23 May 2010

thinking about "insanity" and incarceration



The Willard State Hospital (1869-1995, originally Willard Asylum for the Insane) was open for tours yesterday, a fundraiser for the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Children's Center which occupies one of the historic buildings. My sister Carol and brother Doug, along with Carol's partner Barb, had gone last year. Carol, Barb and I went yesterday. The hospital site was originally the State Agricultural College at Ovid but Ezra Cornell convinced the state, with land and money, to move the college to Ithaca where it became Cornell University.

The hospital and village of Willard sit on the East side of Seneca Lake a ways South of Geneva. The setting is beautiful with the land rising from the lakeshore, not too steep but enough to give you good views from many places on the grounds.

The hospital plays a role in my family history in that Chester Smedley Clarke (1849-1925), my great grandfather, was a patient there for a time between 1904 and 1907. He worked in the shoemaker's shop and there was an old photo of the shop in one of the display cases in the administration building. As I was looking at the picture, some other tour participants were asking about the canary cages that are visible in the picture. The guide mentioned canaries' use in mining but wondered if it was a kind of Muzak for the patients. After being released from the hospital, my great grandfather settled in Binghamton and ran a shoe repair business, and was never in contact with the family again. My brother has the address of the business and it was probably in one of the wonderful brick four-story thin buildings across the train tracks from the current bus station. Several of the buildings have been torn down in my memory and replaced by simple (boring) buildings. Sigh.

There is now a boot camp correctional facility on the grounds of the hospital. It's for minimum security drug-related offenders who can serve 90 days there or several years or whatever in a traditional prison setting. The boot camp is strict and busy and attempts to build discipline and responsibility, no slacking. My nemesis Sonny was given the "opportunity" to serve there and only lasted a week or two. The state was, I guess, no more successful than I in building responsibility in his case. As I took pictures of the abandoned male dormitory, I could hear the prisoners chanting as they did calisthenics or some chore. Being on the grounds of the hospital with both of these personal connections was quite emotional though not spooky. When we were in the basement of Grand View, the old administration building, one of the women in our group shivered as she looked into one of the closet-like spaces in the basement. It probably wasn't a patient room but you couldn't help but think about being locked into a physical space while your mental space was probably troubling you as well.

Especially in the basements of Grand View and Hadley Hall, I also kept thinking about my visit to Eastern State Penintentiary in Philadelphia. I visited in 2005 when they had an installation by Janet Cargill and George Bures Miller. Sonny and I had been to the Cargill/Miller show at P.S. 1 and even though Sonny didn't have a lot of experience with viewing contemporary art, he loved the P.S. 1 show which was marvelous. The Eastern State installation was chilling in ways that the visit to Willard wasn't, perhaps the time, perhaps the space, perhaps me.

There are some more pictures of my visit to Willard on Flickr.

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