July 30, 2010

Heavy-Hearted Bryce

I recently came across some information on Bryce, the old state hospital in Tuscaloosa, AL, for the "insane," that blew my mind.

At just one of the four cemeteries, there is a historic statement on a plaque that reads as follows:

"This is the oldest of four historic cemeteries located on the
campus of Bryce Hospital, Alabama’s oldest mental health
facility. The first recorded burial dates to 1861. While only
a few graves are currently marked, it is estimated that
thousands of individuals are buried here. Bryce Hospital is
one of the most historic and architecturally significant public
institutions in the U.S. Established in 1852 at the height of
the psychiatric reform movement known as 'moral treatment,'
the hospital was among the first mental health facilities in
the country to employ architectural design and a pastoral
setting as essential components in the treatment of mental
illness. Through Wyatt v. Stickney, the landmark federal
lawsuit initiated in 1971, Bryce Hospital became the
center of the civil rights movement for people who
experience mental illness."

I went to this place. I had to see it for myself. I climbed the hill and found the plaque, and took a look around me. My heart broke as I imagined what it should look like. There should be thousands of headstones, each with a name, each with a memory, each with a lifetime beneath its morbid scrawl. It should look like Arlington or something, rows upon rows of sobering reminders of our mortality and the indifference with which Death takes each and every one of us.

But there were three headstones.


The first headstone I went to said nothing. It was broken, all text or lettering worn away with time and weather. The second grave-marker said only, "Jesus, Lover Of My Soul Was Her Favorite Song From The Age Of Two." I didn't have the heart to go to the third.

While wandering the few acres that comprise the cemetery, I stumbled upon a fallen marker. I looked at it, and was able to pick out what it said, despite the rough-hewn stone and sloppy, child-like characters.



I broke down as I saw that. So many people, with no names, no faces, no memories. Just people, former patients of Bryce Hospital- "crazy people." People that the majority didn't understand, so the majority locked them away. People like me. What if I had lived a hundred years ago? Would my personality disorder be considered "insane" enough for something like that? Like this? I guess I can just be glad that I don't have to find out.

I am unashamed to say that I wept for those people. People, not "nutcases," or "loonies," or "crazies," or "patients." People who had faces, names, dreams, and families, at one point, just like you and I. And then they were abandoned by everyone and everything they knew, committed all at once to a lifetime of loneliness behind padded bars, and a burial with only the gravediggers for a funeral. They were locked away because they were different, because they suffered, because they were tormented, and even after they died, nobody came for them.

There's so much to be said here. There's so much to be done here. And this was just one of the four cemeteries. I couldn't even go to the others. It was all too much. In these unmarked graves, I saw thousands of lifetimes of pain and anguish, and, for each, the indifference of the rest of the world, of their families or relatives, of the friends they never had and never would have.

And as I looked out over all of these resting places, I couldn't help but think,

This is our tragedy.


jnash said...

Wow, Bruder. Awesome. I want to visit that cemetery now.

Anonymous said...

You have a powerful gifting with words. You never have to worry about being forgotten, but to have one's eyes opened means something- has purpose.
God is at work in you, Casey Bennett.

Anonymous said...

Casey, God truly has blessed you with a gift! you must share that gift to all who will let it reach them. this gift is not only for others, but also for you! remember this when times are rough and especially when times are good!

heather said...

What you speak of is a tragedy. It represents losses that I can only begin to comprehend. It is very sad...but also scary. Scary that that happened not too long ago. Frightening that many go today into hospitals or offices wanting that anonymity because of the stigma and the shame. I hope that too, changes. One way to do that is to hold each other up as we walk these tough journeys here on earth. Thanks for once again sharing such powerful experiences and insights.