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A Young Mother Spirals Into Psychosis


Ardys Brevig Richards

A second daughter is born in 1948 to a young woman in the bluff-country of Minnesota. While the baby's father and grandmother eagerly await hospital discharge, the young mother spirals into psychosis. The Evil Incarnate child has come to mete out punishment for events that have long been buried, denied, ignored. The trauma is shared throughout the small ethnic, farming community. What hope can there be for a young woman, or anyone in the time before anti-psychotic medication? How could God have allowed such a tragic turn.
As the young mother's grasp on reality slips away, the baby's safety becomes paramount. Only one option is viable; emergency commitment to Rochester State Hospital. The mega-asylum houses thousands of patients that suffer with every sort of affliction including devastating physical disabilities, seizures, cognitive deficits, genetic disorders, and morphological anomalies. Some of them actually have psychiatric diagnoses. Perhaps the lucky ones are those that will not be chained to the wall. Perhaps they are those that do not have to endure the myriad of terrifying and painful treatments.
Thus begins hell for the family. They are offered no hope of return to home and few answers. She and hundreds of other patients of all ages and afflictions, physical, cognitive and psychiatric would be subjected to one terrifying and painful treatment after another with negligible prospects of returning home again. It is the hell of the enormous asylum, where many live out their days. Hidden away within enormous asylums, repositories for those without hope.

Book Excerpt or Article

Caroline November 18, 1948
The next time that witch, Sister Alva comes for me, I'll be ready. She's not going to put me in that tub again. I wake up earlier now to be fully awake when she comes in, just in case she tries a different trick to get me into the basement and into the tunnel.

I watch Lois having her grand mal seizure again just before dawn. The seizure looks just the same as it did yesterday and the day before that and every day since I've been here. It starts with the guttural groan, the clamp of her teeth and jaw rigid. Her head cranks hard to the right. Every vein in her neck straining. The eyes are open but unseeing. Her back is an arc over the sheets. She doesn't know that she is doing any of this, I am certain. She is someplace far away. I wonder if I might like it there.

I've taken to talking to her while she seizes. "Does it hurt a great deal, Lois?" I pause. I've also taken up chewing my nails.

"Will you try to remember later, Lois? Afterward, I mean, will you remember that I talked to you? Please? " Pause.

"Do you know the seizure's coming before it begins?" Pause. I am worrying away the cuticle on my left forefinger. It'll bleed soon, but I can't leave it alone.

"Is there anything inside you during the seizure? Or someone? Is it the Devil that's in there with you?" Pause. I think about the fact that I don't speak Ojibwe. Even if she could answer my questions, I wouldn't understand her answers. I sigh deeply.

Regardless of that, I have one more question. "Lois, I want to know. Is God in there?"

I look away then and when I look back, the seizure has ended. Drool slips from between her lips. She is spent. I know that she won't be awake for another two hours at least. This time when she wakes up, maybe she'll talk to me. I wish. Maybe she knows something important.

I sit between Estra and Ruthie at breakfast, as usual, while Lois sleeps off the grand mal. I hate my assigned place at the table. Estra is always too close to me, eyeing my food. Sometimes I sneak food to her plate as I ask her to slide over a little. If she doesn't want to move away though, it's no use. It's like trying to make a dead cow stand up and walk. If the nurse catches me, she scolds me.

"Caroline, that is your food. You are not to share it with Estra. She has her own food. If you are done eating, I'll take your plate away. Are you finished? Caroline? Answer me."

"Yes," I say. "May I leave the table now?"
"Are your two sisters finished with their meals? If they are not, then you will have to wait until all three of you are ready to leave the table, together." It's that condescending voice again.

Estra is done eating, Estra, the efficient eating machine. I can't look at Ruthie, but I know she has not finished eating. She's always the last to finish. Even when Lois eats with us at dinnertime or supper. Lois is clumsy with a spoon... and still it is Ruthie that's the last to finish. I can hear the sound of her mashing the over-cooked creamed cereal, occasionally lumpy, into her mouth and when the sound changes, it tells me that some of it has squeezed back out between her teeth and hare lip. I cannot bear the sound of her torturing her food any longer.

Then, instead of getting the eating over and done with, she talks to Dolly, as if that filthy rag doll will suddenly be gifted with speech. She asks, "Dolly, are you thtill hungry?" As usual, Dolly has nothing to say for herself. If she would answer Ruthie just once, I would be so thrilled. I would be so much happier to sit beside her. Maybe I could tolerate the sounds of her eating that are like a child trying to pull a boot from sticky mud. If only Dolly were a conversationalist.

