When I was in my early 20s, a friend and I visited her father in Wayne County Psychiatric Hospital, aka Eloise. It was a sobering experience seeing him, once handsome and distinguished, reduced to a slack-jawed zombie. I remember following a nurse down a long corridor toward the men’s dayroom where we’d meet with him, passing blank-eyed shadow-people, sitting along the walls on chairs and the floor, moaning and calling to us, and hearing the swishing, sliding rustle of paper slippers as other shadow-people wandered the hallways.
Even though many years have passed, I can still see the dayroom–the high ceilings, the tall arched windows secured with what resembled chain-link fencing, the tables and chairs scattered willy-nilly around the room like those in an elementary school cafeteria, the misery stamped on the faces of everyone, including the staff.
I was young and I was afraid, imagining being trapped in place where despair hung about like an unhealthy fog. But something touched my heart that day and I knew that I’d write about the sights, sounds, smells and emotions emitting from the shadow-people like ectoplasm.
This past year, 2016, I finally began writing a historical/suspense novel featuring an abandoned mental asylum. Research took me on a tour of Traverse City State Hospital, another abandoned mental hospital, part of which was resurrected as upscale condominiums, boutiques and restaurants. Most of the buildings, which once encompassed the hospital campus, remain deserted and decayed, and it is in some of these buildings the pictures for this article were taken. A few times I lagged behind the tour to absorb the atmosphere and could almost hear the whisper of paper slippers gliding by.
It was on the tour I learned that many patients collected “treasures,” which could be anything from a bit of string, to a book, to a dinner roll. Some stored their treasures behind heating vents in the their rooms or hidey-holes in the lavatory, not discovered until the hospital was abandoned. This inspired me to write about a female patient, Ruth, who in 1944 hides her journal, sketches and a rosary in the space behind the vent cover in her room, and a reporter in 1966 who finds them. I hope to complete the novel by spring, 2017.