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Reading Children’s Books: images of mental illness through time

January 28, 2017


Monday, January 11, 2016

images of mental illness through time

While reading about David Bowie I came across this series of photographs on the mentally ill patients from the past.
The saddest pictures are those where the patients are attempting to find a love object.  Everyone needs someone or something to love and have that love returned.
When you have no human being who loves you –even a chicken will take the place of a human being as in this photograph.

In this second picture we have a walled off woman in jail. We are all in jails of some sort. Some of us are jailed in workplaces that we abhor. Others are jailed in the ways we cannot live our values.  For the mentally ill, there are all the jails of the society that are occupied by the so called normal folks plus the real jail of mental institutions or mental health wards. The jailed person becomes jailed in every sense of the word–and a criminal. The mentally ill are treated like criminals even though they have not committed any crime. I mean I don’t believe that being mentally ill is a crime do you?  But here is our take on the mentally ill.  We consider them putative criminals who must be jailed for their own safety and deprived of their rights.

The presence of the doll in this picture is very evocative.  My handicapped sister has no interest in dolls.
She loves fluffy toys.  In her room at the Good Samaritan Extended Care she had a collection of fluffy toys. Some of them were small. Others were big. I remember buying her a fluffy toy that was as big as she was. It was left behind at the facility when they evicted her.  That bear was missed.This last Christmas I got her another big bear from London Drugs and gave it to her. Her delight was palpable.

When we are not with her she has her fluffies. She has her big bear. She sleeps with them in bed. Like the woman in this picture who is holding her doll, she has something to love and who is a surrogate for a motherly presence in her life.  Such are the joys of companionship for the mentally ill.

This old woman has somehow survived the abysmal mental asylums of the past that still exist all over the world. I imagine she did this feat by holding onto a child in the form of the doll in her hands.

This man has made a puppet doll almost as odd as he looks. But he is holding it close and it keeps him company. Maybe we only need to have the caricature of love in our lives to survive these sorts of hellish experiences that the mentally ill are forced to endure because there is no wisdom in the system or indeed any interest in their struggles. We’re too busy making money which is the base metal of our lives.

If you look into the faces of ordinary people there is never any indications of the interior life. The mentally ill on the other hand can express vividly their terrors. And what terrors they experience. Who would think that neurotransmitters, brain structure anomalies, environmental experiences such as trauma would end up in causing these sorts of terrors? Who would understand their suffering other than those who have gone through the valley of tears and emerged on the other side as crucified beings?

This woman has a confused expression on her face.  Sometimes when you are drugged up the side effects result in this sort of fogginess. Imagine yourself in her place. She is given drugs. She is sick perhaps physically from other ailments. She has a prescribed routine with no stimulation. She has a doll.

Ah, she has something to love.
Let us hope we all have something to love when we arrive at the place of these souls.


Posted by Julie Ali



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