Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Opal: Alpina

From Shorpy
Yesterday I read a blurb about annual festivals at the Utica Asylum in Janet Miron's book Prisons, Asylums, and the Public: Institutional Visiting in the Nineteenth Century. I wanted to learn a little bit more about those festivals. That's how I found this image which dates from the 1890s. From there, one click followed another and before I knew it I had entered into the Google rabbit hole. I came back up with The Opal. 

The Opal was published in the 1850s by the New York Lunatic Asylum in Utica. Only two of the ten volumes appear to be available online. The others are locked up in various libraries. I've unleashed my irreverent librarian network to see if I might acquire access to these other volumes. 

Benjamin Reiss writes that the patients at the asylum were given "unusual, but not unprecedented, platform to address the public. The Opal, the patients’ literary journal, grew out of a school for patients run by the doctors; its first issue in 1850 was pen-printed and distributed only within the asylum. The next issues were sold at an asylum fair, and by 1851, the journal was published on the asylum’s printing press" 

The journal, of course, doesn't present a complete view of patient life at the asylum. Reiss points out that the journal "was an outlet only for those patients whose voices were deemed appropriate; even then, those voices only partially captured the experiences and thoughts of the authors, who always had to self-censor in order to find their way into print."

So let's take a peek inside volume II of The Opal. First published in 1852, my digitized copy is 382 pages and comprises of twelve monthly installments. The periodical, as described on the opening page to the right, is "Devoted to Usefulness" and "Edited By The Patients." 

I wonder what use the volume has 160 years later? I'm more than a little excited to read through the text and see who reaches out from the past and tells us something interesting about ourselves today.

As I read along I'm going to track themes that I'm thinking about. They'll appear in my commentary in bold. See a theme that I miss or think I've got something wrong? Leave a comment--this might turn into something larger than an occasional blog post. Your help is appreciated.

First up is Alpina: A Tale of Switzerland. Our anonymous author writes seven pages of prose that takes us on a journey from her home in Switzerland, to her passage to America by sea, to her eventual marriage and settlement in Indiana. 

I've selected a few passages that stand out to me. 
"Alpina herself entered her Father's and Mother's apartment, with a fresh unction on her soul, and kneeling at the bed-side of her inebriated parent, poured fourth in convulsive sobs, half stifled ejaculations, for his restoration to reason and duty." 
The facts of the author of Alpina are undoubtedly lost to history. We'll assume the author wrote some sort of fiction that was inspired by lived experience. There are two things that stand out to me in this particular passage: (1) the author makes mention of childhood complications that have an effect on later life development and (2) the theme of restoration to a state of sanity (described as reason and duty).
"Refinement of manners is always agreeable, and this young and only daughter was the idol of a fond parent. She never told her grief for his debasement, but let concealment, like a worm in the bad, feed on her damask cheek  and unlike the custom of the world, she never intimated that her Father was an inebriate, or told him how wretched he was."
Our author again speaks to childhood complications and adds a new dimension to their experience: silence. I wonder why the author decided, unlike the custom of the world, to keep silent about the alcoholism and wretchedness of Alpina's father.
"Educated as she was to prefer others, to bring herself to the wishes of others, and to seek their best good and usefulness, she lent her ear to sorrow in its every form, and gave her heart to sympathies, and her actions to engagements that tend to woo. No reproof, nor innuendoes, let a suspicion in those whom she sought to ameliorate, but with every look of love, and every smile of sweetness  and each embrace she gave her parent it seemed as if an angel girded him around--and her kisses and tears (a lady's most powerful battery,) divested him of that rudeness he had acquired by associations with the reckless and the unprincipled."
Here our author gives some suggestions on their views of the roles of women. That role was one of limited power. Alpinia appears to have few tools of agency at her disposal: tears and kisses.
Alpina's father emigrated to the United States first and settled on a homestead in Indiana  "So soon as possible after he had made his home in order, he sent to the Counsel at Basle to convey with all despatch (sic) his wife and daughter to his adopted country.... Being the worst sailors in the world, they suffered very much from the illness generally attendant to ship board novices. Alpina and the little children recovered from their serious illness, but the mother sickened and died. Here was the outbreaking of Alpina's mental aberrations, for her gentle spirit could not broke so many sorrows, and she bent and snapped--a tender plant,--which the winds and storms had visited too roughly. As Alpina gazed at the form of her lifeless Mother, she was mute, her grief was too deep, she could not realize her loss. So powerful was her attachment, that all she heard or saw was only a part of the loved object that was motionless in death."
Themes here of grief and etiology of mental illness. The author also hints that emotions (grief, in this passage) can cause a loss of agency.
"Painful indeed it was, to see her approach the dear one in her grave dress  and that grave to be the bottomless Sea. But she did come up to the last kiss, embrace and farewell--and old salt, all bathed in tears, caught her up in his arms, and let her kiss the clay-cold lips of her Mother. Poor Alphina!--Poor Alpina! She was dumb with emotion, and loneliness -and felt the luxury of grief oozing out of her living soul--awhile after the sad ceremonials."
Here our author touches on themes about emotions (grief) and death.
"On arriving at their destined port, Alpina was placed in one of those blessings to mankind, named Asylums, where under the care of its Physician, she became soothed and restored."
Here we have our first mention of an asylum. The author suggests that an asylum is a place for caring for ones emotions (soothing) as well as restoration. I wonder if our author really found restoration at the asylum? Perhaps so, or, perhaps the author was trying to curry favor with a physician and was saying what needed to be said to be released.
"Would that all were as grateful as Alpina Swartz, for that restoration to health, induced by the skill, science and humanity of an Asylum, and as she glided over the splendid "high ways and by ways," to her new home in the far west, her countenance, manner and intelligence bespoke an interest in her behalf that words could not express."
Now the author here had not yet been released from the asylum. This passage perhaps represents a hope for the future--being released from the asylum, traveling far away, and being reunited with their family. Note here the reference to agency--here described as a self-interest.
"The hour of grief is the hour for love, and Alpina was deeply sympathized with by a kind young hoosier who had entered Justice Swartz's office to become a lawyer. And he won upon her affections; always together, their union was inseparable, and they were permitted to join hearts and hands--and live as members of the same family on Earth,--hoping to meet a dear departed mother in Heaven."
The story of Alpina ends with marriage. A hope to be cared for someone in the future in a loving way, and a hope to be reconnected once again with her dead mother in heaven. Also more reference here to the theme of emotions.

