It was the summer I turned nineteen, between the end of my junior year in college, before the beginning of my senior year. I was hired as a summer recreational therapist in charge of a building of about 300 women, part of a mental hospital with over 6,000 patients. I took the job because the salary, $60.00 a week, was a whole lot more than I could earn as a camp counselor. Besides, the job description: take patients out, play games with them, bring them all back safely, sounded simple. How hard could it be? I’d been playing softball since I could hold a bat. Although I thought I’d be given orientation, training—what I got was a metal chain around my waist with more keys of differing sizes and shapes than I’d ever seen, and then sent to the building where I was to work.
Terrified by the strange sounds and smells, I walked up to the ward to meet my patients. I stared at the women—lolling, muttering, drooling, talking to people who weren’t listening. A woman zoomed toward me, only to stop a few inches from my nose, then zoom toward someone else. Another woman, with piercing blue eyes strode up to me and asked in a menacing voice, “What are you doing here?”
Too scared to lie I said, “I haven’t a clue.”
She laughed. “Well at least you’re honest. Maybe you’ll last longer than the other one.” Who was the other one I wondered, too afraid to ask. More women gathered around me asking questions, demanding I help them immediately. Soon it seemed the whole ward was pushing against me, wanting, needed, wishing, hoping. It was too much. I decided to leave, only the women were blocking the door.
A large, stout women with a curt voice cut through the chaos. She looked at my name tag. “Miss Rubin, you are here to help patients, not upset them. If you can’t do better, I will recommend your termination.” Part of me was relieved—maybe I could get a job I knew how to do—but part of me was offended. How was I supposed to know how to interact with patients with no training? As the attendant in charge yelled at me, the women silently disappeared. “Your job is to take patients out for recreation. I suggest you focus on what you have been hired to do.”
It took all the courage I had to respond. “Please tell me how to take the women out?”
“Don’t you know anything?” she snarled. I felt like saying, “No, I don’t.”
Without waiting for my answer, she yelled, “Ladies, if you want to go out with Miss Rubin, line up at the door.” After assigning one of the ward attendants to come with me, she spoke in a scathing voice, “Miss Rubin, you will return the same number of patients you take out. Is that clear?” I nodded. About fifteen women lined up. I started down the stairs. The attendant at the back, a prune-faced woman who looked like her last meal had been months ago, scowled and spit out, “Miss Rubin, slow down!” I realized I had to move much more slowly if I wanted the women to keep up with me. I felt as if I were leading a funeral procession. Mine?
Walking so slowly, even down steps, gave me time to think. Since I knew nothing about mental illness, I made a quick decision to treat everyone as if they were mentally healthy, whatever that meant.
When we finally got to the ball field the sun was strong and there was no shade. With the temperature and humidity in the 90’s, I couldn’t imagine making women much older than me run around a baseball field or play any kind of game in such heat. I told them I thought it was too hot to run around, and asked if they’d like to hear a story. They wanted to know what kind. “A Once Upon a Time story,” I said. Although that seemed to sound good to them, the attendant sniped, “Miss Rubin, you’re supposed to play games with the patients, not tell stories.”
With every criticism of me she seemed more pleased with herself. I couldn’t stand her self-righteousness. Besides, technically I had a higher rank that she did. Trying to hide my annoyance, I ignored the attendant and asked the women what they preferred. A few of them cried out, “We want to hear your story.” They were acting normal in my opinion, and normal was what I could deal with. “Okay, let’s go sit under that tree.” They followed me to a large oak where we sat in the shade on grass. They settled themselves amicably and I began, making up the story as I went along, in no hurry, happy to ignore the attendant’s scowl.
Suddenly a man in a dark suit, surrounded by two men in suits, approached, looked at my name tag and bellowed: “Miss Rubin, you’re supposed to be playing games not telling stories. Get your group up and start moving!” I was flabbergasted. The attendant hid behind the tree; the women began crying and mewling and cursing and apologizing. Everyone was upset. I didn’t know who the man was but the women did—they whispered—he was the director of the hospital, my boss. I stood up. The women followed. I walked a few steps as slowly as I could, then stopped. It was even hotter than when we’d first left the ward. When the men were out of sight I turned to the women and asked, “Would you like to go back and listen to a story?” Silence. Fear. Anxiety.
The attendant smirked. “You heard what he said. We need to play games.” I felt like throttling her. Then the women began to speak: “Will we get in trouble?” “He’s a bad man.” Why does he need to shout?” “It’s too hot to run.” “What’s wrong with that man?” “He’s a man, what does he know?” Emboldened, they continued offering their thoughts. Yes. No. Maybe.
I sighed. If I got fired I might still have time to apply for a job at a summer camp. Although I probably felt as anxious as the women, I told them not to worry, I would take responsibility for choosing to tell stories sitting in the shade rather than running around in the heat. One of the women astonished me by saying, “This is a perfectly responsible decision. That man should know better.” Some of the women voiced their agreement. None objected. Despite the attendant’s vocal disapproval, I led the women back to the tree, we settled ourselves down, and I began, “Once upon a time . . .”
What would you have done?
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.