Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: Visits from Dignitaries and News from the Outside

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
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During my visits with Dorothy, I knew that since she had been at Partlow State School from 1941 to 1975 many significant events had occurred during her institutionalization. I wondered how much she had been aware of, and how she had experienced those events while living in an institution. I was able to get her to talk a little bit about World War II. In the course of our discussions she also mentioned one change that demonstrated how the  Civil Rights movement had impacted life Partlow.  As she had described the layout of the Partlow campus, Dorothy  told me about the "C Building" which was where all of the "colored" residents were placed. She also mentioned  that later on, the "C Building" was done away with and everyone, black and white, was housed within the same buildings, indicating that that was quite a change for everyone involved. Here are some of her verbatim recollections:

"I remember George Wallace and Lurleen Wallace coming out, and I met them for the first time. I was down on Ward 1 and 2 then. I had been there quite a good while when I met them."

*     *     *

"I was at Partlow when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I remember it was Sunday, December 7, 1941. We heard about it on the radio. Back then we used to lay in our beds and talk at night and we didn’t even realize there was any danger. We didn’t know about planes that could fly over and drop bombs. Later on, I grew up and then I knew what danger was. Back during WWII I kept thinking, “We’ll win the war, they won’t outwit us.” Some of them said, how do you know, I said, “I just know we will.” Finally we went on and on and we did win. I remember when we heard the war was over, we were all in the sitting room and we were all jumping up and down and cheering. They said, “The war is over, the Japs and Germans have surrendered.”  I remember President Roosevelt sent a big ol’ cake to Partlow after we learned the war was over."

*    *    *

"I had to have somebody to teach me about danger. I learned, it took me a long time to learn, but I had a teacher who would tell me. I really learned more about danger when I moved out from Partlow."

As we would talk during future visits, Dorothy would share some of her experiences living on her own in the community that were probably some of the events in which she "learned more about danger." Those stories will be shared later, all in good time, as we hear more from Dorothy about how her life unfolds after institutionalization. 

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Monday Music: The Traveling Wilburys

End of the Line

What an amazing group, theses guys who came together to create The Traveling Wilburys: Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne (With Jim Keltner on the drums). They had such an exuberant sound and the idea of so much talent in one room is exciting in itself! Here is a video of a rollicking upbeat number, "End of the Line." When I first saw this one, I was wondering where Roy Orbison was, then I quickly realized that the video was shot after Orbison's death. When his solo come in, you'll see his photograph on the table and an empty chair with a guitar in it - I thought that was a beautiful touch.

Friday, October 26, 2012

My Season with Dante

By Charles Kinnaird

Just as a dolphin having been held captive in some murky inland pond might have an expansion of his senses when released into the warm open gulf, seeing reefs of bright coral, schools of colorful fish, and waves of sea grasses in the ocean-filtered sunlight; so was my plunge into the world of Dante Alighieri this past summer. 

The impetus for my glad baptism into Dante’s The Divine Comedy was a class that was offered at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Birmingham, Alabama. In the class, led by Daniel McCormick, Director of Religious Education, we would watch “Dante in Translation” with Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta  online via Open Yale Courses on You Tube. We would then spend some time in discussion, which was always interesting.  The class met weekly for ten weeks, and only covered Inferno.  The first time I read Dante was in high school, and there again, all we read was Inferno. I was delighted to have the opportunity for literary discussion and I became motivated to delve further into this classic work of literature. I did two things that greatly increased my appreciation for Dante. One, I found an audiobook version of The Divine Comedy in the public library.  Two, I listened to the entire work, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Unlike in high school, this time I was not going through Hell for nothing. I wanted to keep on moving to find out what else lay in store.

Don’t Get Bogged Down in the Details

For all who might be considering reading The Divine Comedy, I would highly recommend listening to it first.  I think you will get more from the listening than from the reading. First of all, I believe poetry was meant to be heard. It is an oral and aural art form. Second, it is easy to get bogged down in details when you try to read Dante. I found that when I read the work, I was constantly stopping to read footnotes to try to understand who this or that person was, or what was intended by certain historical or mythological references. I found that when I relaxed and just listened, the whole experience was one of fascination and wonder. I might have understood about half of the incidental context and personal figures referred to by Dante, but the gist and meaning of the work was readily accessible.  By not trying to stop and figure out every detail, I was able to experience the flow and the rhythm of the tale and to hear the beauty and wonder of the words.

