Thursday, July 12, 2007

Buried alive

There is a mound of earth near the intersection of Lick Mill and Hope Drive in Santa Clara, California. Right now it is a rather anonymous mound of earth, with nothing to tell what it is, but when the developer sent a bulldozer to clear the brush and scrub off of it the bulldozer hit bones. Human bones.

Nobody knew what these bones were. Speculations were rampant. There was no record of a cemetery in that location. Was it an Indian burial mound? A Spanish land grant cemetery? Or what? The answer turned out to be, none of the above, and shows more about our society than you would think.

This land was the far corner of the Agnews Insane Asylum in 1906, a vast mental hospital run by the State of California where several buildings from the early 1900's are now preserved by Sun Microsystems as part of their corporate HQ (and how appropriate that is). None of the buildings that Sun Microsystems preserved dates to April 17, 1906. On April 17, 1906, Agnews Insane Asylum was a vast three and four story red brick building with multiple wings. On April 18, 1906, one wing of Agnews Insane Asylum collapsed and most of the rest of the building heavily damaged, shaken apart in the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 with the immediate loss of 112 lives and dozens more to die over the next few weeks from exposure or injuries. While every tent in the U.S. Army inventory was immediately on its way to San Francisco, it was not until days later that anybody outside of the hospital and its immediate community even knew about the problem at Agnews. In the meantime, to prevent disease, the surviving staff organized the surviving patients to dig a mass grave for the victims, who were then unceremoniously dumped in and covered with dirt. The mass grave was then forgotten, left to sit in a tangle of brush at a far corner of the asylum grounds until re-discovered by the developer. It took forensic anthropologists working with historians digging through archives dating to 1906 to re-discover the contents of this mass grave. Because, after all, the people buried in it were only crazies. Mentally unstable. Untermenschen, as you will. And then, as now, most people viewed these people as being failures, as being weak of mind and weak of will, rather than possessing a disease where their brain produces certain chemicals in the wrong proportions for proper functioning, so it wasn't as if they counted as real people, right?

I am in a beach town on the outskirts of a major city. There is a public restroom at this beach, and three homeless men are holding a very loud discussion about something I've deliberately moved out of earshot of. From experience I know that dealing with these men would be frustrating because they are untreated mentally ill and their minds work in ways that are not conducive to normal conversation, so I simply do not deal with them. After a while the men move away, and I move towards the public restroom. Through the door I see the ass ends of two more homeless men, and I know what they are doing -- they are shooting up. Undoubtedly if I continued through the door I would see white latex gloves and syringes all over as they self-treat their illness with a drug that they can obtain without going through doctors, pharmacists, insurance companies, and all those other things that as homeless mentally ill they have no access to. I move away and go elsewhere.

Later I am in a hotel near the center of this beach town. The surrounding houses are small well-kept cottages dating back to the 1940's and 1950's. The cars parked outside them are not expensive cars, not Mercedes and BMW and Lexus and such, but they are relatively new and shiny and proudly proclaim the middle-classness of these people who can afford to live in this beach town. If this were the early evening, I could walk along these streets and see the homeowners outside proudly pruning their landscaping. I imagine talking to one of them about what I saw at the beach. The confused stare at the outset as their suburban mindset is disturbed by the notion of something outside their own existence. The instant dismissal, "they're crazy, there's nothing to be done, they choose to live that way", not seeing the contradiction between saying they're mentally ill and saying they "chose", not seeing that it was the illness that did the choosing here. And of course there are things that could be done, easy access to doctors and medications and showers and secure lockers for their goods so that they can go to those doctors without fearing loss of what little they possess, and for those who will simply refuse to do so at least easy access to clean needles and secure places to shoot up so that the public restroom becomes merely a restroom again rather than a shooting gallery, but all of that would fall on deaf ears anyhow. Because these are only "crazies". Mentally ill. Weak-willed. Untermenschen, if you will. And acknowledging that they are instead ordinary human beings who were born with a problem with their brain chemistry would require actually, like, doing something. And for these well-dressed middle class people precariously hanging on to their pleasant little homes and their relatively new cars in the shaky economy that the Republican looting of our economy over the last 28 years has produced, doing something other than trying to get what little they can hold onto into their own greedy little hands is just too much work, too much effort, requires too much thought. And besides, those homeless guys at the beach? They're only crazies.

It seems to me that the only difference between 1906 and 2007 is that today, we don't wait until the mentally ill die before burying them. We do it while they're still alive. And pretend we're not doing it, as we do it. And when they do genuinely die, make sure it gets marked down as "pneumonia" or "heart failure" or whatever, not as what it really is: Suffocation due to being buried alive in a society that eats its own.

