the security door of Ward 81–the only door on the ward that leads outside. Anyone entering or exiting by that door has got to keep an eye peeled for Henrietta’s surprisingly swift body. So far, she hasn’t escaped, though she’s commented to herself several times, “Nice try.”

The only other patient who repeatedly attempts to escape is Jane, an eighteen-year-old who spends most of her day either sleeping or scheming to get out. She is fresh-faced and lovely, but like most of the patients here, physically marred. One eye doesn’t quite focus, and in times of stress, it tends to cross.

According to Jane, she’s only here for 180 days of observation, but she’s not too sure of her release at the end of that time. But then, she’s not too sure why she’s here at all. “I guess my family had troubles,” she says vaguely. “They couldn’t handle me.”

Jane was a runaway, trying to be “somebody” and dropping a lot of acid along the way. “When I was thirteen,” she remembers, “the police took me away from home to foster homes, to see if I’d like them. I didn’t.” She wound up here on Ward 81.

Despite her troubles with the outside world, Jane wants nothing more than to reenter it, and as soon as possible. She petitions for release at any meeting assembled for any reason. She is one of the few patients who persist in using a lawyer to try to regain their freedom. Her dream is to get to California “with two guys on 83″–83 is a neighboring male security ward.

“One guy has five dollars, and the other has twenty-three hundred. That’ll make it for a motel.

“When we get there, I’ll try to get a job or something. I want to be a model–a model, or a secretary–’cause I like clothes–cords, jeans, outfits. Don’t have no money to get me clothes. Can I get a job if I didn’t finish high school? I don’t know if I finished or not.”

 

 

There’s a teacher who instructs several teenagers on Ward 81 during the week. The basics–reading, writing and arithmetic–are taught. Jane carries around a notebook in which she occasionally appears to be working out arithmetic problems, but she works for only a few minutes at a time. She sometimes reads MY WEEKLY READER, a periodical for primary-school children, but that again is only for a few minutes at a time. Her lack of fundamental skills would be shocking on the outside. But in here, it’s a condition she shares with most of the patients.

“If I could really be anything I wanted to be,” says Dixie, the youngest patient of them all, “I’d be a doctor and help people. But I don’t want to go back to school. The other kids make fun of me ’cause I don’t know how to read.”

Dixie is red-haired and spunky. Her body is marked from head to toe with scars.

“Today is my birthday,” she announces. “What a place to spend your fifteenth birthday!”

On this ward, nearly everything Dixie does meets with approval. She is everybody’s darling, and–provided you are not an aide or some goody-goody patient who plays up to the staff–you are likely to be her darling as well.

“Shock treatments this morning,” Dixie says. “You get them when you cut yourself. That’s when they gave them to me. Look at me! I’m all cut up!”

She unwinds a bandage around her leg to reveal a deep wound, not very old. “If you think that’s bad, look over here where I got shot by a bow and arrow,” she says, delivering up the rest of her body for viewing. “I was shot by a gun here, and I have brain damage from being in three bad wrecks and a fire. I broke all my ribs and my leg. My leg was cut off–almost. Wanna see?”

Many of Dixie’s wounds are self-inflicted. To use ward language, she “cuts” herself. This act is not unique on the ward. Many of the women are here because of self-destructive acts. Most patients injure themselves while on the ward.

“Come out and sing with me,” Dixie calls to Ellen.

“Don’t make much difference,” Ellen calls back. But it does to Dixie, who finally wins the shouting match with a threat to go in and get her. Into the TV room comes a frail woman who looks like an ancient little girl. Now in her forties, though she looks closer to sixty, Ellen has been institutionalized for thirty years, longer than any other patient on the ward.

Dixie sets the fragile woman on her lap, urging Ellen to sing her favorite song, “Three Blind Mice.”

“Blind?” says Ellen. “Almost blind. Don’t know what’s the matter with Ellen, anyway. Don’t know how old Ellen is. Gettin’ fat, too.”

Instead of “Three Blind Mice,” Ellen sings “Jesus Loves Me.”

“You’re cute, Ellen,” Dixie insists. “Isn’t she cute?”

