Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Literature and the Arts in the Transitional Living Center at McLean Hospital

Literature and the Arts in the Transitional Living Center at McLean Hospital

By Doug Holder

Some years ago Alex Beam, The Boston Globe columnist came to my then home on Ibbetson Street in Somerville, Mass., to interview me about the role of poets and poetry at McLean Hospital. Beam was doing research on his book about the history of McLean: Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital.
McLean Hospital has a rich literary past and has been declared a national literary landmark. Poets Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and others had “residencies” at the hospital. Anne Sexton ran her famed poetry groups here and was briefly hospitalized at McLean shortly before her death by suicide. I had the privilege to interview Lois Ames, the social worker for Sylvia Plath and Sexton, and the author of the introduction to Plath’s novel “The Bell Jar” that was set on these grounds.

For 20 years I worked on the inpatient units of McLean Hospital as a mental health worker. And since I am a poet, I made of point of running poetry groups for patients who resided on the units. I worked with an eclectic group of clients on several units. I helped them with their poems, conducted informal readings and even publishing some of their work in the now defunct literary journal “The Boston Poet.”

When I took a new position at the Transitional Living Center at Waverly House at McLean I hoped to continue the literary tradition that I established, and that was inherent at the hospital. The Transitional Living Care Center at McLean, according to its website, is a “… private pay program designed for men and women, age 18, and older, who are involved in psychiatric treatment and require a staff supported setting. For many persons with psychiatric illness, brief hospital stays alone are not sufficient to full recovery and return to normal living. The Transitional Living Center provides a setting for comprehensive treatment, and support of family members by providing the intensive assistance that recovering patients require.”

Shortly after I was hired by Robin Weiss, the program director, Richard Wilhelm, a friend of mine and the arts editor for my small literary press “Ibbetson Street” came aboard. Richard is an artist and a poet, and another staff member at that time Jennifer Matthews was a vocalist and a poet, so it was like a writer’s retreat on the campus of the hospital.

On the inpatient unit you more or less had a captive audience. The patients had to have privileges to leave the unit, so a poetry group in the evening could be a welcomed change from the usual didactic groups in the day. At Waverly House it is vastly different. The house is loosely structured, and the clients for the most part can come and go as they please. I focused my efforts on clients who expressed strong interests in the arts and literature. Some clients who studied writing in college brought whole collections of their poetry to the house. Often Richard and I would sit down with folks and workshop their poems and some even saw their work appear in my literary column in The Somerville News.

Other clients expressed interest in literary journalism, and in this regard I was able to help as well. For many years I have been the arts/editor for The Somerville News, and I have frequently gotten internships for students, friends, etc… I can remember one client, a law school dropout, who seemed to have lost direction. He got an internship at the paper, secured a paid editorship, and then went on to the Boston Herald organization. Another client got her first clippings at the paper, which made her professional journalist father beam with pride.

I have also hooked up clients with literary internships, with magazines like “the new renaissance,” as well as other publications. One client was studying for his PhD in Psychology but also had a strong interest in mystery and science fiction writing. I introduced him to the world of little magazines and online publishing and he racked up an impressive number of publication credits in a short time. We even appeared in the same online journal: his story, my poem.

I also have an affiliation with a local art gallery in Cambridge, “The Out of the Blue Art Gallery.” A number of clients have held volunteer jobs there, helping with publicity, with sales, and other duties .One recent client volunteered at the gallery and made a connection with an organizer at a local film festival. She wound up getting valuable experience writing press releases for the festival.

I find that patients that are involved in the arts have a greater sense of self-esteem, and it helps them get involved with the community, the larger world, hopefully realizing the mission statement of our program, namely transitioning clients back into the community for a fruitful and productive life.

1 comment:

  1. This is such a fascinating subject. I'd love to hear more, especially about your last sentence in the article - about what writing poetry in the center does for the writers.