I should also note that since I have no proficiency in Italian, I did not experience "pure" Dante. What I listened to was, of course, an English translation. Knowing my experience of Dante may be "once removed," I am still grateful for the skill and the talents of translators who have brought Dante's world to life in my own native language.

Painting Vivid Pictures in the Mind

                                                         “Dante’s is a visual imagination”
                              ~ T.S. Eliot

I have often said that poets are natural at analogy because everything in the world reminds them of something else. Dante was an absolute master at the art of analogy. He constantly weaves vivid images for his reader/listener.  By painting a picture in words of some scene readily accessible to the reader, the Florentine poet in essence says, If you can imagine this, then you can get an idea of that.  Consider this analogy in Paradiso, Canto 23 when describing Beatrice as she looks toward Heaven:

As does the bird, among beloved branches,
when, through the night that hides things from us, she
has rested near the nest of her sweet fledglings
and, on an open branch, anticipates
the time when she can see their longed-for faces
and find the food with which to feed them-chore
that pleases her, however hard her labors-
as she awaits the sun with warm affection,
steadfastly watching for the dawn to break:

so did my lady stand, erect, intent,
turned toward that part of heaven under which
the sun is given to less haste; so that,
as I saw her in longing and suspense,
I grew to be as one who, while he wants
what is not his, is satisfied with hope.

By the time the poet mentions his lady Beatrice, I had in my mind that scene of the bird, soft and earnest with a piercing gaze through the branches and toward daybreak. And it was not only the facial image; it was also that maternal instinct of diligent nurturing and caring. All of this transferred immediately in my mind to allow me a clear view of that human/celestial lady who was Dante’s guide from Purgatory through Paradise.

In Purgatory, Dante and Statius Sleeping
while Virgil Keeps Watch
(William Blake)

In Purgatorio, Canto 3, the departed souls are astounded to see that Dante casts a shadow in the sunlight, something they are not accustomed to seeing among souls in Purgatory. Dante doesn’t just say they stopped in their tracks, he provides a picture of what such a scene would look like:

Even as sheep that move, first one, then two,
then three, out of the fold-the others also
stand, eyes and muzzles lowered, timidly;
and what the first sheep does, the others do,
and if it halts, they huddle close behind,
simple and quiet and not knowing why:

so, then, I saw those spirits in the front
of that flock favored by good fortune move-
their looks were modest; seemly, slow, their walk.
As soon as these souls saw, upon my right,
along the ground, a gap in the sun's light,
where shadow stretched from me to the rock wall,
they stopped and then drew back somewhat; and all
who came behind them – though they did not know
why those ahead had halted  –  also slowed.

In Inferno, Dante draws upon similarly common images to achieve a much more stark visualization in Canto 32 as Virgil and Dante walk through the frozen ninth circle of Hell:

And as the croaking frog sits with its muzzle
above the water, in the season when
the peasant woman often dreams of gleaning,
so, livid in the ice, up to the place
where shame can show itself, were those sad shades,
whose teeth were chattering with notes like storks'.

Metaphor, simile, and analogy are not as frequent in Inferno, but they are abundant in Purgatorio and Paradiso. That wondrous imagery to be found in The Divine Comedy is one compelling reason not to stop with Inferno. I highly recommend the reader to progress through the entire work. Therein lies an epic journey of dramatic visualization. Oh, and in case you haven’t already guessed, my opening lines were an attempt to imitate Dante’s use of visual metaphor.   

A Geography of the Soul

     “The soul hath Heaven and Hell within itself…”
                                            ~ Jacob Boehme

Virgil with Dante at Hell-Gate
(William Blake)

"Abandon all hope, ye that enter"
                               ~ The inscription over Hell-Gate

The world that Dante presents in The Divine Comedy is one of substance and dimension, so much so that charts and maps have been made to plot the poet’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.  The more valuable measurements, however, are to be made in the soul. For me, the value of Dante is not in picturing some geography of the afterlife in the way he presents Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. The value for me is the poet’s insight into the geography of the soul. For the reader to engage in Dante’s epic poem, there will naturally come self-reflection and a sense of deep self-examination.  To travel with Dante from the depths to the heights of imagination is to take a critical look at personal interactions, politics, and motivations.