“Cute, indeed,” comments Ellen. “Oh, my head! The shot machines (shock therapy machines)! Oh, the visions! I’m gonna be locked up for the rest of my life. Ward 81 is where I’m gonna be locked up forever.”

From the TV room, Henrietta watches with fascination as Ellen shuffles her way down the corridor to her room. Much that happens to Ellen fascinates her. Ten or fifteen years ago, Ellen contracted tuberculosis in the hospital. In order to keep her still, she was kept in “restraints,” kept strapped to her bed for three years. That, plus weekly shock treatments and medication four times a day have made Ellen a “dud”–a totally passive person. Ellen’s been confined for ten years longer than Henrietta. Henrietta fears she may become just like Ellen in another decade.

Once Ellen’s inside her room, Henrietta does not return to TV gazing with the rest of the women. She turns, instead, to a book. She is the only woman on the ward who reads. Her tight body relaxes as she lounges majestically across three pillows, book in hand, and she smiles when you ask her about her reading.

“Hello, hello, hello! I’m Henrietta and she loves to talk. I’m feeling cheery about everything you can think of–damsels and elephants and rhubarb. You’re pretty swell. You hit the spot with me.

“I like to read books, all kinds of books, any kind. Little kinds, big kinds, lovey-dovey stories. Kahlil Gibran, he says I love you all the way through, and I love you back. Lovey-dovey. Dovey-lovey.”

An aide announces that it’s time for medication, and the women slowly line up in front of the ward office to receive their prescribed drugs. Afterward, nearly all of them watch television.

“Ward 81 is Shangri-la, the only place to dedicate my life to living,” says Ann, darting up and glaring at a space above everyone’s head. Twenty-seven years old, Ann has a wilted, old lady’s body and an ageless face. She pauses a moment and then continues, still addressing thin air. “Nobody listens to me, not to one word out of my mouth. I’m never given a chance for anything, and I don’t like it. So I’m going to end myself. I did end myself.”

She’s right. Nobody listens to a word Ann says or pays attention to her at all. Yet all her speeches relate to something actually going on, and occasionally her words make sense. She talks to the walls, the windows, or a spot above your head. Ann wanders over to a window, clutches the steel wire grid that covers it and peers out.

“Finding the way out,” she says softly like a plea. “Finding the way out is all I have left. I’m crazy and they lost me in here.”

TV watching is definitely the main nonscheduled event on Ward 81. The set goes on shortly after wake-up at seven A.M., and is rarely turned off until well after bedtime at nine P.M. Between meals, meds (medication, which the patients receive four times a day), and quiet hours (three one-hour periods during which patients must remain in their rooms), most of the women can be found clutching a favorite ashtray, smoking nonstop and gazing at the set. There’s never much reaction to what they see there–but still they watch, almost in silence, speaking only to ask for a cigarette.

“I like TV ’cause there’s nothing else to do,” says Gloria. “I like violent shows. I like to see people get hurt because they’ve hurt me.”

Several of the women enjoy the TV commercials. They like knowing about the new products, even if they can’t go out and buy them.
The teenagers are interested in the clothes and in “keeping up.” The television set is their only ambassador from the outside world, their only contact with the rich, the powerful, the “bionic” and the free. But mostly TV is “fill,” something to do in a place where there’s very little to do.

Most of the women on 81 care very much about any and all outings that can take them off the ward and put them in touch with men. Time off the ward–time not measured by meds, mealtimes and quiet hours–even for a short while is precious. As the patients put it, the best time on Ward 81 is time off Ward 81.

And when the chance comes, they take it if they can–and with high hopes. Jane’s favorite activity on the 81 roster is “yarding.”

Yarding is held outdoors, on a rectangular sweep of grass enclosed by high cyclone fencing. Yarding happens whenever the aides decide it’s “appropriate.”

All patients permitted to go yarding on a particular day are called together to be counted. The group passes through Wards 82 and 83, where they meet their yarding partners. Some male patients carry things outdoors–such as blankets, guitars, radios, tape recorders.

Some of the male aides and some of the 83 patients play basketball. The female aides sit on benches. A “hand-holding-only” rule is in effect, but aides playing basketball or sitting on benches cannot observe all the action. The amount of hugging, caressing, fondling and forbidden kissing that goes on is amazing.

