I’m going to write a ghost story now,” she typed.
A ghost story with a mermaid and a wolf,” she also typed.
I also typed.
My name is India Morgan Phelps, though almost everyone I know calls me Imp. I live in Providence, Rhode Island, and when I was seventeen, my mother died in Butler Hospital, which is located at 345 Blackstone Boulevard, right next to Swan Point Cemetery, where many notable people are buried. The hospital used to be called the Butler Hospital for the Insane, but somewhere along the way the for the Insane” part was dropped. Maybe it was bad for business. Maybe the doctors or trustees or board of directors or whoever makes decisions about such things felt crazy people would rather not be put away in an insane asylum that dares to admit it’s an insane asylum, that truth in advertising is a detriment. I don’t know, but my mother, Rosemary Anne, was committed to Butler Hospitalbecause she was insane. She died there, at the age of fiftysix, instead of dying somewhere else, because she was insane. It’s not like she didn’t know she was insane, and it’s not like I didn’t know, too, and if anyone were to ask me, dropping for the Insane” is like dropping burger” from Burger King, because hamburgers aren’t as healthy as salads. Or dropping donuts” from Dunkin’ Donuts because donuts cause cavities and make you fat.
My grandmother Carolinemy mother’s mother, who was born in 1914, and lost her husband in World War IIshe was also a crazy woman, but she died in her own bed in her own house down in Wakefield. No one put her away in a hospital, or tried to pretend she wasn’t crazy. Maybe people don’t notice it so much, once you get old, or only older. Caroline turned on the gas and shut all the windows and doors and went to sleep, and in her suicide note she thanked my mother and my aunts for not sending her away to a hospital for the mentally insane, where she’d have been forced to live even after she couldn’t stand it anymore. Being alive, I mean. Or being crazy. Whichever, or both.
It’s sort of ironic that my aunts are the ones who had my mother committed. I suppose my father would have done it, but he left when I was ten, and no one’s sure where he went. He left my mother because she was insane, so I like to think he didn’t live very long after he left us. When I was a girl, I used to lie awake in bed at night, imagining awful ways my father might have met his demise, all manner of just desserts for having dumped us and run away because he was too much of a coward to stick around for me and my mother. At one point, I even made a list of various unpleasant ends that may have befallen my father. I kept it in a stenographer’s pad, and I kept the pad in an old suitcase under my bed, because I didn’t want my mother to see it. I hope my father died of venereal disease, after his dick rotted off” was at the top of the list, and was followed by lots of obvious stuffcar accidents, food poisoning, cancerbut I grew more imaginative as time went by, and the very last thing I put on the list (#316), was I hope my father lost his mind and died alone and frightened.” I still have that notebook, but now it’s on a shelf, not hidden away in an old suitcase.
So, yeah. My mother, Rosemary Anne, died in Butler Hospital. She committed suicide in Butler Hospital, though she was on suicide watch at the time. She was in bed, in restraints, and there was a video camera in her room. But she still pulled it off. She was able to swallow her tongue and choke to death before any of the nurses or orderlies noticed what was happening. The death certificate says she died of a seizure, but I know that’s not what happened. Too many times when I visited her, she’d tell me she wanted to die, and usually I told her I’d rather she lived and get better and come home, but that I wouldn’t be angry if that’s really what she had to do, if she had to die. If there came a day or night when she just couldn’t stand it any longer. She said she was sorry, but that she was glad I understood, that she was grateful that I understood. I’d take her candy and cigarettes and books, and we’d have conversations about Anne Sexton and Diane Arbus and about Virginia Woolf filling her pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse. I never told Rosemary’s doctors about any of these conversations. I also didn’t tell them about the day, a month before she choked on her tongue, that she gave me a letter quoting Virginia Woolf’s suicide note: What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say thateverybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness.” I keep that thumbtacked to the wall in the room where I paint, which I guess is my studio, though I usually just think of it as the room where I paint.