In the Garden

Early on in Inferno, the reader is given a cautionary tale of a well-ordered peaceful garden. Professor Mazzotta, in his Yale lectures, pointed out that while the garden is a place where one feels safe and secure,  it is in fact a place where one is subject to great danger. The danger Dante faced in the garden was that of poetic hubris when he began to see himself associated with the great poets. The garden in The Divine Comedy was, after all, on the pathway to Hell.  

When I considered that warning, I thought of some examples of my own well-ordered garden.  Personal meditation, or “quiet time” can easily become a habit in which I retreat from the real world. It is easy to imagine a “spirituality” that works within that well-ordered garden of meditation, but will not hold up in the real world. Thus a useful practice such as meditation can become a dangerous place when it becomes isolated and egocentric. It can be that well-ordered garden on the way to Hell. 

Another garden for me is poetry. Poetry can be a realm of transcendence, but if it becomes merely an escape, danger is surely not far away. Within the perceived order, structure and safety of the garden, we disarm ourselves and can fall prey to hubris. Well-ordered gardens come in many forms. 

Reason and Impulse

“A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never
  overcome them. “
                                                                                        ~Carl Jung

Virgil comes to Dante as he is running from the Three Beasts
(William Blake)

There is a section in Inferno near the beginning in Canto V that describes punishment in the afterlife, but can also speak to the heartache that many encounter in this life.  Dante describes those in the second circle of Hell as suffering because they subjected their reason to the rule of lust:

When they come up against the ruined slope,
then there are cries and wailing and lament,
and there they curse the force of the divine.
I learned that those who undergo this torment
are damned because they sinned within the flesh,
subjecting reason to the rule of lust.

The value of Dante’s words for me is not the idea that people receive certain punishments in the afterlife. The value for me is the illustration of how we can bring torment upon ourselves by acting on impulse and never learning to let reason be our guide. Dante saw humans as having both animal drives and intellectual reason along with spiritual capacity. He envisioned a better way to live by allowing love and intellect to rule over our life rather than being subject to animal passions.

How many people live roller coaster lives of high drama because they live by impulse rather than by reason, and are guided more by greed than by compassion? A colleague of mine told me about working as a registered nurse in the emergency room of a large hospital in another state. He told me that when he began his orientation the nurse manager said to him, “After you have worked here for a while, you will see that tragic things happen to tragic people.” While it is true that bad things can happen without regard to a person’s merit or choices, it is also true that there are consequences to our actions. By paying attention and doing some self-examination, we can affect how things will unfold. While suffering is inevitable in this life, we can reduce the suffering of others as well as our own pain by the choices we make and the actions we take. We all carry within us a mixture of impulse and reason, greed and compassion, love and hate. Which traits are in ascendancy can determine the quality of the life we live. It is a matter of careful examination of the geography of the soul.

The Lady Beatrice

“O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.”
                                                                  ~William Shakespeare in Henry V

Beatrice was for Dante an inspiration in life and the image of Beatrice became for him a focal point of wonder, creativity, love and divinity. The poet understood instinctively the tremendous inner enlivening that came by calling upon the feminine image of Beatrice long before Carl Jung wrote of the anima which he described as the feminine archetype which serves as the creative force within the psyche. Charles Williams wrote in the Introduction to The Figure of Beatrice: a Study in Dante that in this lady, Dante was showing to the world how to approach God through the Way of Affirmation as opposed to the Way of Rejection.  Williams tells of how the Way of Rejection approached God by rejecting all images that were not God, until the divine was found, while the Way of Affirmation approached God through those images in which the divine is reflected. He mentions that St. Athanasius spoke of the Way of Affirmation when he described Christ's Incarnation as not so much a “conversion of God into the flesh,” as it was a “taking of Manhood (sic) into God.” Dante, Williams goes onto explain, brings the Way of Affirmation to a further realization in his poetry when he uses Beatrice, along with the city of Florence and the poet Virgil, to show to us “the inGodding of man (sic).” (pp.9-11)

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car
(William Blake)

There is no way to overstate the importance of Beatrice in the life, work and vision of Dante. She was his inspiration in life, as the poet explains in La Vita Nouva, and upon her untimely death, she took on a much more cosmic role in his life and imagination. She was his muse, his inspiration, his enlivening. She was his guide in The Divine Comedy from Purgatory into Heaven and to the very presence of God. One wonders if Carl Jung would have understood as completely the role of the feminine archetype within the psyche if Dante had not spoken so eloquently and gloriously of the Lady Beatrice centuries earlier. Before Dante, poets would appeal to their muse (the feminine inspiration for music and poetry), but Dante made the concept at once more elevated and more intimately personal than the world had yet witnessed.