Jane returns from yarding and joyfully declares, “Yarding’s the most fun about this hospital. Go outside with guys and just fall in love!”

The other big event for a lot of the women–perhaps because it is the most regular and has an air of being the most formal–is “social hour.”

From seven to eight every Saturday night, four to eight 81 patients are permitted to attend social hour on Ward 83. Social hour is a dance with recorded music, topped with punch and cookies. It is, indeed, someplace to go and something to get dressed up for, and the women always attempt to look their best for social hour.

The women who aren’t permitted to go are usually locked in their rooms for this hour. The others are assembled at the door to 82, the ward they must pass through to get to their destination. “Okay, girls,” an aide warns, “now no talking to anybody on 82 on the way over. And appropriate behavior, otherwise you’ll be sent right back and miss the whole social.”

On 83, the two aides from 81 and the two from 83 sit together at a table, talking over the music. They rarely move except for excursions to enforce hand-holding-only.

The women of 81 dance every dance–whether they have partners or not. Most of them do. They pair off with the men they see regularly at yarding.

Ann comes alive at social hour. She dances to every record with her regular guy. Between dances, they talk constantly–or try to cuddle when the aides aren’t watching.

 

 

Mary is always surrounded by several admiring males, while Gloria settles down with one man. Grace plays the field, and so does Jane.

After about forty minutes, the female aides get up to make punch, which is served at 7:50. At eight, the party’s over.

Back on the ward, the other patients are let out of their rooms. Some want to know all about the dance. Ellen surprises everyone by showing a great interest in the dance. She’s never attended a ward social.

At nine, bedtime, Ellen doesn’t want to go to her room. When an aide tries to herd her inside, she yells, “Take a shotgun and shoot yourself, you fat bitch!”

The aide is very hurt. She doesn’t know what she’s done to deserve this. Only those who’ve seen Ellen’s two-step in the pool room, which houses the ward’s pool table and stereo, are beginning to realize that despite her frail body, she loves to dance.

Ellen is urged to disclose her secret. If she wants to go to a social and dance, she must let the aides know.

After several pep talks, Ellen decides to ask for permission. The aide is surprised. “But, Ellen,” she laughs, “you never go to social hour. You can’t even dance.”

“Yes, I can,” says Ellen. “I can tap-dance.” She does a few brush steps and stops, hands on hips, tongue rolling slightly.

The aide is amused. “All right,” she says, “you can go.”

The next Saturday belongs to Ellen. Whatever she wants, she gets–a bubble bath, help with her hair, a pair of earrings, help getting dressed. “This is so much fun! I’m so excited,” she repeats over and over again–when she isn’t singing about the dance.

“Hey, Ellen, did you ever go to a dance?” Dixie asks, pitching in to help with the elaborate preparations.

“One time–maybe two times–thirty years ago,” she says.

Finally, she is ready–bedecked, fragrant, looking like she’s never looked before.

At the social, the men are surprised to see her. They’ve seen her at yarding once in a while, but never like this. They compliment her on her appearance, are most taken with her makeup and earrings. She dances to every record.

On the way back to 81, she seems tired but delighted. “I’m so happy,” she says. “I thought
I was never going to have any fun anymore, just stay locked up forever.”

An hour later, Ellen and all the other patients are locked in their rooms for the night.

The women of Ward 81 do not hide their feelings about the problems that plague the ward. There are all sorts of complaints about lack of freedom, violations of patients’ rights, the horrors of meds and shock treatments, and the staff. But in the end, the talk always boils down to their confinement and the fact that most of the time the women of 81 have to live without men.

“I don’t think it’s right to separate men and women,” says Gloria, “not in any place they are. We have problems, real problems, that’s why we’re here. But that doesn’t mean we should be taken away from what’s human. Being with guys is what’s human for most women.

“Know what I wish?” she asks. “I wish some club would take over this hospital and put the men and women together. A motorcycle club!”

