Allen Ginsberg at Rockland State Hospital
by Ted Chabasinski on Thursday, December 30, 2010
I have always been aware that Allen Ginsberg had been an inmate at Rockland State Hospital. Recently, after reading “Howl,” I realized that he and I had been at Rockland at the same time, he as a young man, myself as a child. So I thought I would Google him, and find out more details about his stint at Rockland. First I went to the Wikipedia article, and was shocked to find out they didn’t talk about it at all. They talked about his mother, who, like my mother, was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, and locked up multiple times, including Rockland and Pilgrim State Hospital, where she and my mother both died.
They talked about his friend Carl Solomon, who was also incarcerated at Rockland. They talked about a lot of things, but they would not say, basically, that this great poet was once an inmate at a state mental institution. Ginsberg himself made no secret of it, and certainly the imagery throughout his great poem makes it clear how much he was influenced by his connection with the mental illness system.
I went through a whole bunch of other articles about Ginsberg, and found this same blackout about the fact that he was a psych survivor.
Why is this? It is because, I think, that the writers of these articles think it would demean Ginsberg’s memory for the world to know that he was a psych survivor, just like me and many of the people reading this.
Usually, what is much more common is for us to be treated as non-persons unable to speak for ourselves and left out of the ongoing discussion of social issues, especially about “mental health.” That could certainly not be said of Ginsberg, so instead an important part of his identity is almost erased from history, by well-meaning (perhaps) liberals who don’t want to deal with the reality of so many gifted and talented and famous and unknown people who have been put through the meat grinder of institutional psychiatry.
And what does this mean to us, the victims of this evil system? It means that the stereotypes about us are perpetuated, that we are robbed of the heroes we could be proud of, that the public continues to think of us as weird creatures who wander the streets talking to themselves, who should be rounded up and drugged and stripped of our human rights.
I am writing an article,”Are Mental Patients Really Human?” that will deal with the attitudes I have just described. It is subtitled “The Genteel Bigotry of the Liberal Establishment.” No, hardly anyone would dare to call us “mental cases” or “nut jobs” in the polite company of those who like to think of themselves as enlightened. Instead, we are portrayed as somehow non-persons. And if, as in the case of Allen Ginsberg, we cannot be portrayed as non-persons, then it is denied that we are psych survivors.
I want to urge all of you reading this, whether psych survivors or sincere allies, to think about this. Whether it is overt and crude, or subtle and somewhat hidden, bigotry is bigotry. We need to recognize this and speak out against it, everywhere and in every way we can. Else people with psychiatric histories will continue to be, either forced to be silent about their experience, or treated as subhumans.
Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland
where you’re madder than I am…
where fifty more shocks will never return your
soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a
cross in the void…
I’m with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-
journey on the highway across America in tears
to the door of my cottage in the Western night
–Allen Ginsberg, “Howl” (1956)