That's it for the Opal for now. Come back later for more.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

If Your Colors Were Like My Dreams

My mother likes email. It's almost a condition.

Seriously. It appears that she spends several hours each and every day carefully curating her collection of incoming e-mail. Mom crafts mailing lists of people with similar interests and sends out a daily dispatch of information that people might like to know. I even have my own category: of interest to you.

So the other day in my daily dispatch I received this petition.
My son Ryan has been a Boy Scout since he was 6 years old, and now, a few days before his 18th birthday, he has fulfilled all the requirements to be an Eagle Scout. But because Ryan recently came out to his friends and family as gay, leaders from our local Boy Scout troop say they won't approve Ryan's Eagle award.
None of this is surprising as the Boy Scouts have reaffirmed their anti-gay policies over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. Preventing Ryan from becoming an Eagle Scout is consistent with their stated policy. It shouldn't come as a surprise to both Ryan and his mother that this has happened.

This blog post, however, isn't really about the Boy Scouts or Ryan Andersen. The email from my mother transported me back to Zellers Elementary School

In either fifth or sixth grade music class we had to research a band we liked and give a presentation about that band. Classmates picked the popular bands of the time. Unbeknownst to me, it was important to pick the right kind of popular bands. Liking certain kinds of music in my school allowed you to fit in with the crowd and be considered likable. I recall presentations about Quiet Riot, Journey, and Def Leppard. That's what the in-crowed liked (or at least pretended to like).

Being a young iconoclast and being totally unlike the other boys, I took the road less traveled. I never picked the things that were popular in school. It was like everyone except me received a popularity decoder ring.

I was enthralled with British and Euro-Pop music in grade school. This was not a "cool kid" approved preference. As you might imagine, I took some flack for my presentation on Boy George in my rather conservative suburban elementary school in Strongsville Ohio. I even took flack from my teachers.

Mr. Smith sporting some short-shorts.
At some point in sixth grade, my classroom teacher Joe Smith and music teacher Eric Richardson, called my parents in for a special conference. They were concerned that I wasn't like the other boys. Too sensitive, they said. When pressed by my parents about what too sensitive means, they explained they were concerned that I might be gay. "When he gets to middle school he will be eaten alive by the other boys."

"Have him join the Boy Scouts," they implored my parents. "It'll toughen him up."

Smart thinking, eh? He might be gay. Change who he is. That'll work. Not once did it occur to these men that I might need to be nurtured and protected. Not once did it occur to them I might need to be equipped with skills at managing bullying. Nope. Just change him. That'll fix the problem.

I wasn't at the meeting. My parents, as I am told, unleashed their own particular brand of wrath upon these teachers. There was always one thing that was clear with my parents: there was always space to be exactly who I was. Getting in the way of my process of self-discovery wasn't a wise thing for an educator to do. My parents ate those sorts of educators alive.

To this day, I think those two men trying to impose a certain way of being a young man upon me was the most heinous and grievous act of violence that educators have ever perpetrated upon me. Rather than support me, encourage me, and protect me in my own process of growth and discovery, they attempted to shame and guilt me into being someone other than who I was.

Of course, they didn't really know who I was. They just had a feeling that whoever I was, wasn't the right kind of boy to be.

They wanted to give me that popularity decoder ring. Be like the other boys. Fit in. Conform.

In a way, Smith and Richardson were right. I was eaten alive in junior high. Those three years were some of the most unpleasant years of my life. I also wouldn't have had it any other way. In the midst of the horror show known as junior high, I found some real educators who nurtured, encouraged, and protected me. I can think of three teachers who helped give me another kind of decoder ring: the kind that eventually helped me discover who I am.

There is nothing more powerful than dreaming and living in the colors of  my own dreams. I needed Smith and Richardson to see me, give me the tools to be me, and create a protected place so I could grow into that man. I didn't need them to tell me who to be.

If they could see me now they'd probably still want me to be someone other than who I am. Rather than eat them alive, I think I might like to put on a top hat and sing this: