Spirits of anguish past and present are my companions as I tromp the carpet of dead leaves. At its peak, Metropolitan State Hospital, Massachusetts’ last and largest institution for mentally ill (built 1930), held 2,000 patients behind its Georgian Revival facades. Within: barred windows; hard tile; wards lined with metal frame beds. Easy to secure restraints.
The inhabitants of Metropolitan State Hospital, like its sister asylums, received inadequate care at best, cruel at worst. It closed in 1992, as the Commonwealth decentralized care of the mentally ill. It’s out of fashion to find any virtue in the way we locked up our crazies. Especially if you’re lucky enough to land in a cozy group home, where care is quite good. Less so, perhaps, if you’re among the throng of confused homeless loitering Mass and Cass, pressing against a cardboard lean-to to fend the winter wind.
Today, Metropolitan State’s extensive grounds are a nature preserve with meandering trails from Beaver Brook to the top of Mackerel Hill. The finest of the original structures have been transformed. A snazzy two-bedroom apartment, whose living/dining room used to house eight inpatient beds, rents for $2800 per month.
I wonder what ghosts inhabit those renovated wards; the spirits are keenly prescient along these open-air trails. In one ravine, the trail opens unto MetFern Cemetery, final resting places marked only by patient numbers plus a ‘C’ for Catholic or ‘P’ for Protestant. As the name implies, residents of both Metropolitan State and the neighboring Fernald School are buried here. Whatever improprieties were inflicted at Metropolitan were superseded at Fernald, a school for developmentally disabled boys used as a Eugenics testing ground. Conjure that gruesomeness.
Atop Mackerel Hill is an aging water tower. Dull grey and rust, except for the first six or eight feet from the base. Graffiti artists spray-paint angst on this psychotic ground. I ponder the images and words that can only be seen by those who trod the path; thick brush hides the color and doubt from cars passing by Trapelo Road. The sentiments might well reflect the mindset of previous residents; they don’t square with our mantras of healthy living. And yet each image draws a direct response from me. They resonate.
The gap between the formerly insane and the presently functioning may be small. Perhaps there is no gap at all.