Mary Akers: Hi, Sarah. Thank you for agreeing to talk with me today, and for sharing your wonderful work with us. One of the (many) things I liked about your essay “What I Know of Madness” was the accompanying pictures you supplied. I feel like they add to the mood and understanding of your essay. Sometimes images say more than words can articulate. Have you ever done this before? Paired an essay with your own images? How do/did editors respond to this?
Sarah Einstein: This is the first time I’ve used images in an essay, but I was so struck by the things I saw on the tour that I couldn’t see how I could leave them out. I was particularly struck by the awfulness of the sign that reads “Your Mother Doesn’t Work Here! Clean Up Your Own Mess!” hanging in, of all places, the children’s ward. The sheer obscenity of that took my breath away, and I can’t imagine anything I could write speaking so clearly to the way in which inmates (because that’s what they were) were so thoroughly dehumanized than the cruelty of that sign. It struck me like a punch to the gut, and I wanted the reader to have that same experience.
MA: It was definitely a punch to the gut for me, too. Shocking in its callousness. Speaking of images, what did you think of the image selected for your piece by our artist Wiley Quixote? Do you feel like it shapes the reader’s perception of the story before reading? If so, is that a good or bad thing?
SE: I love the image, and I think it’s perfect for this piece. The way in which the the man’s face, eyes closed, is obscured by shadows that look as if they come from bars on a window speaks so clearly to the experience of the former inmates. I was very pleased that the journal chose to focus on the actual people who had lived and died in the old State Hospital rather than on the ghosts that had been conjured for the tourists.
MA: Wonderful. That’s what struck me–the real people who lived and died there. But…now that you’ve said that, of course I have to ask. Do you believe in ghosts? What (if anything) changed in your mind after visiting the Trans-Alleghany Asylum?
SE: I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe that places can be haunted by the horrific events of the past. In fact, what bothered me most about the sanitized ghost stories that were told on the tour–the stories of little Victorian girls who danced to music boxes and of protective, maternal spirits–was that they made the old asylum less haunted, obscured the truth of the atrocities that happened there. I wanted the guides to tell the more awful, more true stories of patients who died because we called torture “treatment,” of patients who were lobotomized to make them easier to deal with and not to make them healthier or happier, of the ways in which the administrations benefited from the slave labor of inmates. These are the things which haunt the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, not pretty little girls who dance.
MA: I agree. Thanks for this insight and your wonderful essay. And finally, because we are a recovery-themed journal, what does “recovery” mean to you?
SE: I think “recovery” means so many things. In this piece, I try to “recover” the truths that the fictional ghost stories elide, the stories of people who themselves were sent to “recover” from illnesses we didn’t understand very well, and who were “treated” with the most horrific tortures imaginable. People who, when they were finally released, called themselves “psychiatric survivors” and worked to recover the human rights that had for so long been denied to them. All of this is recovery, and all of it is important.