Not telling what happened in Gaebler Children's Center is worse than not being willing to know or forgetting what happened in the Waltham forest. I have been hesitant to disclose the story. Together with pictures I took, I was considering keeping the story just in my memory. But you have shared a fraction of experience of the red brick, but you chose not to tell? Like many Atomic Bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki don't want to remember and tell their experience, it is understandable that some of the ex-students are not willing to tell their experience. Some past is too painful to remember. Some past is regarded as the best not to talk about to avoid troubles. That’s not what I’m talking about.
As an outsider, I don't bear the burden many students may have. I have to have guts to tell a story of a woman who spent two years inside of the red brick. I hope sharing a little piece of information I gained through the conversation helps understanding and remembering what happened in the recently demolished psychiatric hospital for children.
Located nearby Metropolitan State Hospital (a public psychiatric hospital for adults, now a condo), Gaebler Children's Center in Waltham, MA was established in 1955 as a state psychiatric hospital the patients between 6 and 18 years old. The center was closed in 1992 and left abandoned for 18 years. The demolition project was finished in the late November, 2010.
On one cold, gray autumn afternoon, I was exploring the nature path in Waltham. The demolition project was almost finished. As I passed by a couple, we greeted. Like people say hello to each other in the woods.
"Quite a sight, isn't it?"
Looking over the 1939 Warsaw like red brick building, our conversation naturally went to Gaebler. They asked me whether I'm from a newspaper company. I told them I'm a blogging person. After carefully examining my camera and face looking at the ruin, the woman said:
“I used to be there.”
It was surprising. But what soon came up to my mind was the cross at Metfern cemetery, a final resting place for some of the patients for Metropolitan and Fernald State School between 1947 and 1979. Dedicated by the former Gaebler children, the cross was accompanied with a very thoughtful note: Though your names are not known, Your lives will never be forgotten...
I was very curious about her life in Gaebler. While I anticipated the possibility of her hesitance telling the story to a complete stranger like me, she started talking about her experience in a quite open manner. But facing the building which would cease its existence quite soon, there was a tone of fervent obligation in her voice. The skeletal state of the building seemed to bring lucid memories back to her as well.
After the closure in 1992, the building had been boarded up to prevent trespassing. But while demolition was going on, the boards were removed, revealing the interior that only a few knew before. She pointed out an interior of a room visible from us.
“Do you see the room with a rainbow?”
“That was my room.”
It was as if she was reading my thought; I was obsessing about the rainbow room since I had noticed the painting a month ago. I was imaging what if I had been involuntarily sent to Gaebler and stuck in a room with such a "cheerful" painting. It would get on my nerve if adults thought I could be appeased by a fake rainbow.
My mind was spinning like a doped-up hamster on a wheel, but what I did was lamely keeping a straight face to her. It was very Japanese movement of me, but why didn't I tell her? Because compared to her experience, my casual daydreaming is nothing.
After introducing her room, she described her experience.
She spent two years in the institution in the early 80's. It was a hellish two years, it was virtually a prison or worse for her and other kids. She built many lasting friendships which helped her to get through, but the bad memory exceeds the good one with friends.
As a teenager girl, her mother's illness took a heavy toll on her. The stress coping mechanism was still developing, and she had a difficulty manifesting her anxiety and anger. The adults surrounding her were also upset by her mother's illness, and it was beyond their capacity to take care of her. That was how she was sent to Gaebler. She still questions their decision. And this is the question she has no choice but keeping tackling for the rest of her life.
Now married to an understanding husband, she firmly told me that she will not let her children experience the same, no matter what happens. I admire her strength to reflect her experience to such a positive, genuine determination. But not every children of Gaebler has the life path like her.
Every movement was restricted while she was in Gaebler. For example, she needed to go through a lengthy procedure to take a shower, even though her rainbow room was right next to the shower room. Once she was in the shower room, alone, they locked her in from outside. A simple act of taking a shower (and a vital act for a teenager girl!) becomes an enduring task.
There was no AC available. The 1955 building filled with asbestos would have been an awful place to spend a summer. Opening the windows wasn't an option; the children had no control over windows. It's such a basic, basic act that I never thought twice about when I was a teenager. Somehow I'm very particular with windows and I would go nuts if I was told I couldn't open windows by myself; I'm aware that people who engage with psychiatric care may think I'm naive, but for that specific reason, if I was sent to Gaebler, I wouldn't recover well...
Together with a tiny playground, there used to be a pool in the property. But the pool was regarded as a privilege only available for “good kids”. So "bad kids" blankly stared at the good ones in the pool from a stifling room with possibly closed windows. I'm no expert in psychiatric care, but I can see the pool activity may be restricted as safety measure. On the other hand, I can clearly say such a punitive use of privileges is not a treatment. She didn't particularly mention, but the facility was possibly overcrowded. Many staff could have been overwhelmed, and had little capacity to control the situation in order to recover the kids to society.
