Lately, I’ve been hanging out in: Rhinestone (a one-stoplight town with as many pawn shops and strip clubs as gun shops) and Slumberland (a new-age mental hospital that relies on Jungian methods of dreaming as it’s prime healing modality).
Setting can be so much more important than simply a place to set your story. Setting can be a character in and of itself. To sup in Rhinestone you need a ten-foot spoon. To sleep in Slumberland you need some electrodes, sleeping pills, and a roommate with an eating disorder.
What better way to get inspired to write about really weird (but familiar-feeling) places? Travel! Field Trips! Yay! (Have you gone anywhere recently that has been major inspiration for a setting that you are writing? Tell me in the comments below!)
I first learned about Rockhaven Sanitarium by reading this Huffington Post article, which calls it “America’s first feminist asylum.” My interest was immediately piqued—so I did research, found out that Atlas Obscura was doing tours, and signed up!
The 1920’s were not a high point for mental hospitals. We’ve all heard tales (or we’ve watched American Horror Story: Asylum, which actually takes place in the 1960’s) of the overmedication, electrockshock therapy, restraints, forced sterilizations, lobotomies, disgusting living conditions, solitary confinement—the list of inhumane treatment goes on and on…
But then this woman, Agnes Richards—who worked in other psych hospitals and was dismayed by the treatment of patients—opened Rockhaven in 1926. Finally, a facility for women that was based on a completely different model: Dignity!
Looking more like a resort than an institution, Rockhaven was composed of a neighborhood of bungalows, with flowerbeds and gardens in between. Richards' aim was to create a sense of home. The women there were expected to live up to their potential—to get dressed everyday, to take part in shared meals, art projects, and field trips; to have visitors, interact with one another, and to have input regarding their treatment.
A number of crumbling starlets had stints in this bin, including Glinda the Good Witch and Marilyn Monroe’s mama. I like to imagine my own great-great grandmothers residing there, their coifs in bobby pins, lipstick on straight, kitten heels prancing down the walkways. The sunshine and air making them feel ten times better than when they checked themselves in.
When I first got to Rockhaven, I was immediately struck by how clean the air seemed (and just 13 miles outside of LA!) As I walked through the grounds, springtime blossoming around me, the trees shading me, I felt secure.
But, when I entered the first bungalow, something shifted. And, with each bungalow, my heart slowly started to get closer and closer to my stomach. Most of the buildings are in disrepair; some were so full of mold that I could barely breathe, some were so full of sadness and death that I could barely stand up. (I always think that I'm going to like abandoned, haunted places--I get excited about the weird, macabre spookiness awaiting me, but then I just end up with a tummyache.)
Maybe this has something with me being too sensitive to memory, to energy, to ghosts, but I’m not totally sure how I feel about this whole spectacle. I felt like I was seeing something that I was not supposed to be seeing.
As awesome and progressive as the treatment was (Richards was integrating art and music therapy modalities much earlier than most!), women went to this sanitarium because they were hurting, because they were grieving, because something in their life felt completely out of their control.
The energy of that grief still lingers. There is not enough flowered wallpaper or perfectly placed yellow tile in the world to get rid of that.
I am glad that this place existed—it is a monument to mental health advocacy and to feminism. I am also glad that it was able to help the women that it did. But from my perspective, we don’t need the brick-&-mortar buildings to remember the legacy of this place—we need more places like it. And we need to tell the stories of the women who were there.
Watching it crumble into something so broken and moldy is simply heartbreaking. We should be using it as a model for going forward, instead of holding onto it as a relic of the past.
I am going to insert the photos that I took, because I took them for the purpose of this blog, but there is something that seems invasive about it--like I am betraying someone’s confidence, someone’s trust, like I am exposing something that isn’t mine to expose. (This is the same way that I feel when photographing people’s tombstones, or taking photos at Alcatraz or war memorials.) I ask you to be respectful when looking through the photos below. Women lived in these rooms. These are their things, their spaces, their names.