The Insanity Factor Part II

On April 8, Dan Waddell wrote an entry for the blog Murder is Everywhere regarding Bedlam,  the corruption of the name of the hospital, St Mary of Bethlehem, whose reputation was such that the conditions there led to that term so often used to describe chaos.  The treatment of the mentally ill is still a problem, no matter how sophisticated and developed the country.

As a comment to Dan’s post, I wrote the following about something that happened in Massachusetts over thirty years ago.  The inmates of Bridgewater State Hospital staged a variety show they called Titicut Follies. It was filmed and released after going through the court system.

Many of the mystery/suspense/thrillers that we enjoy, include the crimes and/or actions of those who are mentally unstable.  It is important that we be reminded now and again that mental illness is a terrible tragedy for those who suffer from it and for the families who live with the heartbreak.

Being a voracious reader of mysteries that are set in London, I knew the bare bones of the Bedlam history (no pun intended given the discovery). The tragedy is that, in many ways, the mentally ill are still not treated with dignity.In a cost cutting measure close to thirty years ago, it was decided that the mentally ill would do far better if they were living outside the walls, becoming part of the community at large. The patients who were given regular doses of medication appeared to be able to adjust to life outside; no one considered that when no longer supervised they would not take the medication. I prefer not to think that the policy makers did consider this possibility and didn’t care.

In 1967, Frederick Wiseman, an attorney turned documentary film maker, got permission from the superintendent of Bridgewater State Hospital to make a film documenting the conditions at the facility. He got permission from all those who were to be in the film, either from those patients who were capable of making the decision or from the superintendent who was their legal guardian.

Wiseman called the movie “Titicut Follies” after a variety show that had been put on by the inmates/patients. Titicut is a native American name for the nearby Taunton River. The synopsis, as stated on Wikipedia:

“Titicut Follies portrays the existence of occupants of Bridgewater, some of them catatonic, holed up in unlit cells, and only periodically washed. It also depicts inmates / patients required to strip naked publicly, force feeding, and indifference and bullying on the part of many of the institution’s staff.” This was in 1967 not 1357.

Now comes the interesting part of the story. Wiseman released the film in 1967. The state of Massachusetts stepped in and ordered all copies of the film destroyed. The movie languished in courts in Massachusetts although it was shown in Europe. In 1969, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the film could be shown to doctors, lawyers, judges and those who work with the mentally ill. The rest of us could not see it. The case went as far as the United States Supreme Court on the basis that the treatment of the patients violated their civil liberties but the court refused to hear the case.

Nearly twenty years later, families of some of the patients who died there sued the state. Four years later, in 1991, the film was released for the general public. The following year it was shown on public television. Stephen King could not come up with anything more horrifying than the conditions shown in the film.

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