I didn’t realize I was also insane, and that I’d probably always been insane, until a couple of years after Rosemary died. It’s a myth that crazy people don’t know they’re crazy. Many of use are surely as capable of epiphany and introspection as anyone else, maybe more so. I suspect we spend far more time thinking about our thoughts than do sane people. Still, it simply hadn’t occurred to me, that the way I saw the world meant that I had inherited the Phelps Family Curse” (to quote my Aunt Elaine, who has a penchant for melodramatic turns of phrase). Anyway, when it finally occurred to me that I wasn’t sane, I went to see a therapist at Rhode Island Hospital. I paid her a lot of money, and we talked (mostly I talked while she listened), and the hospital did some tests. When all was said and done, the psychiatrist told me I suffered from disorganized schizophrenia, which is also called hebephrenia, for Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth. Shethe psychiatristdidn’t tell me that last part; I looked it up myself. Hebephrenia is named after the Greek goddess of youth because it tends to manifest at puberty. I didn’t bother to point out that, if the way I thought and saw the world meant that I was schizophrenic, the crazy had started well before puberty. Anyway, later, after more tests, the diagnosis was changed to paranoid schizophrenia, which isn’t named after a Greek god, or any god that I’m aware of.
The psychiatrist, a women from Boston named Magdalene Ogilvya name that always puts me in mind of Edward Gorey or a P. G. Wodehouse novelfound the Phelps Family Curse very interesting, because, she said, there’s evidence to suggest that schizophrenia may be hereditary, at least in some cases. So, there you go. I’m crazy because Rosemary was crazy and had a kid, and Rosemary was crazy because my grandmother was crazy and had a kid (well, several, but only Rosemary lucked out and got the curse). I told Dr. Ogilvy the stories my grandmother used to tell about her mother’s sister, whose name was also Caroline. According to my grandmother, Caroline kept dead birds and mice in stoppered glass jars lined up on all her windowsills. She labeled each jar with a passage from the Bible. I told the psychiatrist I’d suspect that my Great Aunt Caroline might have only suffered from a keen interest in natural history, if not for the thing with the Bible verses. Then again, I said, it might have been she was trying to create a sort of concordance, correlating specific species with scripture, but Dr. Ogilvy said, no, she was likely also schizophrenic. I didn’t argue. Rarely do I feel like arguing with anyone.
So, I have my amber bottles of pills, my mostly reliable pharmacopeia of antipsychotics and sedatives, which are not half so interesting as my great aunt’s bottles of mice and sparrows. I have Risperdol, Depakene, and Valium, and so far I’ve stayed out of Butler Hospital, and I’ve only tried to kill myself. And only once. Or twice. Maybe I have the drugs to thank for this, or maybe I have my painting to thank, or maybe it’s my paintings and the fact that my girlfriend puts up with my weird shit and makes sure I take the pills and is great in the sack. Maybe my mother would have stuck around a little longer if she’d gotten laid now and then. As far as I know, no one has ever proposed sex therapy as a treatment for schizophrenia. But at least fucking doesn’t make me constipated or make my hands shakethank you, Mr. Risperdolor cause weight gain, fatigue, and acnethank you so much, Mr. Depakene. I think of all my pills as male, a fact I have not yet disclosed to my psychiatrist. I have a feeling she might feel compelled to make something troublesome of it, especially since she already knows about my how daddy should die” list.
My family’s lunacy lines up tidy as boxcars: grandmother, daughter, the daughter’s daughter, and, thrown in for good measure, the great aunt. Maybe the Curse goes even farther back than that, but I’m not much for genealogy. Whatever secrets my greatgrandmothers and greatgreatgrandmothers might have harbored and taken to their graves, I’ll let them be. I’m already sort of sorry I haven’t done the same for Rosemary Anne and Caroline. But they’re too much a part of my story, and I need them to tell it. Probably, I could be writing fabricated versions of them, fictional avatars to stand in for the women they actually were, but I knew both well enough to know neither would have wanted that. I can’t tell my story, or the parts of my story that I’m going to try to tell, without also...