Formerly known as "Creepy-chusetts, Strange-chusetts".

Monday, February 28, 2011

Gaebler Children's Center, Waltham

(Pictures are taken in two days to show how demolition progressed)

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 Palmer
Literally 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

About demolition:


  1. Great work and great pictures. Thanks for writing in such detail about the conversation!

  2. Hi, Matthew.

    Thanks for the comment. Indeed it's been a tough work!

  3. Hello Shuko, this is the woman that you spoke to you that cold Autumn day/early evening, I was 2 years not 3, and they gave us Thorazine, Benadryl and Valuim to keep us in control, but, that didn't always work, we did have conselors that we were mandatd to talk to you, and they made us feel worse than we realy were, but, you did get the story correct, just a few mistakes and I thank you for telling my story, it was a hell, I hate that the building is gone, because they should have paid the money to have it rehabilated into a children's center for kids with problems but, with former patients that were there as the staff members cause then we could really help them, there is no need for lock ups like Gaebler, it was a sick and twisted place, the staff were mean and treated us like criminals, we were kids for god sakes, not animals.The Dept of Mental Health really needs to pay for their crimes, I will not stop til I get what I want, if it takes me the rest of my life, I will do whatever it takes to expose the Massachuettes Dept of Mental Health and Dept of Social Services, they are self centered people who feel the need to be in control on innocent little kids because them themselves have no control in their own lives, it's pittiful that this world does this kind of treatment to children. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU FOR TELLING MY STORY, I am so glad that my husband and I ran into you that day....

  4. Michelle,

    Of course I'm not gonna forget your name!

    I'll correct the mistakes soon. And thanks for getting in touch with me.

    Say hello to your husband and your friends.

  5. Shuko K., & Michelle,
    Thanks for posting the story I love that some of what we endured is finally being put out there for people to read and grasp the reality we as children suffered. Its truly sad what went on there for so long and nobody knew or cared. But we survived and no one can ever take that from us. Massachusetts has hidden a lot of inhuman and unethical things I am proud you had the courage to reveal a small portion of the abuse and suffering we all went through during placement at Gaebler Children Center! But you did forget to tell of the physical abuse of being put in a corner with your arm held up to the back of your head on your tippy toes, and if you moved or talked even yelled in pain how 4 or 5 large staff members would slam you to the hard cement floor sit on your head while holding you down then give you a lovely shot of Thorazine. They would then carry you to a seclusion room where they would have a 5 point restraint bed set up for you to be tied to. Or how you could be left there for 12 to 18 hrs. Why did this happen? Not because you were a threat to yourself or Anyone else it could be simply protesting having to wait to use the bathroom, or if a staff was having a bad day guess what you were out of control! Sad we were put there for our protection but was provided with anything but! But as long as it is not forgotten hopefully it will never be repeated! May god bless you and all the rest whom have been in our shoes! Much love and may god take away any scars! Your friend always Shauna Marie <3

  6. smo,

    Thank you for telling the painful past to us.

    I always admire your strength not to forget and courage to voice what happened there.

  7. Shuko:

    Wow...that's all I can say. What a story.

  8. Hi, Dave.

    Until I met her, I didn't know such a strong, overly negative emotion was in the building.

    The thing I can do is telling a story...

  9. My name is Shelley Bassett and i was a patient at gaebler psychiatric Hospital in 1988. I was 15 years old at the time. Boy oh boy the memories and nightmares of that hell of a hospital. The abuse both mentally and physical is something i must live with for the rest of my life. I will NEVER forget gaebler

  10. Hi Shelley,

    Thank you for speaking up. I still cannot help surprising so many children were traumatized... I hope writing this comment let some degree of pain off from your shoulders.

  11. I have to say I'm a little offended at your comment about the "well-to-do" patients at McLean...I was just admitted for a stay there this year, and a lot of this woman's story fits in perfectly with my own stay. Some of the things you've described are just standard procedure at any inpatient hospital; I've been to a lot of wards but I've NEVER been to a single inpatient that allows you to open your own windows. It's infuriating and demeaning, yes, but appropriate for safety reasons and hardly cruel. I've been through the shower drill, again. It's ridiculous, but standard, and not altogether cruel. The fact that they /had/ a swimming pool sounds fantastic to me.

    I'm not trying to make this woman's or any patient's suffering sound any less. Her treatment sounds like absolute hell, and the idea of being bound and in isolation sends chills down my spine, but please think carefully before writing off another hospital as a walk in the park, especially one you really have no experience with.

  12. Hello Anonymous,

    Thank you for speaking your mind. I take your comment seriously and am sorry that my comment was not right for you. I'll cross the "well-to-do" part of the statement.

    Of course safety measures should be most concerned. But when I heard the woman's story, I was surprised that there was no AC available while her stay during the 80's in such a concrete building like Gaebler; I was simply surprised by "NO-AC" as an outsider.

    Have you read Alex Beam's "Gracefully Insane"? I'm very curious about your impression of the book because he states McLean as "most prestigious mental hospital" in America, and many non-patient visitors think McLean's "carefully landscaped grounds" resembles "a prosperous New England prep school". Of course he makes sure stating that McLean follows safety procedures as a hospital with an inpatient facility. I am very interested in your perspective in order to deepen my understanding.

    Thank you again for your valuable comment and telling your story in McLean.

  13. Dear Anonymous,
    i'm sure your stay at Mcleans was horrible as it always is when one loses the rights to freedom or the ability to make their own decisions. I dont know the current condition of Mcleans now but in the 80's it was a luxury to go there rather then Gaebler. I did have the chance to visit someone there back in the 80's and it was like black and white from Gaebler, Danver's or most state funded hospitals. Also i had a very close friend in Gaebler whose family had alot of money. She was court ordered to a psych hospital but because her family didnt like the conditions or treatment they paid for her stay at Mcleans. there she had a private room unlike us with 8 - 10 in a room. she had real food, a private bathroom, snack time, walks on the grounds with fresh air (a priv it took almost 2 yrs to get for myself) restraints and physical abuse were unheard of. it was just a different world so i would have to back the opinion of it being a luxury back then compared to what we at Gaebler was living with. I cant say how it is or how you were treated but i hope it was way better then the patients back then from Gaebler. and as far as the pool i was there over 2Yrs never did i feel a drop from the pool, so if anything it was more of a torture the a thing of pleasure. There was children who lived at home but came for the day and they were the ones who mainly got use of the pool area. May God Bless You. Thanks for letting me share again.

  14. Hi SMO,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment and coming back here. I am always amazed how much I can learn from you. And I also wish Anonymous good luck.


  15. i look i see iread and cry 9 years i live there happy to see it go but never will forget it god bless all

  16. Hi Anon,

    Sorry if the story made you cry... But I believe voicing your past is a positively powerful doing.

    Take care.

  17. Dear Anonymous,
    Hi my name is shauna or SMO. If you read this blog then you know I too was there! If you ever need someone to just talk to please email. I know it brings back horrible memories and pain!! But I care and I know what you went thru! You will be in my prayers. And I'm just a message away if you ever need someone to talk to. God Bless You

  18. dear shaua thanks my name is walter if you need to talk im yes helps to talk is still hard but it made us strong hope to talk soon be well happy to call you my freind god bless take care

  19. For more discussions and ex-patients' testimonies, please visit my former site:

  20. They should make a movie from our experiences at Gaebler and Wellington Hall Group home for kids

  21. Hi Mary,

    There was a talk about making a movie from boys in Fernald State School. It didn't come through. It would have been great. Those kids should be recognized, no doubt!

    1. Thank you for responding back. I found this documentary about Fernald