Saturday, June 24, 2006


by Madelyn Arnold (NY: St. Martin's Press, 1988)

In 1964, when I was 17, I belonged to the Social Science Club at my high school. Our club had a field trip to the "State Hospital" in central North Carolina, and saw how humans were sequestered and / or warehoused because of emotional, mental, and also physical impairments. That's the same year, and the same country, the same kind of institution, as the setting of this book.

The reader of Bird-Eyes, however, is not looking through the eyes of a visitor. The portrait of the place, the people, and the mentality of both inmates and their keepers, is narrated from inside a very keen and mostly lucid 16-year-old female character, Latisha, who has been sentenced to confinement for incorrigibility. From her perspective, the humanity, ignorance and deficiencies of psychiatrist and staff are glaringly recorded with their effects, and the process of institutionalization of the residents is observed from the inside out. The level of insight is very very striking, and outshines even the characters and the plot.

The most interesting character aside from the narrator is a deaf woman admitted for depression after her husband's death. Unchecked institutional ignorance isolates her profoundly, and puts her under tremendous emotional pressure. Her friendship with Latisha and their guarded use of sign language is a major interest in the book.

Most of what happens in Bird-Eyes seems all too believable. People under institutional care are very varied, and their dynamics are hard to control, so a lot of drugs and crude behaviour modification get applied. The needs and personalities of the care-givers are also a wild card in the mix. Everyone is looking for and using loopholes in the system if they can. The wealthiest are the most likely to re-surface. The descriptions of the uses and results of shock treatment jibe all too well with what I have observed in the lives of friends who accepted this prescription, and with expert testimony like that of Dr. Bonnie Burstow [hear her talk on this at in the archives page]. While mental health institutions in the US and Canada have now divested themselves of most of their patients, and while there have been a few surprisingly good advances in drug treatment, notably for schizophrenia, for the most part, psychiatry and mental health care are still largely blundering and too available as careers for self-deceptive and abusive folks.

I am not certain if this book is autobiographical in its origins. It seems unlikely that one who had not been there could have written it, though, unless with the collaboration of someone who had been there at least. It comes across as a strong voice from the inside that should be heard.

I see that this book was a Lambda Award winner for best first novel. These prizes are for books about lesbians and gays, but the lesbian elements in this book are not dominant over the broader social insights.

Bird-Eyes is the first of two novels (and an essay collection) by Madelyn Arnold. She also seems to have a new novel in the works, Divided by One. And, she has a column called "Not Thinking Straight" in the Seattle Gay News, to which she has contributed since 1975. Some of her columns (complete with smiling photo) are online, including this one from last year, about suicide:

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