A few years ago, someone left a pocket-sized photo album on my desk with an unsigned note stuck on the cover that said I “might know what to do with it.” Inside, glued one to a page, are twenty-four photographs of Essondale, the mental hospital in New Westminster, B.C., taken around the time that Essondale opened in 1913.
When I was a kid, Essondale and insane asylum were synonyms that when spoken aloud in a whisper or a hiss could elicit shivers of terror in the schoolyard. Essondale we knew to exist in a dark vortex beyond the city limits, where also could be found the penitentiary, and a place called Crease Clinic—where mental patients were subject to brain-creasing operations or, according to another theory, had grooves of varying depths cut into their brains by a tool like the router we were learning to use in Industrial Arts class.
I have seen Essondale only once in daylight, on an afternoon in 1973 or 1974, six decades after the pictures in the album were taken, when I drove out there with a couple of friends. We were intent on rescuing a poet who had been admitted to Essondale by legal process and was now scheduled for electroshock treatment. We went in through the big doors and past caged windows and down long hallways painted a hideous shade of green and through more locked doors into a big room full of sofas and tables and chairs through which clusters of inmates in various states of undress were drifting, gliding, sleepwalking and otherwise getting through their day: here seemed to be the pure expression of the institutional madhouse described by Ken Kesey in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a book that we had all read a few years earlier. The doctor was a fierce dark-eyed man who allowed only one civilian at a time into his locked office; one of us went in to negotiate a reprieve, but the doctor made it clear that both science and the law held sway over the unreason and soft-headedness exhibited by people like us. We went away after arranging with our friend (who was sleepy but quite desperate) to call us from the phone booth in the lobby when he was ready to walk out, and when his call came we returned in the evening and snatched him away. We got him into a “safe house” and began looking for a lawyer and a doctor who wouldn’t call the cops, and waiting for his meds to wear off, because we knew that without the meds things often became very difficult for our friend, and therefore difficult for those around him.
The cover of the photo album is imprinted with the letters H and M superimposed inside a golden circle—which (I have learned only recently) is to be read as the letter O, for when Essondale opened in 1913 it was called The Hospital of the Mind, an optimistic rubric for a positivist age. The album is evidently a souvenir prepared for politicians and senior staff (the men gathered on the front steps, perhaps) and is itself an optimistic document. In it we find the stored-up memories of ground-clearing, building and furnishing, and then the final touches: flowers on the table, the installation of telephones and shiny kitchen equipment; rows of beds aligned in large rooms, pristine under immaculate sheets not yet slept in. A man in a suit poses at a desk: is he the director? He too is optimistic as he learns to arrange himself for a bright future. All of the images in the album are addressed to that future.
There are no images of women in the album, and then we see that there are no patients either. For as always there can be no patients without women to tend them; the men are the ones doing all the big thinking. We too were men trying to do big thinking. Our friend the poet was not easy to be with; over the ensuing weeks we moved him from house to house (we expected the police to come for him at any time) and he wore out his welcome again and again. Our legal advice came from the law student who rented an office down the hall from our publishing operation and who supplied us with diet pills when we wanted to work all night. In the end we succeeded in having the electroshock treatments cancelled and in getting our friend the status of “voluntary” patient at Essondale. But we failed him by not learning how to help him ourselves. It was evident that Hospitals of the Mind are necessary places.
The fire escape at the end of our hall was occupied by a homeless security guard named Geoffrey, a man who never took off his uniform and who during the day would stand in the street staring into the sun. Geoffrey was harmless and kind; when he spoke it was in long monologues that we had grown accustomed to. One night during a violent episode in the office, our friend the poet threw a beer bottle through the window. When we had calmed him down and went to look at the damage, we could see Geoffrey below, crossing the parking lot. He had his mattress on his shoulder: he was running away.
Sometime in the sixties, Essondale was given a new name, Riverview, as if to disguise it as a golf course, suburb or graveyard; but the old hissing name never got unstuck from it. When Essondale as Riverview was closed for good, it had been a huge institution and many of its patients had been made to suffer the abuses of huge institutions. There was nothing to replace it, and many inmates of Essondale, including our friend the poet, became the first large homeless population (now some three or four thousand people) in Vancouver. These days the mayor has optimistic plans to reopen Essondale (as Riverview) and to get the homeless back in there and locked up safely in time for the Olympics.