I have a painting in my office that I’ve struggled to finish. It’s a painting over a painting, actually—one passage of time concealing another, I suppose.
The scene is of women, different females gathered in a room. Some sit at round tables, the rest, as a human curtain standing behind them.
The women are misshapen, bald, dappled in acrylic colored skin that is anything but natural. They have claws rather than hands, have clubs for feet, and are expressionless.
It’s a frustrating piece, unfinished, just hanging around staring at me waiting to be completed. There are two reasons for my irritation—First, I’m not a great painter. I’m serious, this is not some form of false modesty. I’m not very good, and it really, really bugs me. I want to be a good artist.
The second issue is I have no clear idea what I want to paint. What’s the story? What’s the scene? Why this room full of women? What am I trying to say? I don’t know.
I’m terribly impatient when it comes to this and anything else I try to accomplish. I want it done perfectly, and I want it done now. Both now and perfectly rarely happens for anyone. I know this, but still…
Like painting, when it comes to my world, I’m compelled to fix the wrongs and make something beautiful, to make art. The problem is, I have no idea how to go about doing this.
What started out as a hunt for my Great-aunt Glenna has shifted, spawning into a search party for hundreds of women lost to history. The women I’m tracking are from the 1940 Federal Census of State Hospital South in Blackfoot, Idaho.
In re-humanizing these people, I realized I had to give them back their identities. They need their names—they need their names spelled correctly!
Weeks of compiling lists, cross referencing official documents, and going cross-eyed reading cursive handwriting from faded microfiche, I made name correction requests for fifty women on Ancestry.com.
I also figured out that of approximately three hundred female patients listed in the Census, 1 out of 6 names (so far) are mistranslated or misspelled. On top of that, I found sixty-two death certificates of women who had died in the hospital. Sixty-two deaths that are seen as nothing, no big deal, nothing to see here, shit happens. I know this because I’ve read the reports.
Each Certificate of Death reads like a horrible existence across an unapologetic form. Under Place of Death, the county, the city, the hospital or institution name, and the length of time the patient was in the facility are typed out.
Other sections have the place the patient lived when not at the facility, followed by her name, birthdate, birthplace, age at the time of death, occupation, and if married, single, divorced, or widowed.
Next comes her parents’ names and places of birth (strange, when the next of kin should be her husband or her children). Then comes her diagnosis and complications that led to her death with the length of time she had those ailments. The diagnosis is abstract.
“Congestive heart failure [for] fifteen years.” Next to other significant conditions might be “Schizophrenia Paranoid, thirty years.” The box for Autopsy performed is rarely checked, yes.
It doesn’t add up! Two issues constantly show up on these certificates—a heart issue referred to as “Arteriosclerosis” and some form of crazy “Dementia Praecox” (or young dementia), “Schizophrenia” or “Senility.” There is also “Epilepsy,” which seems to have landed several women in the facility for life.
These diagnoses seal their fate. The women become lifers in State Hospital South, most leaving in a box after spending twenty, thirty, even fifty years in the sanatorium.
I know the more I investigate, the more death certificates I’ll find connected to the hospital. I presume this is why the institution hides behind HIPAA laws, determined to keep me and anyone else who requests medical records from getting our curious and grubby hands on them.
They want to avoid exposure of the past. They hope to rewrite history by ignoring it. They are wrong. Lies come out because they always do.
But then, why, someone might ask, if the hospital is hiding what happened to these people, would they have so many death certificates out on display, on the world wide web like they do?
Perhaps in the name of transparency? Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe loved ones of the deceased put them online. Every one of these death certificates I found on Ancestry.com.
However, suspecting this and proving this are two different things I have no idea how to reconcile.
It’s Ironic! If the hospital did put out the death certificates, and Glenna had died in the Blackfoot Idaho asylum, I would know what happened to her. But, because she survived her imprisonment and unknown torture, I am left to wonder and imagine the worse.
My quest for the truth is slow going, and I’m unsure of the direction it will take or even which path I should or should not pursue. It’s so exasperating!
As I sit in my office, I realize this whole situation is like looking at an unfinished painting, one done by an unskilled artist—a group of almost haunting and faceless women waits for wholeness, for their image, their being to be corrected, their reason to exist to be recognized, for their moment to be understood and their story told. And I’m just a writer wielding a paintbrush.