So Much More to Say

There more to be said of Dante’s world and his work. Indeed, much has already been said by scholars more qualified than I:

  • There is the profound psychological statement on Dante's part when he begins his work saying that he was "in the middle of the journey of our life" when he found himself lost in a dark wood. Carl Jung was one of the earliest to formulate a psychological concept of midlife transition, stating that the primary goal of the second half of life is to confront death. Perhaps this is another concept that Jung got from Dante.  
  • There is the significance of the classical poet Virgil who was Dante’s wise and noble guide and who explained to Dante that it was Beatrice who summoned him to his aid. 
  • There are the three blessed women who make Dante's journey possible: Mary the mother of Jesus who set things in motion and directed St. Lucia (associated with sight and vision) to enlist the help of Beatrice in Dante's journey. 
  • There are the many conversations Dante had with "shades," souls along the way in his journey from Inferno to Paradiso.
  • There is much to be said of the city of Florence and the politics of Dante’s time which sheds more light on the poet’s work.

My purpose is not to say all that can be said. I only wish to share my wonder and enthusiasm for the poetic genius of Dante, and to encourage others to discover the poet for themselves.

Lucia Carrying Dante up Mt. Purgatorio
(William Blake)

A Few Resources

There are many excellent resources available. Your public library will have many books on the shelf for your perusal.  Here are a few that I found:

  • The Divine Comedy: Inferno - Purgatory – Paradise, Naxos Audiobooks; Unabridged edition (November 30, 2004) This is the audio version that I found at our public library. Heathcote Williams narrates and Benedict Flynn did the English translation. It is also available for purchase online or I’m sure can be ordered at your preferred bookstore.
  • The Figure of Beatrice: a Study in Dante, by Charles Williams, published by  Faber and Faber (1953). This is the work I referenced above, and is another one that I found at the library. It is also available in more recent paperback editions.
  • Blake's Dante: The Complete Illustrations to The Divine Comedy, by Milton Klonsky. Harmony Books, New York (1980). This is a compilation of illustrations painted by William Blake for an edition of The Divine Comedy that was never published. Many of Blake's paintings are unfinished, but they are still quite fascinating - as you can see by the few that I chose to illustrate this blog post.
  • The Open Yale Courses, “Dante in Translation” with Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta  which our class viewed is available on You Tube. You can access those lectures at .
  • The quotations I used from The Divine Comedy are from a translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow which I found online at There are other translations available online as well. A modern translation by A.S. Kline can be downloaded at 
  • There is also a beautiful and elaborate website, Dante’s World, at

St Peter, St James, Dante and Beatrice with St John the Evangelist
(William Blake)

[About the first picture: The picture at the beginning of this post is from the Wikipedia entry for The Divine Comedy. The caption for the picture reads, “Dante shown holding a copy of the Divine Comedy, next to the entrance to Hell, the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory and the city of Florence, with the spheres of Heaven above.” The painting is from  a fresco by Domenico di Michelino, La commedia illumina Firenze on the wall of Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore.]

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: Religion in the Institution

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
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Vineland Baptist Church, Magengo County, Ala
(Wikimedia Commons)
Dorothy had mentioned in our conversations about Partlow State School that there was a building she called the Community House that served as school, auditorium, movie theater, and was also a place for church.  I couldn’t quite tell if church in the institution was part of the official program or if  it was a volunteer effort organized by churches outside the institution. At any rate it was fascinating to hear about Sunday activities and to hear about the resident’s attitudes toward those in charge, knowing that it was not that different from what was happening elsewhere throughout the South.