At that moment, I have the best idea I've had in a while. Maybe ever! Dolly will talk to me. I feel twitchy. The fingers on both of my hands are tapping in rapid synchrony as my plate is removed. I will introduce myself to Dolly. Maybe I can get Ruthie to eat faster.

"Dolly," I begin, tilting my head in her direction without looking directly at her. "I notice that you are unusually quiet today. Is something bothering you?" Silence. Of course. Ruthie stops with the smacking, squishing sounds that go with her eating and I can tell she is looking at me. She moves Dolly over to her other arm, farther away from me.

"Oh, is that so?" I say, sympathetically to Dolly. "Well, I am sorry to hear that. It's very unpleasant to be under the weather, isn't it? And to be in need of a good, hot bath as well. Have you had one recently?" I allow a reasonable interlude before continuing. Nodding my head, I try to look thoughtful, carefully considering her situation.

"No? Well, I am not surprised to hear it. I hope I do not offend you by saying that your face is quite dirty. Yes, quite dirty indeed." From the corner of my eye, I glean that Ruthie's mouth is hanging open. That can only make the sight of her eating even worse than before, were I to take a good, hard look, which I do not intend to do.

Ruthie finally speaks. "Thee'th not talking to you."

"Oh, Ruthie. But she does talk to me. If it weren't for her, I would have no one to talk to at the table. Well, Estra talks to me of course, but I find Dolly's thoughts to be so... refreshing! How good of you to bring her to the table with you so that we can talk."

"Thee'th not talking to you. Thee only talkth to me." Ruthie spits when she talks.

"I am sorry, Ruthie, but I have to disagree. She was telling me just last night at supper how boring it is for her to sit at the table while you eat. What did you say, Dolly?" I cup my hand by my ear so that I can "hear" Dolly better.
"I am sure that you do know Ruthie better than anyone else. And if she says that she can't eat without you here at the table with us, well... I guess that's the way it has to be. It's too bad it's become so dull and tedious for you. Some things a person just has to endure, don't they?"

"You thtop talking to Dolly right now!" Bits of masticated food spray my left shoulder. I pretend to not notice. "Thee doethn't wanna talk to you. Thee thayth you're boring. THUT UP." Ruthie's voice is loud, shrill.

"Excuse me, but I can't help it if she wants to talk to me. It would be rude of me not to answer." I put on my most sincere face while looking across the room. Two of the nurses in white are hurrying over and one signals to the male attendant to come as well.

Ruthie puts Dolly behind her on a chair. "Thtop it right now. Thut up!" Ruthie screams. She stands up, knocking her chair over as she does. I ignore her growing tantrum.

"Ruthie, what seems to be the problem here?" Sister Alva is closing in. She has a knack for being first on the scene for any brouhaha. The air is charged with tension as I slide away.

Ruthie strikes. She hammers food encrusted fists onto my head and torso. It's all I can do to keep from responding in kind. I put my arms up over my head and take only a few punches before Ruthie is restrained by the male attendant who surprises her from behind.

"Thee'th talking to Dolly. Thee'th not thuppothed to. Dolly would never thay bad thtuff about me. Thee'th lying. LIAR! LEAVE MY DOLLY ALONE!" She is removed by the attendant.

Bertha, across the table is rocking as usual. She gives a look toward Estra with one eye that focuses on her and then the eye rolls in its' socket. I resume eating, in peace.

Estra can talk all she likes. At least there are none of those squishing, sucking sounds of food squeezing in and out between her teeth. Whatever gets past Estra's lips is swallowed immediately.

I should feel guilty, rather than pleased. But I am pleased that I've learned how to handle something so annoying. "You're smiling. Why you smiling?" Estra asks me. "Is it something funny? Is it a joke? A joke? Will I like it?"

I pat her hand on the table. "No, I'm just thinking about how quiet it is at the breakfast table now. Quieter than usual, I mean. I like it this way."

"Hmmm." Estra looks puzzled. Then she grins at me, which makes her round cheeks expand even more. She reminds me of a chipmunk with cheeks stuffed full of nuts. "I know why. Dolly's not talking to you." Estra laughs and laughs. "She's not talking." She covers her mouth with her short stubby fingers and laughs even harder. Then she licks her fingers.