-- Badtux the Mental Health Penguin


  1. It wasn't that uncommon for mental institutions to bury their dead out behind the hospital in the 1800s and even early 1900s. In that era, the families of mentally ill would usually just as soon forget the mentally ill patient, even so far as to not having any contact, or even wanting to claim the body. I suppose that, in their eyes, the relatively had already died in spirit, if not in body. So, faced with a lack of funds, quite a few mental institutions would bury the deceased mental patients out on the back of the hospital grounds, usually either in unmarked, or poorly marked graves.

    Fast forward 100 years.

    The city wants to put a new road through, and the back grounds of the mental hospital site is a good place to put the road, since it means a minimal number of houses have to be destroyed. However, when the road crew sets off the explosives to clear out a layer of rock for the new road bed, and human bones start flying through the air, they know things aren't going to be good.

    The road was finally installed, three years late, since all of the remains had to be located, identified (as best as they could be), and then the graves moved.

    As far as burying the mentally ill before they're dead, part of the land behind the mental hospital here is now a shelter for homeless people:


  2. I am aware of the work of the Hope Center. Part of the condition for Sun demolishing most of the historical buildings at the Agnews State Hospital was that they donate land to the local chapter, which is now an apartment complex used as temporary housing for homeless families. They do not, however, deal well with the mentally ill homeless, who are incapable of handling the rules that the Hope Center folks enforce. As with the middle class folks in that beach town, they confuse incapability with willful choice, and view it as the mentally ill homeless choosing not to obey the rules -- when actually it is the chemistry of their brains doing the choosing, not the mentally ill homeless.

    - Badtux the Mental Health Penguin

  3. Egad, you do tackle some tough problems, Tux. If enough of us felt that strongly, we could probably get all human beings recognized as human beings instead of commodities or problems.

  4. I guess it depends on where they are at, here the mentally ill can find very good care, if they want to.

    As for digging up bones, that is a big problem in this area as the natives buried their dead all over the place and it's stopped a few good projects from being built here.

    I keep telling them that they need to change their thinking and culture. That they need to take up cremation, they just don't get it.

    But mark my words, in the future it will be their own people disturbing the old grave sites so that they can do other things with the land they are buried in.

    This planet is for the living, not the dead, and they need to get over that thinking.

  5. In many big city cemeteries it is already happening. After a few generations, the old bones are removed from the family plots and placed into family ossuaries to make room for new graves.

    Personally, I intend to be cremated. No one will remember my name when I'm gone anyhow. So why bother with the headstone and such?

    As for services being available for the mentally ill, when I was a young and idealistic penguin I had an opportunity to work for one such service. It did a great job of meeting the needs of some imagined poor mentally ill person, but assumed that said poor mentally ill person was rational enough to seek its services. Which, for the homeless mentally ill, was generally not the case -- said people tend to spend much of their time walking around talking to their imaginary friends, rather than doing rational things.

    - Badtux the Wandering Penguin

  6. BBC -- the "if they want to" part bothers me a little. My sister is bipolar. For years she did not know what the hell was wrong with her. How does one seek treatment when he or she doesn't know they're ill? Even after she was diagnosed, it took several years for her to get on the correct combinations and strengths of medicines to help her live a normal life.

    When someone is manic, they don't really wanna have help. They're having a blast. When someone is severely depressed, they wanna die. My sister has attempted suicide twice that I know of.

    When she was off her meds, or the combination of meds wasn't working, she drank to self-medicate. People thought she was an alcoholic, but she had to do something to make the brain pain more tolerable, and that was her drug of choice.

    It's bad, because you can't force someone to get help, and help's not always easy to come by when someone's ready for it.

  7. >Which, for the homeless mentally
    >ill, was generally not the case --
    >said people tend to spend much of
    >their time walking around talking
    >to their imaginary friends, rather
    >than doing rational things.

    Now, they spend most of their time walking around talking into little plastic boxes that they hold up to their head. These little plastic boxes usually have names like Nokia, Motorola, or Apple iPhone. Strangely, some of these people even claim that the little plastic boxes even talk back to them.


  8. There is a considerable difference between people who voluntarily choose to do delusional things such as talk to imaginary friends on those little boxes named "Nokia" "Motorola" etc., and people who have no choice but to do so due to issues of untreated brain chemistry disorders.

    - Badtux the Choice Penguin

  9. It is amazing how many seriously mentally ill people are sleeping on our streets.

  10. Mixter.... The laws here often stop others from helping the ill that are not thinking right.


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