Church on Sunday

“We had church every Sunday. They let whoever wanted to go to church, and sometimes they would make some of them go. There were different preachers there. There was this one preacher, he’s dead now, Rev, George Butte, and he used to preach in the chapel [at Partlow] and his brother goes to Glen Iris Baptist Church where I go now. I sang in the choir when he was there. Then that preacher left and we got another preacher. We had one old man, we called him “Fairy Tales.” I never will forget his name, it was Dubose Murphy. I don’t know whatever happened to him. Then we got another preacher, it was Brother Clyde E. Brazelle, one day I was talking to somebody and I said, ‘That old nosey Brother Brazelle, he’s always nosing in on something,’ and him a-standin’ right there.  Another lady said, ‘Dorothy Faye, he heard you – he’s standing right over there.’ I said, ‘I can’t help it if he heard me, I meant for him to anyway,’ Whether he did or didn’t. And then I happened to think, ‘Oh mercy! Forgive me Jesus, I’m talking about a preacher.’

“He would always come in we would be a-talking and he would be standing there listening and everything. It just hit me that he was nosey.”

“The one we called “Fairy Tale”, he was tall and skinny, and wore glasses. He’d come out, I think every fourth Sunday. We didn’t much care for him – he never would get to the point of the Bible, hardly, he was always talking about something else. We began to call him Fairy Tales. I thought that name up for him.”

“There was a little ol’ bitty girl [at Partlow who] told me all about Jesus. I didn’t know she knew so much about it. She was the one that told me. Then another lady told me. If it weren’t for them, I probably never would have known about him. I’d go to church or Sunday School, I didn’t hardly pay no mind, what they were talking about, until somebody told me.  My legal guardian tried to tell me. I didn’t understand what she meant when she was talking about the mark of the beast. I thought it was some big old ugly something coming up out of the bottom of the sea.”

Seeing with the Eye of the Heart

On a few occasions, Dorothy described moments that she realized were not “real” in the sense of being  part of the normal physical world, yet had some reality and meaning to her.  One can see how her understanding of religion played a role in some of the things Dorothy “saw” with the eye of her heart.

 “When I was a little girl, I really did believe that I could see Jesus sittin’ on the side of my cot. I was looking up at him talking to him and he was looking down at me smiling. In my mind, I believe I really saw Jesus as a little girl.  I think I was about 12 or 13 years old.”
“Then one night I saw my mother coming down the ward, She wore an orange coat, the coat she always wore when she went to work. She didn’t have no regular job, she had to clean off the grave yards. Anyway, I could see her, and I told her I wanted to go with her. She told me I couldn’t go with her right now. I asked her why. She said they’re not ready for you yet. And she seemed to have on a long white robe, and then she vanished. It really made me feel real good. I thought, she’s come back to get me. She had a pretty color in her face and looked so natural and she was so pretty, I could just see her.”

Another time, Dorothy told about a staff person who had been important to her and whose influence obviously continued after she died:

“The most important people in my life were some of the attendants, and the most important one of them, her name was Aunt Lily Wilson. I remember one Saturday morning at breakfast she was fixin’ to eat a bowl of corn flakes, and she had a heart attack and fell out of the chair. She died that instant. The night after she died, I could just see her with that pale blue sweater on.  I thought about her and I thought, ‘She’s with Jesus.’  I don’t remember how old I was, but that’s what I was thinking.  When I went to sleep, I dreamed that I could see her. She was really good to us. I called her Aunt Lily because she was so sweet. She would always talk to me about Jesus.  She really taught me to love Jesus.”

On the subject of seeing things that are more “spiritual” than “physical,” Dorothy shared some more recent events in her life. As I heard her recount a moment while she was in the hospital in Birmingham, I realized that this was a time when she was alone and facing uncertainty.  In that uncertainty, she saw and heard things that gave her hope and comfort:

“I used to stand in the window in the bathroom and I’d hear them having a revival. I didn’t know where they were. I would just think, ‘I wish I was down there.’ I could hear them having a revival. And when I was in the hospital, I could hear them having a revival. I could see people; they were going to be saved. They were singing and the preacher was preaching. It was really real – it wasn’t no radio or nothing, I could just hear them…it went on of a couple of hours. I thought. God’s gonna do something. I really thought it was a revival going on. That was when I was in the hospital the first time. The second time, I lost my breath and they took me down to the hospital and I thought that I could see Jesus. He was there by my bed side. He was looking at me and I reached out and took his hand. I said, ‘I love you.’ And he said ‘I love you too – I died for you.’  I really thought that I could see Jesus. It really made me feel good. 

