This week’s American Horror Story brings us to the end of the season (I’m sorry I missed last week’s blog. I had the flu). It also brought us one tiny glimpse of what I thought the show would be more about, the state of disrepair of the mental hospitals during the 1960s. The show we got was nothing like that, but I wanted to talk about that idea for a bit.
Our intrepid reporter Lana, released from Braircliff two episodes ago, becomes a famous author and investigative journalist (with a push from Kit). She comes back to Briarcliff in the ‘70s to get it shut down, sneaking back in by the tunnel introduced in the first episode. Her filming of the inmates of Briarcliff is unnerving, for a number of different levels. Lana’s ambition is a stark contrast to the people in the hospital, who are in terrible conditions. The scene also showcases something that American Horror Story has failed to do this season, or even attempt to do; none of the patients are fully realized people. The show has never tried to make us care about anyone who wasn’t a main character (they have a hard enough time making them sympathetic), but this scene reminded me of just how much the patients at Briarcliff are part of the scenery. They’re props, put in place to show us what an asylum should be, not how actual people are suffering. The saddest part of this scene is that it is sadly realistic.
Dorothea Dix helped create the state mental hospital system in the 1840s and 1850s with her work in Massachusetts. Her plan was to get people with mental illnesses out of prisons into places where they could get treatment. 100 years later, by the 1950s and 1960s, the mental hospitals were just as bad as the prisons, if not worse. Overcrowding, horrible conditions and occasionally abuse were common throughout the country. With funding lacking, hospitals were unable to properly staff the hospitals thus affecting number of patients they had to care for. In an attempt to show the terrible conditions of the hospitals, investigative journalists went in with cameras. Notably, Geraldo Rivera filmed live from Willowbrook School for developmental disabled children in the 1970s (see some of the footage here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_sYn8DnlH4). Lana’s taping was a fairly accurate recreation of Rivera’s video, only with adults instead of children.
These expose, along with President Kennedy’s signing of the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act in 1963, helped close many of the state mental hospitals, a process known as deinstitutionalization. The plan was to reintegrate patients back into their communities and to refocus on treatment. The promise was that the money used to fund the hospitals would go to the Community Mental Health Centers, but that almost never happened, stranding thousands of people without access to care of any kind. This failing of the mental health system led many to homelessness and then back to the prison system, which is currently the country’s largest provider of mental health services. In 100 years, we’ve gone full circle without ever addressing the issue at hand. (This process also lead to the creation of Consumer Survivor Movement, the grassroots movement of people with experiences in the mental health system trying to fix it. To learn more about this movement, visit http://www.mindfreedom.org/mfi-faq/intro-FAQs/).
Which brings us back to AHS and the spirit of change that was part of the 1960s and 1970s. Civil rights and equality in so many was a contentious issue in a manner that people my age and younger can only imagine. Investigative journalists were a large part of the education process of the average citizen, and Lana Winters, ambitious to the point of ruthless as she is, gave us a nice little window to understanding what that was like. I’m glad American Horror Story took the time to show this, as minimal as they did. It was a nice illustration of the power of compassion, even if the show didn’t mean it to be.
Next week’s post will wrap up American Horror Story with some last thoughts on the show before we change topics completely. What did you think of American Horror Story this season? Was it what you thought it would be?