Asylum Ave


a·sy·lum   /əˈsaɪləm/ –noun
1.(esp. formerly) an institution for the maintenance and care of the mentally ill, orphans, or other persons requiring specialized assistance.

I recently drove through Hartford where I’m always sort of jarred by the exit for Asylum Ave. 28 years ago I took that exit to visit my mother at the “Betty Ford Clinic” of mental institutions–The Institute of Living.

Once called The Connecticut Retreat for the Insane, The Institute was for mostly wealthy “insane” people, many a movie star having gone through it’s doors (I can’t remember if Elizabeth Taylor was there when my mother was or I’m confused because my mother looked so much like her.)

Surrounded by a brick wall and with landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted, it’s a hell of a lot nicer than Bellevue, another place she was admitted during a rather acute manic episode. It was 1982 and I was in boarding school about 40 minutes away. Somehow it was my uncle’s turn to do the admitting, my brothers’ quota having been met. I’m not sure how long she was actually there, records are destroyed after 10 years, but maybe 2 weeks at the most.

When I went to visit her one weekend, she was all cute and giggly, talking about her very handsome, younger tennis partner. Mom loved tennis. It was one of the only things that kept her out of her busy head, and she was rather good at it, her cute little body in flippy tennis dresses darting about the court. Playing tennis while involuntarily at a mental institution seemed kind of fun and the food was good, just like our tennis club on Long Island! She must have felt right at home.

A few days after my visit, she called me at school, and with great glee told that she had gone “AWOL” from the Institute. I pictured her getting a boost over the brick wall by the handsome tennis player and her scampering to hitch a ride. Actually, I have no idea how she did it, or what repercussions there may have been, but she was pretty damn proud of herself (incidentally, after I posted this yesterday, by brother told me that on the NIGHT he proposed to his wife, he got a call from the hospital telling him that they didn’t know where my mother was. He then said to his now-wife, “Oh, let me tell you about my mother.” You CAN’T make this stuff up!)

I don’t remember how many more hospitalizations there were between 1982 and 1986 when she finally lost steam, but I’m sure Asylum Ave was like winning the lottery of “loony bins-” another term used in turn-of-the-century papers. (There is a wonderful book from last year called “Voluntary Madness” by a journalist with her own mental illness who checks herself into three different institutions and it’s fascinating.)

Anyway, this was a tiny piece of life with mom. No reason to feel sorry for me. Again, it’s looking back on it from this 45-yr-old perspective that allows me to see humor in such absurdity, plus it makes for great material. Thanks for that, Mom!

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11 Comments

  1. Thank You for sharing….

  2. You once told me your life was an open book, but I never thought so. I stand corrected. Thanks for sharing.Anne

  3. Dan

    Writing is (as Toby mentions in that short film I posted) an exercise in empathy, in trying on other people's shoes, as it were. Our parents are our inevitable subjects; and when mental illness is added to the mix, it becomes a maddeningly (sorry) intense, often hilarious endeavor. I'd encourage you to plumb the depths of this further. The writing is very good, and your mom's story is a fascinating one…

  4. Thanks, Dan. As you know, this is the teeniest tip of the Claudine iceberg. I'm working on something much bigger. Love.

  5. Dan

    PS: "asylum" is also a synonym for "sanctuary," "refuge," and "safe haven," so there's a multitude of meaning to be explored here. ("Asylum Ave" would make a wonderful title, don't you think??)PPS: Your mom was so gorgeous!

  6. The title possibilities are ENDLESS as you can well imagine. I have a couple up my sleeve for my own memoir about ME. And I like the idea of "safe haven." When I marry a rich man, and don't have to work, this will all come spilling out of me. Yeah, mom was pretty stunning.

  7. You're mother always looked so glamorous in your photographs. You both have that star quality.I went the admissions office of the Institute for the Living in 1982 too. I waited and waited for someone to come out and greet me. Finally, I strode up to a lady at a desk who smilingly said "I bet you think you are at Trinity College, don't you?" Indeed, I did. She told me where I was and gave me directions for Trinity. I guess that that explained why the landscapers were staring at me shrieking at my mother when she ordered me to brush my hair before we went in.I remember the grounds of the IFL were groomed and beautiful, very much like a college campus. I wonder how many girls were told they were going for an admissions interview at Trinity when they were committed?

  8. Finally, one step closer to "the book". Keep going, there's no stopping you now.

  9. Who is this "anonymous?"

  10. is not being able to find humor in 'madness' a sign of madness? drunks junkies cripples cretins fools & the morbidly obese who refuse to dress girth-appropriately — yeah, their lives often reek of risible absurdity; but 'the certifiably insane', or their circumstances? i can't get "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad" out of my head, like a fish on a hook thrashing against the line. your sweet paean, making light of such darkness, doesn't say how you've learned to conjure laughs on lonely streets like Asylum Ave. you don't say. you don't. you… "dreaming of Mercy Stwear your inside outdreaming of mercyin your daddy's arms againdreaming of Mercy St'swear they moved that signlooking for mercyin your daddy's armsmercy, mercy, looking for mercymercy, mercy, looking for mercy" …but don't stop. maybe if i watch long enough, Gayle, and keep reading you, i'll get a feel for it and slip off this hook yet. it's what i love about your blog, by the way, that i never know what it's going to do to me. merci.

  11. I'm a newbie to this blog thing Gayle, but as expected, your writing style is just wonderful. Your raw talent is apparent. Just don't forget us, your early and original fans, when you do finally make it big. Thanks for sharing. Love.

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