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Monday Music: Pete Seeger/ Wimoweh

"Wimoweh," originally known as "Mbube" was first recorded in South Africa by Solomon Popoli Linda. Pete Seeger's folk group "The Weavers" had a chart-topping hit when they recorded it in 1952. I was privileged to hear Pete Seeger perform this number when he did a benefit concert at Sloss Furnace in Birmingham back in 1985. Pete would have been around 66 years old at the time and he was still hitting those high notes! Here he is with Arlo Guthrie at Wolf Trap and this time his grandson, Tao Rodriguez, is hitting the high notes.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: Holidays and Family Visits

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
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During my interviews with Dorothy, we began moving into the Christmas season. Dorothy mentioned how much she enjoyed riding around at night to see the Christmas lights that people put out in their yards.  We took a drive one evening after dark to see some of the lights on display, and later during the holiday season my wife and I took Dorothy to see the “Zoolight Safari” which is a big and colorful holiday event put on by the Birmingham Zoo in which the entire zoo is decked out in Christmas lights.

Since it was the holiday season, I was curious to know what holidays were like for Dorothy at Partlow State School.  Following my questions, Dorothy shared some of her recollections.

“On holidays, like at Christmas they would give out brown bags. You might get a doll, and you would get two apples and two oranges, and a piece of candy, and that was about it.
“On the Fourth of July, they would have barbeque, but they didn’t cook out, they cooked it in steam cookers in the kitchen.

“For Christmas, they would ask you what you wanted, and then they would write it down and send it off to whoever filled the sacks. They’d have paper bags and they’d write your name on them. Then whatever you ordered, well you usually didn’t get what you ordered, you’d get something you didn’t want, and then they’d have two apples and two oranges, and a little bit of candy. Sometime they’d give you a little sack with a few pecans in it. Sacks were handed out in the Day Hall in the Number 1 Building. They’d get all the ones that worked in the laundry and bring them over to get their bags – you didn’t get much in them no how – and what little bit you did get they’d take them up and put them in a wooden box out on the porch. You didn’t get it until the next day, and if you ate it all up, well that was the end of it. They wouldn’t give you no more.”

Family Visits

On another occasion, Dorothy talked about family visits.  Family visits were important for many of the residents at Partlow.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, Dorothy did not have much family for support, but she was grateful for one uncle who showed some care and concern.

“My Uncle Roy and Aunt Gladys came and they took me home for a vacation for a couple of weeks, then later they came and got me for Christmas for about three weeks. My Aunt Gladys took me back and then I never did see her no more. My Uncle Roy, he really loved me. He would get me anything I wanted, no matter what it was. My Aunt Gladys got mad because he wouldn’t get my Uncle Will’s children nothing, but he told her that I was his sister’s child and they weren’t. I was the only one born to my mother. They said I had two sisters, but I never did see them. They were older than I was.

“I remember one time I was at the laundry and I knew that my uncle was supposed to come. I think it was around Thanksgiving. The phone rang in the laundry and I ran out the door. Somebody tried to catch me and they told me to come back and I said “I’m not coming back, my uncle is supposed to be here and I’m going to see him.” I got to the building, alright, and when I got up there, they told me that nobody was there to see me. They took me back to the laundry. I remember they had an old man named Hood Ball (they called him Senior Hood). He worked in the laundry then. He told me I shouldn’t be so hot-tempered and run out of the laundry when somebody told me to come back. I wouldn’t even pay him no mind. I was so mad and upset because I thought my uncle was up there.

“My uncle was supposed to see me but something happened. He had fell 128 feet down a well and I didn’t know it. He lived long enough to get to the hospital. I think he died after he got to the hospital. That was my Uncle Roy. He would get me anything I wanted. One year he got me a satin housecoat. He would always come to the bus station in Sylacauga. I thought he really was at the Girls’ Building [that day]. I went tearing out up there.

“Later I got a letter from my Aunt Lula. She said he had gone to be with Jesus. She wrote a poem that said, ‘there is one vacant chair at the end of the table.’ ”

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Monday Music: Windsong

Last Friday marked a tragic anniversary. John Denver departed this life on October 12, 1997 at the age of 53, when his experimental homebuilt aircraft crashed. A complex man, Denver accomplished much in his 53 years. Not only was he a popular recording artist, he become an advocate for environmental and humanitarian causes.