After breakfast, Estra and I and several others are herded to the Grand Hall. "Why do they call it a grand hall," I ask her on the way. "There's nothing grand about it."
She shrugs. "Maybe it's the staircase. Going up through the ceiling? Must be the staircase. Uh huh. Bet that's it. The staircase."

"But the stairs that go down underneath the staircase. Down into the tunnels? Those are the opposite of grand. What if we were down there and Alva turned the lights off in the tunnels? We'd be in a black hole." I lean toward her to whisper the question.

"Why would Alva do that?" Estra shrinks from me. Her eyebrows rise nearly to her hairline, which to be quite frank, isn't all that far. Estra has a low forehead. Or maybe it's just that her face is exceptionally wide? Whatever. She's not bothered by it. I should probably try not to worry about it either.

"I wouldn't put it past her," I whisper back to her. "I think she enjoys frightening me."

In another minute, I hear. "Well, why will one wicked witch wanna watch women wail?" Estra grins at me and says it again. "Well, why will one wicked witch wanna watch women wail?" She likes the "w" words. There's a question mark on her face, waiting for my response.

I give it to her. "Yes, that's another example of alliteration. Good for you. But I'm serious. Alva hates me. I can feel it right here, over my eyes." I rub my forehead. Trying not to think about Estra's limited forehead. "I wouldn't be surprised if Alva was the murderer Ronnie found to kill her in the garden."

Estra's eyes go wide and there are those eyebrows reaching for the hairline again.

Most days I'm assigned to one of the work buildings for a part of the day. There are many of them, big and small scattered across the grounds behind the five halls. The ones that I know the best are the Crafts shop, the animal barns and a trio of buildings called the Three Sisters. That's where the sewing takes place. We repair torn clothing and holes in the bedsheets. One of the Three Sisters is the Rag Shop. There, mountains of rags are turned into rag rugs, rag potholders and patchwork quilts. Some are actually pretty. The best thing about being assigned to the Rag Shop, though, is that Sister Alva doesn't go there.

The Grand Hall is an open area without furniture of any kind. It's in the middle of Oak Hall between the East Wing and the West Wing. It's where the building "bends" to mimic the circular drive out front. The other four brick behemoths do the same.

When we reach the Grand Hall, Estra and I are assigned to fold the laundry from one of the huge laundry bins on wheels. Estra can't reach over the top so I have to pluck everything out of the bin for us to fold. While we work, I hear her mumble. She's trying to come up with another alliteration. It keeps her busy so I can think.

Alva could be the murderer. She looks the part. If I had to pick one person out of a crowd to be a murderer, I'd pick her. She doesn't smile and she shouldn't bother. Smiling doesn't suit her. Her eyes are steely holes beneath eyebrows that are two long caterpillars creeping across her head. She has dark hair sprouting on her chin and a little on her upper lip, too. I do worry about her. Is she actually a man? Hiding in a white dress? She has breasts but, really, how hard would it be to stuff the front of her dress with something? Maybe they're rags from the Rag Shop?...

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Ardys Brevig Richards was born in 1956 and grew up in the Driftless Area of southeastern Minnesota. It was the site of the first Norwegian settlement in the State and was ultimately named Spring Grove. She milked Brown Swiss cows on the family dairy farm along with her six older siblings and was one of eleven students to attend the last of the one-room country schoolhouses in the state. She played drums in a rock 'n roll band throughout her undergraduate college years. She graduated from Rutgers–The State University of New Jersey in 1982 with a Master's in Social Work after which she returned to Minnesota to work. She sang in three musicals including Oklahoma where she played "a delightful Ado Annie" per the La Crosse and Winona newspaper reviews. Her love of singing led her to sing in a contemporary Christian band for a time, followed by solo work at weddings and random events. Ardys worked for thirty-two years as a licensed independent clinical social worker: Decorah in Iowa, Menomonie in Wisconsin and the cities of Mankato, St. Paul and Duluth in Minnesota. Her areas of experience include mental health, child protection, and medical social work with families raising children with disabilities such as intractable epilepsy. Her expertise was in rehabilitation with children and adults with neurological injuries. She retired in 2015 to accompany her husband in sailing the Atlantic for four plus years on Northern Star, a 43 foot sailboat. She and her husband of twenty-one years have four children between them. Ardys and her husband now make their home in Memphis, Tennessee.

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