“Yeah! Bikers!” yells Dixie, jumping on an imaginary motorcycle and pretending to rev its engine. “I’m not the type to play with myself, but I’ll play with men! The worst thing about this place is that nobody can ever get it on here. We all need sex, some sex.”

“Seriously now, folks,” says Mary, addressing the whole ward in her best TV-hostess voice, “two and a half years in this joint without a husband is not the ‘funnest’ thing in the world for a girl. What do you think?”

“That’s right, Mary,” says Grace adoringly.

“I want a man to visit me–any man to visit me,” Ellen says.

“I need three thousand dollars,” says Jane.

“I need a raise,” an aide adds.

“Merce, merce! I need a hearse!” Dixie giggles loudly.

“I need a man. That’s all,” Henrietta says softly and slowly.

One day, while coming back from yarding through Ward 82, Mary notices some nude pinups on the walls of the men’s rooms. Some of these men were committed after raping and/or murdering women. The courts found them “sexually dangerous or not guilty by reason of insanity.” The idea of these men having nude pinups infuriates Mary.

 

 

“Some of you weirdos,” she yells, “I’m here to tell you that those dirty pictures you have on your wall are pictures of dead women. You wound us up, and then you murdered every single one of us.

“I’m talking to every man on the face of this earth. Do you know what kind of hell women have been through? I’ve done everything for you men. I’ve given birth to you. I’ve washed your diapers. I’ve cleaned up everything in the book for you. And you still want more! Well, you can’t have no more! Whatever you got in your crazy head or your trousers, just keep it. If you stick it in my face anymore, I’m gonna see that God Almighty comes down with a butcher knife and cuts it off! Go read your Bible!”

“Mary doesn’t need you anymore,” Grace adds in her tiny voice. “She has me.”

But Mary’s not so sure about that. Like most of the women on Ward 81, she does feel she’s been treated badly by men, or been physically hurt by them, but, “I kind of like to be with men more than with women. I’m a man’s woman,” she states, “rather than a woman’s woman.”

All the same, says Mary, she doesn’t put men up on a pedestal the way she used to when she was convinced that men were better than women.

“I’m beginning to feel I’m coming into things as a woman, as a human being. I like women now.”

“I like to be female,” Ann cuts in, “and I’m not crazy. But I don’t want to be called female. I’d really like to have a new name for woman. ‘Course I never met her, but I have read about her in people’s voices.”

Lack of men is not the only community problem on Ward 81–it’s just one frequently discussed. Sometimes an individual patient becomes the central problem, either because some action of hers affects the entire ward’s welfare, or because the entire ward has taken on her problem.

For example, one day Mary receives word that she’s finally been accepted into the rehabilitation program. She’s to report to the Rehabilitation Facility at 7:45 the next morning. She’s delighted, and everybody on the ward is delighted for her.

All evening she prepares–choosing clothes, laying them out. At breakfast, she’s dressed and raring to go.

“Mary, you’re not dressed appropriately,” an aide tells her.

“What’s the matter with me?” she wants to know.

“Take that junk off your head.”

Mary is wearing her sequined scarf. “It looks good,” she insists.

“It’s inappropriate,” the aide says. “I care how people from 81 look when they go off the ward.”

“Well, then, look in the mirror!” Mary yells.

A compromise is reached. Mary puts the scarf in her purse. She says she’ll put it on when she gets off the ward.

An hour later, she is back. The whole ward wants to know what happened.

“When I got there, they wanted me to cut a bunch of wires with pliers. But that wire-splicing job made my eyes burn. And they wouldn’t let me smoke or wear my head scarf. But the reason I quit–and I did quit–is that I can’t see myself sitting on a stool splicing wires all day. I figure I can do better than that. I could enjoy some kind of paper work or helping out in a kitchen.

“I really enjoyed walking over there and back without restraints,” she tells the others. “The air was fresh, and I could see nature without having bars or a fence around me. I talked to a cute little robin hopping along. But in a way it’s nice to come back. I missed Grace.”

Mary’s experience is a disappointment for the whole ward. The rehabilitation program might have led to a real job requiring real skills. A job could have been a stepping stone to being discharged, a way that a woman from 81 could survive in the outside world.

But the biggest community problem on Ward 81 is Dixie.