Enjoy one of Denver's most beautiful songs while watching some magnificent scenes from nature.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: Life in the Institution

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
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The Frank M. Johnson Federal Buildingand U.S. Courthouse
 in Montgomery, Ala. (Library of Congress Photo)
1n 1971 when the court order came down in the Wyatt vs. Stickney case, change would reverberate, not just at Partlow State School and Bryce Hospital, but in mental health institutions across the country. United States District Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., of the Middle District of Alabama ruled that patients in all three state mental health institutions (Bryce Hospital, Partlow State School, and Searcy Hospital) were being denied their “constitutional right to treatment.” The court stated that there were three requisites to effective treatment:  "(1) a humane psychological and physical environment, (2) qualified staff in numbers sufficient to administer adequate treatment and (3) individualized treatment plans." (The Yale Law Journal) With the institution’s failure to meet these requisites, Partlow State School began the processes both of institutional reform and of de-institutionalization of many of its residents.

The St. Andrew’s Foundation was organized at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church under the leadership of the Reverend Francis Walter of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. Organized in 1974, its purpose was to provide training in independent living for residents coming out of Partlow State School as a result of the federal court order.  The goal was to allow residents to live as independently as possible within the community. In the early days of it operation, much of the independent living training dealt with helping the residents to “unlearn” some of the institutional behaviors that had resulted from living at Partlow State School, behaviors that had been adaptive in an institution but not helpful or normal for life in the community.

In my conversations with Dorothy, I was able to see a little bit of what life was like inside the institution, how residents sometimes lived in conflict with one another and with staff, and how residents sometimes collaborated together to find some freedom of activity in spite of being under the watchful eye of hospital staff. I was surprised and amused to hear how residents managed to make their own butter in the days before homogenized milk.

Keeping Possessions Safe

"There was one girl, she would stay up at night. She loved to dip snuff. She would go into people’s packages and things and steal money. If she got a chance she would get a can of snuff. Every time they would catch her she would just scream her head off. I don’t remember stealing anything, but I probably did. I stole a few things after I was discharged [from Partlow].

"I never did get caught with ‘em. I was bad to get candy, now snuff – I never did care for snuff. One time I had a big jar of coffee that this girl gave to me for writing her letters for her to her grandmother. We had these old army lockers to keep things in, and they locked with the same key. This one girl stole my big jar of coffee and put her little jar in my locker. I caught her and I got that jar out and went and told her, “Give me my coffee. She started screaming and everything. The attendant came over and I said she stole my coffee. The attendant took it and put it in the locker room. We didn’t get it until we settled down. I let one of the attendants keep my coffee for me.

"I had a fit one time when I had a picture of Elvis Presley when he first started “Jail House Rock” It was a lady that give it to me. That old man, Mr. Hood Ball was his name, he took it and wouldn’t let me have it and I had a fit. They had to take me to the Main Girls’ Building. I wouldn’t even go back to the laundry because he took my picture of Elvis Presley.  He worked down there a long time, I reckon he retired.  He never did give that picture back – I don’t what happened to it.

"One time I had these rhinestone ear bobs. I was about 19 years old. I would wear those ear bobs and I mean I thought I was the cock of the walk."

Friendships and Peer relations

"There was a girl used to write my letters before I ever learned to write. She would write my letters to my legal guardian. 

"After I grew up I learned how to roll hair and pin-curl it. I used to roll this girl’s hair. We used to make hair rollers out of old snuff boxes and brown paper. We would get this old red crepe paper and use it for rough and lipstick. They used to wouldn’t let us primp up or nothin’. I mean they wouldn’t even allow us to dance with the boys until later on over the years. 

"If they caught you embroidering or crocheting they would take it up. I guess they did that because they were afraid we’d get mad and stick one another with the needles. I used to watch a girl tat with a tat and pearl. I don’t know how she did it. She would tat lace – I never could understand crochet either.

"There used to be a girl who would wake me up in the morning. I mean she’d get me up at 4:00 o’clock. She would wake me up to go to the bathroom with her. She’d want to kiss me and make love to me and I wouldn’t let her, and she would get so mad."  

Staff and Staff Relationships

"They used to be real mean, some of ‘em.  I remember when we would be a-laughing and talking. We weren’t supposed to be laughing and talking because they’d have us on silence. And if they caught you talking they’d make us stand on one foot with both hands up in the air. If you put your foot down you had to pick the other foot up and stand there that much longer.

