by Gary Bachman, MSSW
When I was hired to set up the Psychiatric Emergency Services unit for (City of) Austin/Travis County, Texas, Mental Health & Mental Retardation Center, I spent some time working with the admissions personnel at the state psychiatric hospital. Through that process, I became friends with some of the hospital security personnel and, thus, one dark and stormy night, one of the guards rattled his giant ring of old keys and asked me if I wanted to see "the brain museum." Seriously. I'd heard rumors about this peculiar collection of cranial content, but the potential reality had thus far only been that: a rumor. And now, here was my chance to see the (mostly) unseen.
Now, the administration building at the Austin State Hospital was a giant stone castle dating to the 1880s and frankly looked like a perfect site for an old fashioned horror movie. The stone for the walls had reportedly been quarried from beneath the building itself, and the stairs to the basement seemed cut directly into the bedrock. But they also showed the worn down pathway scoured by a century of shuffling drugged footsteps.
On the side of one of the basement hallways was a heavy steel door, set with a steel framework bolted into the stone wall. The particular key was a massively big tool that turned the tumbler with an audible thunk. And the door itself squealed open, frighteningly like the best thriller sound effect you might ever conjure.
From the hallway's fluorescent lighting, the cavernous room was revealed to hold wooden shelves from floor to ceiling made of rough, unpainted pine 2x4's and 1x6's. And on each shelf were 5-gallon, clear glass jars. There were dozens visible from the doorway. And then the security guy (you could hardly have called him a guard) pulled a string hanging from the ceiling, and an ancient clear incandescent bulb cast its 200 watts of brilliance (and shadows) deeper into the cerebral tomb. Holy grey matter! There were hundreds of the jars, each with a friction fit lid, and each variously full of a fluid that ranged in color from that of gasoline to that of (relatively clear) creek water. And each jar also held what had at one time been some lost soul's brain. (Hopes, fears, dreams, memories... Oh that they might talk!)
The jars with the clear fluid apparently had better seals, as those brains were full and plump and grey. Some were marked with clear and obvious abnormalities and peculiar growths. The jars with the more opaque solutions were also less full, as if the poorly fitting lids had allowed the suspension to evaporate, and those brains thus exposed to the atmosphere were thus revealed in various stages of sustained or suspended decomposition.
At one time, each jar had obviously been identified with a number and a date or diagnosis typed on a sticky label that likely corresponded with some master list, somewhere. But most of the labels had long since dried out and detached from the jars to lie on the ground like a macabre fall of leaves. (And I briefly visualized some long dead orderly, scribbling a number on the label before moistening the back with his tongue and slapping it on the jar. Yum.)
At the time of my late night visit in the early 1980s, the museum had sat largely forgotten, and attempts to give it away to some institution that might have a scientific use for the old noggins had been persistently futile, as there were as many questions about the procedures used to acquire and keep the brains as there were questions of liability related to the potential toxic nature of the suspending solution. I understand it was another 20 years before the hospital could confirm an arrangement for transfer of the brains to a suitable scientific venue at the nearby University of Texas.
Reflecting on this episode, I wonder at the propriety of displaying these very clearly human remains. And I recall the legislation pursued in the 1970s by Native American tribes to claim and properly care for the remains of "prehistoric" tribal elders who, until that legal claim, had been displayed in museums and other roadside tourist attractions.
Not trying to agitate a dispute here, but I must ask: Who speaks for those long deceased and nameless people whose gray matter remains? Are they no longer human, as their names have been conveniently and permanently lost? (Had they perhaps lost their identity the moment the institutional doors shut behind them?) Is the diagnosis, in fact, now their only identity or legacy?
Consider this: Our disturbed (disturbing) relations - once shuffled off to distant state institutions, assigned a number, and erased from the family Bible - are in the name of “deinstitutionalization” and “fiscal reality” (or reduced taxes) now being turned to our city streets, jails, and prisons. And there, similarly forgotten. So let me ask a pointed question on this “All Hallows” day: who speaks for the chronically and persistently mentally ill, if social workers don’t? What will be our legacy? And which story here is really the most frightening to imagine?
Don’t for a moment suppose that this is a potential plot line for some new episode of The Walking Dead!
Gary Bachman, MSSW, is an Associate Professor of Social Work at Park University in Parkville, Missouri.