One day Dixie refuses to take her medication. “Thorazine tastes horrible,” she tells the aide, “and it makes you feel more depressed, tired, lazy. You wouldn’t take this poison if you tasted it. Why don’t you see how it makes you feel?”

“Dixie, take your medicine,” the aide insists.

“No, I don’t want it and I don’t need it. I didn’t do nothing wrong.”

“That doesn’t mean you don’t have to take it,” the aide argues. “You don’t want to go back into restraints, do you?”

Dixie is furious. “You guys think restraints is the answer for every fuckin’ thing! I’m not taking that poison! I’m not!”

“One last chance,” the aide offers.

Dixie counters with the one threat she knows can scare the aides. “Then I’ll cut myself out here. I’ll pull out all the stitches! I’ll cut myself worse!

“You bitch!” she howls at the aide. Two male aides grab her and drag her to her room. On the way she manages to injure herself. They padlock her to her bed where she continues to rip her flesh with the edges of the restraining straps.

The women are alarmed. Dixie is now severely injured. They fear for her.

The next day, Gloria approaches her. “I’m sick of you cutting yourself open, Dixie,” she says.

“I do it ’cause I don’t want to put pressure on anybody else,” Dixie protests. “I don’t want to bother anybody when I’m feelin’ bad, so I cut myself.”

“You do it ’cause you don’t care,” Gloria says.

“Yeah, and I wanna die! These new cuts on
my leg don’t bother me!”

But they bother Gloria. “It’s sickening. It just upsets me. There’s other ways to prove you’re brave, Dixie. But I don’t think you know another way. You need something to make you care, so you’ll stop messing with yourself.”

Dixie looks glum and doesn’t answer, but Gloria persists. “I know why you really do it. But I don’t want to say it. It might hurt your feelings.”

“Say it!” Dixie demands.

“You think you’re ugly–so ugly you want to make it worse. You think nobody thinks you’re pretty, but you really are. Your personality’s pretty–especially when you put on makeup … ”

“No,” Dixie howls. “People tell me I’m ugly. People do. And I’m fat. Look at my legs! I hate myself, so I cut me up!”

She is screaming. The alarmed aides quickly put her back into restraints. Moving any way she can, she continues digging at her wounds.

An aide phones for a doctor. The psychiatric resident comes in to examine Dixie. When the resident doctor leaves the room, she comments, “I can’t believe anyone would cut her own body that way. Why would anyone do that?”

Dixie keeps inflicting wounds on herself. She tears off chunks of her flesh and puts them in her mouth. Blood streams down her chin and neck.

She’s taken to a hospital emergency ward to be sewn together. “Kill me! Burn me! Murder me!” she screams on her way out.

During the next few days everyone thinks about Dixie.

“It was the most upsetting experience I’ve had in nineteen years of working at this hospital,” an aide says. “I didn’t sleep all night. I kept thinking of poor Dixie.”

Finally, the word comes that Dixie will recover. She’s resting in restraints. She will be back on Ward 81 in a few days.

When Dixie returns, she rarely leaves her room. She is still weak, and she’s being given three shock treatments a day.

Patients are not allowed to see other patients receive shock treatments. All the women are locked into their rooms while Dixie receives hers. Ellen is terrified.

“I’m frightened! I don’t want to get shot with a gun!” she yells. “I don’t like to get shot with that gun!”

“Ellen, it’s all right,” Gloria calls out from her room. “Calm down. It’s not for us. It’s for Dixie. We always get ours before breakfast, remember? They’ll let us out when they finish with Dixie.”

“Doctor, doctor, it’s not taking!” a nurse calls out in alarm from Dixie’s room.

“Yes, it is! Yes, it is!” screeches Dixie. “I feel it! I’m having a convulsion! Watch me!”

“I hear my friend Dixie yelling, and I love her,” Grace calls out from her own room. “Doctor, don’t give her no more shock treatments. Please help her, Sweet Jesus!”

“Help me, God!” Jane begs. “I can’t take it. I’m gonna freak out! God, give me restraints. Sweet Jesus, get me out of here!”

