On Asylums

A problematic cat offered more insight into the author’s ailing father than you’d think.

Lisa Chen | Brick | Winter 2019 | 11 minutes (2,209 words)

 

Around this time her neighbor sent an email.

The email said her cat had entered his home several times that week. The cat had sprayed his closet, clothes, shoes, rugs, and furniture. He had also sprayed the exterior door in the back of his house, the patio area, plants, etcetera.

It’s getting really bad, the neighbor wrote.

The daughter took the cat to the vet. Had a testicle failed to descend when he was first neutered? But that was not the issue. A certain number of cats who are fixed continue to spray, and the cat was, regrettably, a member of this minority faction. The daughter suspected this was the reason the cat had come to be abandoned by his original owners in the first place. Like how most cats find their people, he had come to her by a circuitous route: A friend had gotten him off Craigslist with a goal of recruiting a mouser to deal with the vermin problem in the house where he was living. Instead, the cat hid, still as a statue, behind the toilet. When the friend moved and couldn’t take the cat, she agreed to shelter the cat temporarily. The cat never left.

She lived with the cat in two studio apartments before moving in with her partner, who had a yard. When the cat was let loose in the yard, his true self emerged: He was a skilful hunter, slaying rats, mice, and birds, too many to count, even a squirrel. But the yard also seemed to have triggered his territorial sense: He started spraying too.

And now this unfortunate marking behaviour had effectively sealed his fate. That the cat did not know he had condemned himself simply by behaving like a cat saddened her. For the remainder of his days, he would no longer be allowed to roam outdoors. He wouldn’t be patrolling the borders of his empire, which he had guarded with a fierceness that belied all the years she had known him as an indoor cat, a bug-eyed creature who dove for the closet whenever someone who was not her came calling.

Instead of spraying, which was not the cat’s fault, the father drank too much.

The whole situation made the daughter think of her father, silly and distasteful as it was to be drawing the parallel. The father, too, was living a life of confinement in a skilled nursing facility in California. Instead of spraying, which was not the cat’s fault, the father drank too much. Knowing what we now know about the nature of addiction, the drinking was not entirely the father’s fault either, at least once it really got going. Yet both spraying and drinking were aggravating to other people and resulted in the same fate for cat and man: the loss of their freedom.

The sociologist Erving Goffman characterizes the asylum as a total institution — a place where individuals, “cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life.”

Once, the father asked the daughter in a quiet, wistful voice whether it would be possible for him to move away from the facility and live somewhere else. She held her breath, afraid he would say he wanted to move in with her or her sister. But it turned out what he had in mind was the type of place he remembered his elderly aunt used to room. You know, he said, what people used to refer to as an old-folks’ home.

But you’re in one right now, the daughter replied with a brittle brightness.

This was true and not true. Early on, before the father’s dementia got much worse, she had had a similar vision of a pleasant place where old people chatted over meals, sunned themselves in gardens, and played checkers and canasta. But since then she has toured the inside of many nursing homes and has yet to witness a single game of cards. A listlessness hung over all the residents as though they lived on an island where they had all been infected with a sleeping disease. The primary activity in such places seemed to be waiting to die, grim as that sounds.

If the cat had to live the rest of his life confined, the daughter reasoned, at least he was getting on in years and his future wouldn’t be long. In fact, the cat was fifteen years old — eighty by human years, according to the internet.

The father was old too. Although in his case it was not his age that was the problem but the frontal lobes of his brain, which were eroding like time-lapse footage of melting ice caps.

The problem with asylums is that you can’t control how the other residents behave. The father did not want to be surrounded by sad people acting strangely, but the truth was he had become a sad person who acted strangely.

Goffman wrote an entire book about total institutions, based in part on his experiences working at a mental ward in Washington, D.C., as a young man. Such spaces of confinement — nursing homes, orphanages, convents, internment camps, homeless shelters, prisons, ICE detention centres, refugee camps, rehab centers, Foxconn, Guantanamo — share common characteristics: “Each phase of the member’s daily activity is carried on in the immediate company of a large batch of others, all of whom are treated alike and required to do the same thing together.”

The father did not want to be surrounded by sad people acting strangely, but the truth was he had become a sad person who acted strangely.

In the beginning of his time at the asylum, the father was wheeled in at least once a day to a common room where there was a piano, a large fish tank, and activity boards tacked to the wall from which hung faucets, doorknobs, light switches, and other household fixtures. These were for residents to practise with, so they wouldn’t lose their familiarity and facility with instruments they no longer had any use for.

All the residents in the asylum gathered in the room around lunchtime. Most were wheeled in; a few could walk, but not many. They waited around a number of round tables, sometimes for 45 minutes, for their meals to arrive. The waiting, too, is considered a form of activity.

All phases of the day’s activities are tightly scheduled, with one activity leading at a prearranged time into the next, the whole sequence of activities being imposed from above by a system of explicit formal rulings and a body of officials.

The first time the daughter saw the father in the common space of the memory care unit having his lunch surrounded by a large batch of others, she was stunned. He had always insisted he wanted to eat alone, be left alone. He hated the noise of other people, which set his brain on edge and made him irritable. But there he was, stationed at a round table, lifting a fork to his mouth. (He could still do that back then.) She watched him through a glass pane for several minutes, like a parent observing a child adjust to their first day of school, with a mixture of dread and pride.

