Monday, November 03, 2014

Minds of McLean Hospital: A Creative Balance: A Report on the Poets in the Asylum panel at the Boston Book Festival (Oct., 2014)


Minds of McLean Hospital: A Creative Balance: A Report on the Poets in the Asylum panel at the Boston Book Festival (Oct., 2014)

By Emily Pineau

    “McLean is a very beautiful place…the environment, the landscape…There are fake coyotes and wolves to scare off the geese. [But the] geese are not afraid of them because they know they aren’t real and I love this,” said poet and psychotherapist, Wendy Ranan, at the panel “Poets in the Asylum: The Poets of McLean Hospital” during the Boston Book Festival on October 25th, 2014. The panel was hosted by professor Doug Holder from Endicott College, who also has been a poetry group leader at McLean Hospital since 1982. The panel included Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam  (Gracefully Insane), Wendy Ranan ( The Quiet Room), Kathleen Spivack (  With Robert Lowell and his Circle), and Lois Ames (Confidante to Plath and Sexton--introduction to The Bell Jar).  McLean Hospital, a psychiatric hospital located in Belmont, MA, has been declared a national literary landmark due to the number of creative geniuses who have been treated there. Lois Ames opined that through poetry especially, patients are able to look at themselves, outside of themselves.  Poetry also allows patients to “develop their sense of continuity,” and to feel like there is a part of them worth seeing and exploring,

    Anne Sexton, who had taught poetry at McLean hospital, struggled with the concept of teaching patients at first because she did not want to hurt anyone’s fragile feelings.  This is when she turned to her friend and confidant, Lois Ames, and asked Ames to monitor her  poetry group and to give her guidance when needed.  Though, after watching Sexton, there was no critique to give because her method was immaculate.  Sexton later said to Ames, “I looked at the faces and looked at the eyes and all of [the patients] submitting poems.”  It is clear that Sexton deeply cared about teaching and how her words affected each of her patients.  Kathleen Spivack, author of With Robert Lowell and His Circle, added, “You knew you had Ann Sexton’s entire attention and that she cared.”  This type of dedication is what patients carry with them.  It is also this kind of love that has the potential to impact many patients’ lives and their writing. 

    After Ames talked about Sexton and the benefits of poetry at McLean, there was an opportunity to ask questions.  A patient (or past patient) at McLean attending this event was the first to take the microphone when this open discussion began.  When he started to speak, his demeanor and tone made it feel like he was starting a poetry slam.  He began, “This sums up Mclean,” and then he took a breath.  Every other word became the “f” word.  He continued and said:

    "We talk about fucking humiliation?  Every fucking night I stay in fucking ... McLean is fucking humiliating.  In the fucking quiet room...You want to know ...why I didn’t fucking kill myself?  Because I fucking failed.  At McLean I don’t... have a fucking creative bone in my fucking body.  It fucking drained it all out of me.  [Do you want to hear] the fucking truth about Mclean? [A patient there] fucking told me he was raped by [one of the workers] there." 

Doug Holder, the moderator of the discussion, encouraged the speaker to give someone else a turn to talk after he went on for awhile, and emphasized that the speaker had the right to his opinion, but that McLean has also helped a great number of people.  When the speaker put the microphone down and made his way to the door he added, “It’s not my fucking opinion.  It is the truth about what happened.”  After he left, Kathleen Spivack stepped in and talked about how the man was not wrong, and how she wishes that he did not leave so that they could have an open and honest discussion.  Unfortunately, not everyone is going to have a positive experience at McLean or any psychiatric hospital.  Also, not all psychiatric patients feel creative or want to write poetry.

    Once the awkward stillness of the room was cleared more questions were able to bring the calmness back.  Someone asked, “Is manic depression part of the creative picture?”  Spivack answered by explaining that it is a case-by-case thing.  If you are mentally ill this does not automatically mean you are creative, and if you are creative this does not indicate that you are depressed.  Also, earlier on in the discussion Ames stated, “[When it comes to creativity and mental illness] people write poetry in altered states of consciousness.”  In some ways mental illness does have a way of fueling creativity, and creativity allows someone to use an uncontrollable part of him or herself in a beautiful way.

    As the discussion came to a close Ames said, “I am 83-years-old, and you have to just keep pushing.” This relentless attitude can be used when writing poetry and when struggling with the battles of your mind.  Resources such as McLean hospital, poetry, and teachers give mentally ill people the opportunity to reach out.  And with this opportunity people may find the strength to “keep pushing.”


 Emily Pineau studies creative writing at Endicott College. Her poetry has appeared in the anthology, Like One: Poems For Boston, and in newspapers and literary journals such as the Somerville News, The Endicott Observer, The Endicott Review, Ibbetson Street, and Muddy River Poetry Review. In 2012 her poem, "I would for you" was nominated for a pushcart prize. In 2013 The Ibbetson Street Press published her poetry collection, No Need to Speak as part of the Endicott College/Ibbetson Street Press/Young Poet Series. She is currently an intern at Agni magazine at Boston University.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent piece, and made more so by the interjection of the man who did not find solace in poetry and did not like McLean. It gave this piece a huge shake and will make it stay in my mind. Thanks for including this controversy in the piece and for writing this.