They used to sedate her with antihistamines. My understanding of the medicine is as an allergy reliever... Added Mar. 5: In addition to Benadryl, the staff gave children Thorazine and Valium. If the children were psychotic or suicidal, or if they were simply deemed as disobedient, they tied them up and put into the 2x2 seclusion room. The fear of being dumped into the space loomed like 1984's Room 101. Like a random dice game, there was a little predictability of the possibility of being kept in the room:
the staff at Gaebler through the use of seclusion, kept us in fear and a constant double bind. Apparently there was no clearly defined or enforced policy to guide and prohibit the use of it...Seclusion and the threat of it empowered the staff as the absolute authority. One could never be sure when or how it would be utilized by them. -- From Gaebler, Hell and Back by Andrew PalmerLiterally across Trapelo Road, an identical fear had been prevailing at Fernald School, a state run institution for children with developmental disability. According to M. D'Antonio's The State Boys Rebellion, Ward 22* was the Fernald boys' seclusion room during the 50's. However, from what I read from Alex Beam's Gracefully Insane, the patients at nearby McLean Hospital -- a privately run psychiatric hospital of which campus is landscaped by Fredrick Law Olmsted -- did not experience the identical treatment.
*the misuse of Ward 22 was rampant during the 50's due to the overcrowding and increase in the number of mismatched boys institutionalized due to learning disabilities and/or the lack of proper prior education.
However, there is one similarity between McLean Hospital and such a state institution; underground tunnels. When McLean was planning to build a new campus in Belmont in the end of the 19th century, the idea of connecting separated wards and other buildings by underground tunnels was proposed by Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux. The ones in Danvers State Hospital were made infamous by the movie Session 9, but passages in McLean are less known.
No name gravestone at Metfern Cemetery
She told me Metropolitan State Hospital and Gaebler are connected by underground tunnels. The distance between the two is about 0.6 mile (1km) with steep hills. I wonder why they needed to connect the two; doctors and nurses in double shifts? But I couldn't help thinking about the possibility of the tunnel being used to carry the deceased from Metropolitan to Metfern Cemetery. The cemetery is only 0.1 mile (200m) apart from Gaebler. More than 300 patients are buried in the cemetery, but there is no paved road access to get there; just narrow, hilly dirt trails in the woods. Things wouldn't have been awfully different when the cemetery was active.
Note: now you should wonder how close together those institutions are; check out my map...
“You know what?” she said.
"When I was locked up there, the world seemed so small. But now I see the walls are removed, it is such a huge building. When I was there, it never occurred to me…”
The walls she banged so many times are now removed.
“Ha, nobody will hear you!" the stuff used to yell at her when she was banging the wall.
Indeed, the walls were well insulated. But there was a certain room she constantly heard banging and screaming noise. She thought she must have been hallucinating, but her friends also heard the same.
Eventually, a series of law suits during the 80's helped improve the condition at Gaebler.
She thinks back to the pre law suit time, “Back then, they didn’t know how to treat kids with problems. They simply locked them up.”
I asked her a question, “You said they drugged the kids to shut them up, not to treat them. Do you think other kind of treatment, like counseling, would have helped you and other kids?”
“No, I don’t think so. There were counselors, and we supposed to talk to them. It didn't help me.”
I questioned her about the counselors because Andrew Palmer's depiction of counselors as authoritarian, cruel figures didn't match my stereotypical image of gentle, patient, and warm listeners, say kinda hippie type. At Gaebler, everything was upside down.
Possible asbestos removal gears on the trail
The town considered converting the school into other uses, but it appeared so much asbestos was contained that it proved too costly to rehabilitate the building. The contractor spent quite a time in removing asbestos before knocking down the building. She emailed the town inquiring the future of the building; she's still waiting for the reply.
She is basically happy to see the building is on the process of demolition; this is the place she spent two hell years, the experience that she would never be able to shake off from her memory. On the other hand, she is afraid that the demolition also means people are forgetting, or actively trying to erase the memory about the children of Gaebler. Demolishing a building is dead easy, but irreversible. She wanted the building converted to something rather than destroying it. I asked,
"What kind of conversion did you wish, like the condos they turned Metropolitan State Hospital into, or maybe a museum about the school?"
"No, I wanted the building converted to something like a school...a school for kids..."
The blazed site will be the part of the existing nature trail. No more mystery in the woods. No more creepy off limits. No more nuisance. Out of sight, out of mind.
Locate the site of Gaebler Children's Center @ Google Map
Gaebler, Hell and Back and his observation about writing the story by Andrew Palmer (based on his experience at Gaebler in the mid 70's.), and the response to his story by a former Gaebler counselor.
Gaebler Children's Center @ Opacity
State Boys Rebellion by Michael D'Antonio
Gracefully Insane by Alex Beam