I sent an email thanking Tom, and inviting him to write a post for our blog. Whatever you want to do, I think I said. It doesn't have to be about our books, or even books in general.
Tom sent an account of his return to the now-defunct Eloise Mental Hospital, which is really fantastic.
And for anyone keeping score, Tom hasn't let up: he's already ordered our Year 5 Subscription.
by Tom Bowden
Recently, a friend and I went to visit Eloise, or what remains of Eloise.
Once a state institution for the insane, Eloise was a square-mile campus with its own zip code, fire department, farm, and bakery. At its height as a sanitarium, Eloise had 75 buildings, including a bowling alley and theater. I grew up in Wayne, a small city abutting Eloise, and I had friends whose relatives worked there at one time or another—for an institution with what now approaches 170 years of history, knowing people who worked there was fairly common.
Eloise fronts Michigan Avenue, and so sits along the main road connecting Detroit to Chicago—a convenient place for dropping off the destitute (when it was a poorhouse during its first decades of operation), tubercular (which filled several of Eloise’s buildings), and just plain nutty (what it was most locally infamous for). Driving by Eloise from Wayne to Dearborn or Detroit, I would falteringly imagine the lives of those who slowly strolled the grounds behind the tall iron bars that surrounded this “gated community” or those who gently rocked on one of the pine gliders that faced the small artificial lake alongside east-bound Michigan Avenue, across the street. Hard to reconcile the serene, pastoral image I saw driving past with stories a former custodian told me of a feces-smearing patient convinced he was Donald Duck.
Adding to the mystique of what exactly happened on the grounds of Eloise, to the mystique of what happened at night in those basements lit by single bare bulbs, to the mystique of what the patients there were really like, was the presence of the Eloise Inn, a bar directly across the street from Eloise, at the southeast corner of Venoy Road and Michigan Avenue—a bar where the insane liked to toss back a few boilermakers and unwind with the locals. Some patients even sold their Eloise-issued shoes to buy booze at the Eloise Inn, I’ve been told. Who were the locals who went there? Why did they choose to frequent the Eloise Inn, of the dozen or so other bars in Wayne? What did the Eloise inmates and Wayne citizens make of each other? Were there brawls, or did Tiger games and blue-collar politics draw them together?
And about that farm—the patients not only grew their own food (talk about buying local!), but also grew their own tobacco and produced their own Eloise-brand cigarettes. I’m sorry to say that I don’t know if they could choose between filtered or unfiltered, menthol or regular. But the one photograph of an Eloise cigarette pack I saw suggests that they only came in soft packs—no hard-pack options. If only the cigarettes were sold to local stores—imagine the ad campaigns! the tough kids in junior high who would start with Eloise, not Kools! the rumors about brain damage and secret government test packs laced with LSD!
Which leads me to the therapies practiced there. According to the historical plaque now on the grounds of Eloise, the hospital was at the forefront of art, music, and electroshock therapies (no mention made of labotamies), as well as one I’d never heard of before: television therapy—which, now that I think about it, must account for 90 percent of my fellow Americans.
Only a few buildings remain standing. The former power plant is now surrounded by razor concertina wire—a precaution taken to protect vandals and teens who like to sneak onto the grounds, lured by tales of hauntings; who spray graffiti, and do whatever else bored teens like to do. The razor wire does a poor job of protecting trespassers, however (the power plant’s chimney, which had the word Eloise spelled out in bricks along its length, was torn down a few years ago—neglect frailed the smokestack, and bricks fell from it), because kids still get onto the grounds via the network of tunnels built during the Civil Defense phase of the Cold War, tunnels that extend to the communities surrounding Eloise, across the street.
When I was a teen during the 1970s, the heyday of sanitarium care was over. The patients I saw meandering the grounds as I drove past were all elderly. Entire buildings were empty, and even those still occupied look care-worn. Around the square mile of Eloise, the iron bars’ and gates’ purpose seemed more to protect an underfunded museum from the elements than to protect straying, confused humans from wandering onto busy roads, running away, or worse.
Two sets of stairs lead to the main building’s front doors. One set of stairs is cordoned off by plastic ribbon—the wood is rotted through and unsafe to walk upon. The other set of stairs creaks and bows when stepped upon but at least isn’t yet breaking through. My friend Gary photographed me standing under one of the Civil Defense air-raid shelter signs at the front of the main building. The wooden planking I stood on under the sign threatened to give way.
Afterward, we drove to the potter’s field about a half mile from Eloise, where 7,100 patients are buried. The stones, lying flush with the ground to mark their graves, never acknowledged the names of those whose lives were spent surrendered to madness, poverty, and disease. Only numbers were assigned to each of the dead, to each of the grave markers. Gary and I searched through the tall, overgrown grass to photograph some of these markers, combing through the strands with our fingers, pushing aside clumps with our hands.
Instead of markers, we found under the grass small rectangular patches of dirt. Even the numbers have been removed.