“There is no Jesus.” Ann says nervously. “I saw Jesus die today. He didn’t really die. But he left. He left no incandescent space. He predicted no human race. He was not America. He was not Miss America. He was not missed.

“Don’t worry about the Bible. The Bible is crazy. I have him in my locker, the Bible. He’s crazy, got it bad. Really got it BAD!”

Several days later, Dixie comes out of her room.

“What’s your name?” she asks everybody. “Hey, how do I get money? I want to send money to mother so she can buy a bus ticket to come up here. I like the black girl. Black people treat you better than white.”

“There’s city transit workers, but no Negro,” says Ann into the air. “The Negro is not. The Negro is not at all. And I’d like to say a word on my behalf for the sponsor of the electorial bill of concerned payment of all welfare. But I can’t think of it. I lost all my thinking and I can’t get it back. There’s no way for me to get it back.”

The pace of the ward returns to normal, and everybody goes about her business. Everything seems to be the same, but not quite as it was.

A week later, Mary receives word that she’s being transferred to an unlocked ward. The staff has decided to separate her from Grace.

“There’s only one thing that’s beautiful on 81,” she says. “It’s not the ward itself. It’s the love, the friendship, the unity of it all, the blessedness we share with each other. We’re patient with each other, waiting to be free together.

Epilogue

On a rainy day in April, thirty-six days after our arrival, Mary Ellen and I left Ward 81. It seemed so strange to see the world directly instead of through steel wire “bars,” and so odd not to hear the cries for meds and quiet hours that had regulated our days for five weeks. We could eat whenever we were hungry, and the mere act of stopping for a hamburger whenever we wanted to seemed an extraordinarily free thing to do.

But our happiness was tempered with sadness. We were glad to be leaving the confines of Ward 81, but sad to be leaving the women. Our leaving underlined the fact that we were merely playing at being on Ward 81. We were able to leave, an option 81 patients don’t have. We never had to undergo involuntary confinement, therapies, drugs or electroshock. But we did grow close to the women on 81.

To a degree we became like those women. One morning, two weeks after we had arrived, a giggling Dixie grabbed me by the elbow and dragged me over to a full-length mirror. “How come you’re dressing like one of us?” she wanted to know.

It was absolutely true! My uninterrupted days on 81–the endless hanging-out in front of the TV set had unraveled me. My hair was not combed very well, my clothes looked like fleamarket rejects, I smelled a bit–I seemed to have lost all semblance of tidiness. I was content to slump anywhere, to drift into a chair or couch and nod off in the direction of the TV set.

It had happened to Mary Ellen also. Somebody told her that if it weren’t for the camera around her neck, you couldn’t tell her from the patients.

We felt the degeneration of our own bodies and the erosion of our self-confidence. We were horrified at the thought of what we might become after a year or two of confinement and therapy on Ward 81.

It’s been three years since our stay on Ward 81, but I have followed the progress of these women we came to know so well.

Within months of our departure, Jane ran away from her family while on a weekend visit.

Gloria was transferred to an unlocked ward. She ran away from that ward. She was picked up by police in California and was hospitalized there.

Mary was transferred back to Ward 81.

Grace was released and moved to a group home. Months later, her skeleton was found in the woods in Oregon. She had been dead for six months.

Dixie finally succeeded in killing herself.

Henrietta, Ellen and Ann are still in a locked ward in the Oregon State Hospital.

The patients we knew as the women of Ward 81 are tattooed on our memories like graffiti. For the rest of our lives, we will dream about them and their confinement. Again and again we will be surprised to wake up in beds without straps or padlocks, surprised to be able to see out of windows free of wire barriers.

We identified with the fragility and the strength of these women we came to love, these adopted sisters of ours. They are the women we might have been, women we might one day become.

Postscript from Oregon State Hospital:

Ward 81 ceased to exist in November 1977 when it became the female segment of a coeducational treatment ward.

 

 


Ward 81.
Photography by Mary Ellen Mark; foreword by Milos Forman; text by Karen Folger Jacobs.
Damiani, 2008. 96 pp., 85 duotone illustrations., 13×9″.

 

 

 

 

 

 

www.maryellenmark.com

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