In 1956, I worked as a summer recreational therapist at Creedmoor, a mental hospital in New York City. Although I was only 19-years-old, I was in charge of a building of 300 women. My job was to take out a group, play games with them, then bring them back—the same number, in good shape—meaning no fights among them or with me. Since I knew nothing about mental illness, I treated everyone as if they were mentally healthy, which seemed to work well.
One day, I arrived to take out my patients and was told I had to wait, that it was haircutting day. All patients had to have their haircut, before they could go with me. This made no sense to me as most of the women already had very short hair. I watched the haircutter set up her chair. Her assistant stood by with a broom to sweep up the hair before the next woman sat down. One by one, each woman got the same haircut, as if a bowl had been placed on her head and the haircutter cut around the edges. They looked awful afterward but there were no mirrors for them to look in and no way to complain about the way they looked. They were patients. They had quickly learned to do as they were told to avoid punishing consequences.
The haircutting was going smoothly, if not aesthetically pleasing, each woman sitting down with a blank look on her face. When it was Carol’s turn—a woman in her 30’s with hair that had been freshly washed and curled—she didn’t sit down. Instead, she told the haircutter she didn’t need a haircut as she was being released the next day and her husband liked the way she did her hair. She looked happy and had obviously taken pains to make sure her hair looked good—clean and well-shaped.
The haircutter ignored her words, told her to sit down immediately, that she had to have her hair cut just like all the other women. Carol repeated what she’d said, but the haircutter said,” Sit down right now. There’s a long line behind you.”
“But I don’t need a haircut,” she pleaded. “My husband likes the way my hair looks. I’ll be with him tomorrow. Please. Please!”
Unable to bear it any longer I stepped between Carol and the haircutter and said, “She doesn’t need a haircut, but if you need to cut her hair, couldn’t you just snip a little piece?”
“I don’t do snips. I cut hair. And you have no business interfering with my patients. Stop right now or I’ll have you fired.” She pushed me out of the way and said to Carol, “Either you sit down right now or I’ll make you sit down.” Carol panicked, yelled that she didn’t need a haircut, and started to run, but there was no place to hide. Much to my horror, two attendants caught her, and when she struggled to get away, they put her in a straightjacket and carried her out of the room, and, as I later learned, to the building housing violent patients.
“Next,” yelled the haircutter. Except for the tense silence in the room, it was as if nothing untoward had happened. The woman waiting in line sat down in the chair.
I froze, unable to believe how a woman who looked so lovely and was so rational, could end up minutes later in a straightjacket. I don’t know how long I would have stood there had the Head Attendant not come up to me to tell me I was wanted in the main office. My supervisor opened the door, looked at me with disgust and said, “Miss Rubin, you are not to interfere with patients’ treatment. If I could, I would fire you immediately. Now leave and do what you were hired to do.”
I went back to the ward, looked at the women, then started toward the main door. About ten women followed me. Silently, we walked down the steps. Silently we walked to a tree in the inner courtyard. Silently we sat down. Some cried. Some talked so quietly I couldn’t hear them. When I had given out all the tissues I had, I said, “I tried to help,” feeling as hopeless as they looked.
“At least you tried,” said one of the women.
It was no comfort—not to me. Not to them.
Why couldn’t they fire me? About two weeks after I’d started work, one of the summer recreational therapists, whose father was the chief pathologist, had seen an administrator threaten to fire me for “insubordination,” (sticking up for a patient.) He told his father that if I was fired, he would go to the newspapers and tell them what he knew. I don’t know what he knew, but it kept me from being fired.
Nancy King is a widely published author and a professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she has taught theater, drama, playwriting, creative writing, and multidisciplinary studies with an emphasis on world literature. She has published seven previous works of nonfiction and five novels. Her new memoir, Breaking the Silence, explores the power of stories in healing from trauma and abuse. Her career has emphasized the use of her own experience in being silenced to encourage students to find their voices and to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with authenticity, as a way to add meaning to their lives.