"They didn’t like for us to talk. We used to slip around and talk.  They had four little round tables at each end of the hall and we would sit around them and talk.

"The most important people in my life were some of the attendants, and the most important one of them, her name was Aunt Lily Wilson. One Saturday morning we went to breakfast and she fell out of her chair with a heart attack and she died. I saw her when she fell out of the chair. That night I thought about her and I thought, “She’s with Jesus.” I don’t remember how old I was, but that’s what I was thinking. That night, when I went to sleep, I dreamed that I could see her. She was really good to us. I called her Aunt Lily because she was so sweet. She would always talk to me about Jesus.  She really taught me to love Jesus.

"There were some, there was an old attendant one time – I was talking and she told us to be quiet. For some reason she didn’t like me so well. She took me into the bathroom to duck me under the shower-bath. She used to take some of them and hold them under that water a good while. She couldn’t get me in there. She tried to put an old rag in my mouth and when she did I bit her on the hand. She went over there and told them she got dog-bit coming on duty. If I’d have told them, they’d have probably fired her. But I didn’t see nobody to tell. She was really, really mean.  Her mother worked there, too, but her mother wasn’t as hateful as she was.

"One time I went to the big dining room. I was doing something and a lady got on to me. She made me mad. We had these old tin cups. I threw my cup across the dining room, trying to hit her with it, and somebody told me I was just showing out. I said “Showing out, nothing! You shut up! I’m taking up for myself, I don’t care what you do!” I got sent back to the main building and I had to sit under a table until time to go to bed. There was a lady there named Jessie McCain, she was an old black nurse. She’d always make us sit under the table if we didn’t do what she told us to. Then I got to where I never did argue with folks. After I grew up I hardly ever did argue with nobody no more. I think I was about 24 or 25 [when I figured out I didn’t have to argue back]."

 “When the Cat is Away”

"We used to go into the bathroom at night and make coffee. We didn’t have a coffee maker; they wouldn’t let us have one. We would get clean rags and put the coffee in them. Then we’d hold it under the hot water from the sink and let it run into a glass. Then we would strain it and drink it. Sometimes we would get that instant coffee and go in the shower and make it with the hot tub water. It was real good if you had cream to go with it. Sometimes we would sneak the packets out, and sometime we would get the grounds out of the coffee maker in the dining room.

"We used to get that old red butter color, and they would give us some kind of stuff that looked like butter. Well, we would sneak out some cartons of milk and we would put the milk in a jar to churn the milk into butter from it. You’d have to shake it up and down a long time before it would turn to butter. Then we would take the butter out and mix that other stuff we had with it.  Somebody would always look out for the attendants, because if we got caught doing anything, they would always make us take it back to the dining room, or they would throw it out.

"I used to love churning butter with an old fashioned churn. We didn’t have a churn there, but my Uncle Will and Aunt Alma had a churn. Uncle Will was my mother’s brother. I used to churn with that when I was a little girl."

After School and Work Activities

"Sometimes we would go out into the yard, and sometimes we went out and sat on the benches.    If they caught us laughing or talking, they would make us stand on one foot and hold both hands up in the air. If we put our foot down, we had to stand there that much longer.  Sometimes they would make you stand in the corner, or put you in the closet and shut the door.

"They would make us go to the okra patch and we hated to go, or they’d make us go to the vegetable room to clean vegetables and we hated to go there, too. Me and this other girl got out one time then they caught us when we got back to the room. She made is go right back over there.

"They wouldn’t let us take a break until we got slap through. One time when I was workin’ in the vegetable room, I raked up a pile of turnip greens in the floor, sat down and urinated in ‘em and then I got up. I said, “That’s what you get for not letting me go to the bathroom.” We used to sneak and slip potatoes and lemons, and everything out – weenies and bread.  In the winter time, we would put the weenies on the radiator and roast ‘em and eat ‘em.  If the attendants caught us, they’d take ‘em all up.

"One time I took some meat patties out of the dining room. I had a muumuu dress with big pockets and I put those meat patties in my pockets. I got caught with them, and this lady told me to go back to the dining room and put those meat patties back on the table. I thought, 'My, my. You can’t have nothin’ around here.'"


Reference cited:
"The Wyatt Case: Implementation of a Judicial Decree Ordering Institutional Change," The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 84: 1338, 1975.

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