On the mounted TV played an old-fashioned variety show featuring country music performers. At least that’s who the daughter assumed they were, based on the hairstyles and lapels and the long gowns on the women. The volume seemed permanently set to inaudible.


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The daughter flashed back to a time in another common space in a different asylum. This would have been the father’s first such facility, back in Oakland after he fell in his house. That asylum was older and poorer. But it did have Netflix.

She remembered sitting beside her father, along with two other men, watching a remarkably violent film with bone-crunching fistfights and AK-47 carnage. At the time, the daughter found it odd that such a film would be broadcasting at a supposed sanctuary of healing and recuperation. But the men seemed to be enjoying it. Now that she sees the father’s latest asylum played nothing but anodyne variety shows (was the TV tuned to a cable station that asylums across the country subscribe to?), she appreciated the freedom the residents at the Oakland asylum were afforded to select their own dumb movies. The utter absence of violent entertainment struck her as a loss of manhood.

The various enforced activities are brought together into a single rational plan purportedly designed to fulfill the official aims of the institution.

Three times a day, covered meals were rolled into the memory care unit on multi-tiered carts. Diapers were checked every two hours. There were set schedules for bathing, nail clipping, shaving. A bedside button could be pressed to express a demand, but most people in the unit, like the father, could no longer comprehend its purpose and shouted or cried instead.

In another era the father might have ended up at Santa Clara’s Agnews State Hospital for the Chronic Insane a few miles away, a sprawling Mediterranean Revival–style compound of stucco and tile that dated back to the late 1800s. As with other mental asylums of the period, people were committed there for any number of alleged deviant and disturbed behaviors, according to hospital records. This included epilepsy, hysteria, vagrancy, Mormonism, and masturbation. It was home to “imbeciles, dotards [!], drunkards, simpletons and fools.” It was a place where “burdens to families” could be sloughed off.

The daughter had some history with Agnews. As a high school student, she used to volunteer there on occasion, hoping to demonstrate to institutions of higher learning that she was thoughtful and kind-hearted.

The first time the daughter saw the father in the common space of the memory care unit having his lunch surrounded by a large batch of others, she was stunned.

The volunteering sessions typically lasted an hour and involved handing out seasonally themed cookies in the shape of pumpkins or Christmas trees. Of course, the experience was nothing like she thought it would be: No one seemed remotely brightened by the whole glum affair. Most of the residents looked down at their feet, stared vacantly in the air, or worked their jaws in silence. They didn’t look as though they dressed themselves. The only other thing she remembered about Agnews was a little girl who, she was told, was born without a mouth.

The girl no longer lived at home, if she ever did. The father no longer lived at home. He lived in a home.

One distinction between living at home and living in a home is the ability to escape from large batches of others. The father had long ago stopped being shy or embarrassed about having his diapers changed or being seen naked in the bath. This did not mean he had lost his perspective on the difference between private and public: He has never again called the daughter by their family’s nickname —Mei, which means little sister in Chinese — as he had his whole life.

By the time Agnews shut down in 2009, the daughter had moved to New York. Total institutions across the country were shuttering, dismantled in favor of smaller units that blended more easily into the community. The Agnews compound is now part of Sun Microsystems’s corporate headquarters. By the time Agnews closed, the daughter had more or less forgotten about it, although for years she found herself thinking about the little girl with no mouth. What was in the centre of her head in place of a mouth? Was the space packed solid with matter, like a pot filled with dirt?

In our society, [asylums] are the forcing houses for changing persons; each is a natural experiment on what can be done to the self.

The above being one of Goffman’s all-time weirdest sentences.

The change the father was undergoing being dementia and all its degradations—

The forcing being all the activities the asylum required to keep the changing father alive—

The changing compels the forcing. But what if the forcing metastasizes into its own forms of changing? This describes the essential conundrum of the asylum—

Each is a natural experiment — the changing person’s loved ones will often respond to the person’s initial dismay and resistance to the forcing house with lies disguised as conditional persuasion tactics: Let’s just give this a try. If you decide you don’t like it, we’ll find another way. It’s not forever.

In a moment of lucidity, the father asked the daughter — she was visiting again from across the country — I’m never getting out of here, am I?

She looked right into his eyes. She would give him honesty, not the false cheer, which she knew he hated, of being spoken down to. She said: No, I don’t think you are. You’re too sick.

What can be done to the self — embedded in the syntax is the derangement of the enterprise. The more things are done to the self, the more a person loses their personal economy of action.

What the father wanted to do was watch Netflix, chain-smoke, and drink Jim Beam.

What the cat wanted to do was to kill small creatures and defend his territory.

And yet how easily we all adjust to a recession in our personal economy of action. The cat did not cry constantly at the door to be let out, as the daughter had feared he would. Mostly he seemed preoccupied with marshalling his next meal. Sometimes the daughter would open a window for the cat, leaving the screen shut. The cat’s entire being would thrust forward — eyes, whiskers, ears, nostrils, every nerve ending — thrilling at the phenomena of the world. But more and more he spent a great deal of time sleeping.

In the end the father was the same way.

***

Lisa Chen is the author of the poetry collection Mouth and received a 2018 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award. She was an Emerging Writers Fellow at the Center for Fiction and a resident with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace Program. Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, Guernica, Catapult, The Common, and AGNI. She was born in Taipei and now lives in Brooklyn.

This essay first appeared in Brick, the biannual print journal of nonfiction based in Canada and read throughout the world. Our thanks to Lisa Chen and the staff at Brick for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath