When a dead man speaks people listen. There is just something compelling about a voice that reaches out to us from beyond the grave. I’m not referring to spooks here, but rather to mankind’s phenomenal ability to impress ourselves onto the fabric of this world even long after the physical self has departed.
When I set out to write my novel The Bird Box, I spent some time on the grounds and in the buildings of a former insane asylum. Although the physical location was beautiful it was best described as a melancholy beauty. The memory of the former patients lingered.
I began to wonder about them. Not as patients but as people. Who were they? Before and during their committal’s? I went to the Mental Health Archives in search of answers. I found none. Researching patient files was often heartbreaking. Not so much by what was written there, but by the lack thereof.
After the initial admittance notes there was very little new information. Staff were busy and it was not uncommon to have whole lives –40–50–60– years condensed down to a few brief notes. The brevity of it haunted me. Not that I blamed the staff. Their hands were more than full with practical matters. But still, it felt inhumane to me that whole lives had been pared down to a few paltry lines. I wanted to know who these people were. Above and beyond the narrow label of psychiatric patient.
I was soon to find out. Their voices began a torrent of stories into my mind. They demanded a place on my page. They had stories to tell; lives and loves, laughter and tears. They too had experienced great joys and devastating loss. They had suffered deeply as well and yet none of these things fully defined them.
Synchronistically, as I was writing their stories I was sent a link to Jon Crispin’s stunningly evocative photographs of the Willard Asylum Suitcases. Jon’s photographs visually dovetailed so perfectly with my written efforts to portray the person behind the label of psychiatric patient that I knew immediately I had to travel to the exhibit The Changing Face of What is Normal in San Francisco to further explore his work.
What followed was an astounding opportunity to speak with the dead. Or rather – listen. Displayed alongside some of Jon’s photographs were the original suitcases and their contents. Each suitcase, no matter how carefully or haphazardly it had been packed for that initial trip to the asylum, spoke volumes to me. Each one was a virtual time-capsule illuminating the individuality of its owner. Bibles and poetry books, family pictures, lotions, musical instruments, detailed diaries, loving letters. Objects as seemingly disparate from one another as mending kits and (in one case) a small hand-gun. Items that symbolically spoke of the desperate need to either mend or end the suffering.
Those committed to the care of an asylum were in some ways excommunicated from the rest of humanity. They were held in institutions where their sense of autonomy was met with resistance. Their personal mail was opened and relieved of any unsettling or dissenting content. Their objections were routinely overruled. Not only did they become powerless they became voiceless as well.
Obviously it was far easier to silence people back then in an age before today’s instant and ubiquitous technology. Problematic dissenters were easier to erase; sometimes permanently.
And sometimes not so permanently as evidenced with the Willard suitcases. The contents of the suitcases serve to form an intimate choir of ghostly voices. They speak of each person’s individuality. Of their uniqueness. Some of them give evidence of seemingly competent minds while others show an obviously distorted grip on reality. Mental illness can be frightening. Perhaps to no one more so than to the person caught within its shifting shadows.
I have listened to their stories and endeavored to capture the echo of their hearts and minds in my novel The Bird Box. These were people who contributed to the diversity of life. And their lives mattered.
Broken and abandoned by the world, Jakie lives out his days in the silent desperation of an insane asylum. One night he discovers a young woman chained beneath a tree. The doctor commits her to a cellar room in the over-crowded institution. A fierce, protective love blooming in his heart, Jakie realizes that in order to free the girl he must find a way back into the strength of his truest self. In doing so he will alter both of their worlds profoundly.
About the Author:
KJ Steele is an author who most decidedly does not color between the lines. She is drawn to unusual characters with twisted, dynamic stories that they insist she tell. She has one previously published novel No Story To Tell, and was a contributor to the anthology You Look Too Young To Be A Mom. She is currently writing the sequel to The Bird Box. A mother of three and grandmother of one, she loves nothing more than the laughter of family and long horse rides up the mountain behind her house where the still-chatter of nature enlivens forward many entertaining worlds looking for a page. Check this Website out.