A Visit To See Aunt Marika
Two months earlier, Aunt Marika had decided her father wanted to kill her.
My sweet grandpa? … How could she think that!
I shared my worries with my friend, Efi. ‘Her parents sent her away again. Mother said she should be out soon. Maybe next week.’ Efi and I agreed to pay Marika a visit before she was discharged. It was my hope to see her back home, and I dared to dream that the asylum staff would let us take her home with us.
It was 1964. We chose a school day to meet at the rural bus terminal by the train station to carry out our mission. We were in high school uniforms, blue skirts, white short-sleeve tops, carrying school bags: conspicuous truants. ‘What if they catch us skipping?’ I whispered.
Efi was quick to answer. ‘We are doing it for psychology club … remember? What can they do to us … we are graduating next year.’ I looked at her sideways and wondered if she was really this defiant, but I did not care. She was my partner in crime, just like best friends are supposed to be.
‘How do you know this is the right bus?’ she asked, combing her hair with her fingertips. I had never been to La Bête before, and we were about to head out of the familiar cityscape to parts unknown.
I pointed to the bus sign that marked the routes with numbers. ‘Mother told me yesterday.’
Arriving early had given me a chance to walk around the new train station, an imposing building set over underground train arrivals and departures, and we had crossed the wide street crowded with taxis, passengers carrying luggage and cargo, to where the bus line was. A couple of middle-aged women in black bandanas waiting for a bus glanced in our direction, their furrowed foreheads signaling concern.
The Greek sun was beating down on us. I could feel sweat trickling down my back. Nerves, I thought, checking my watch. Finally the bus came and we boarded. I asked the driver to call out the stop to La Bête, the city’s mental hospital. He nodded, and Efi smiled, reassured, as we climbed in and took a window seat. An hour later we were still crossing the Greek city of Stavroupolis (the name means City of the Cross). We passed by Zeitenlic, the military cemetery where more than 20,000 WWI French, British, Serbian, and Russian soldiers are buried. The asphalt soon ended. I could feel the bus climbing on sidewalks and taking tight turns through narrow streets.
Efi was checking the small-town scenery, single-story whitewashed homes, a kiosk and occasional shops that faded behind as the bus continued on a country dirt road. The windows of the bus rattled each time we went over deep potholes. My stomach was tight, and I kept fists in my pockets. She leaned over and elbowed me. ‘It’s her third time. Right?’
‘Yes.’ My voice was hoarse. We got off when the driver called us and walked through an unguarded gate into a yard surrounded by wrought-iron fencing and parklike grounds. La Bête. My heart was pounding. I had heard the French Army had once used this area to house their horses in the early part of the 20th century. What a name: ‘La Bête.’ It translates to ‘the beast,’ a place for stupid beasts. My smart, bright aunt did not belong here. This was not right.
It seemed odd to walk into a well-fenced area through an open, unguarded gate. The aging, long, narrow institution stood imposing in the distance. The yard’s dry soil had baked in the sun, suffering from neglect. Formal boxwood bushes edged the pathway to the building entrance, and the grass was a sickly yellow. It had been an arid spring. We moved slowly along the pavers. Efi stopped, scratching her forehead. ‘What next?’
A man in his thirties sat on a nearby bench and was looking us over. He was short, clean-shaven, with attractive hazel eyes. He wore a light blue short-sleeved shirt and jeans. I approached him and asked, ‘How do we find a patient here? Do we just walk in?’
‘Who are you looking for?’ he asked, puffing on a cigarette. I reluctantly told him my aunt’s name.
He shrugged. ‘There are many people here. I don’t know her.’ He suggested going to the social worker and pointed to an office door inside the lobby.
‘Are there visiting hours? Can we go straight in?’ I had made no inquiries ahead of time and had no experience going to hospitals unaccompanied by adults.
‘Go right ahead. You can visit until four.’
‘And what are you doing here?’ Efi asked.
‘I am a patient. And I am a painter,’ he said in the same breath. There was nothing bizarre about him. A patient? It seemed unlikely, but his smudged long fingers spoke of paint.
‘What do you paint?’ I asked.
Eagerly he answered, ‘Here, I’ll show you.’ He rose, tossed his cigarette to the ground, stepped on the butt, and led us to his easel. His paints and brushes were spread out on the cement sidewalk. Beside the easel, a large canvas rested against the building. He placed it on the easel, turned and looked at us for reactions. The figures on the canvas were a clearly drawn pair of disembodied angels looking off in the distance with hollow eyes. He had portrayed their figures using a palette of delicate pale oils. He was obviously not an amateur. Efi and I exchanged a look, both of us disturbed by the angels’ dark, hollowed gaze. Did they represent death? More like the haunting hallucinations of the man.
I gasped my fear, and we quietly praised his work, thanked him, and proceeded to the building. The lobby was poorly lit, empty and echoey, painted in institutional ochre, a color I have come to dislike. Our shoes squeaked on the cement floor; offices lined up the hallway, all doors shut. I spotted the social worker’s office by the posted sign, knocked, and a tall woman in her fifties, with pinched, expressionless features, answered. She was wearing a chocolate brown suit and flat shoes.
When I gave her my aunt’s name, she said that she would probably be in recreation. Our membership in our school’s psychology club must have impressed her, for she agreed to take us on a tour of the hospital and then leave us with my aunt. As we started walking down the empty halls, she answered our questions. I had read a textbook on Abnormal Psychology and wanted to check on what I understood. At La Bête, the doctors prescribed a variety of treatments. She explained that electro-shock was useful in treating depression, for example, but they preferred using the newer psychotropic medications instead, which were a huge improvement. These medications, she went on, helped reduce the number of lobotomies, even for violent, psychotic people. At the sound of ‘lobotomies,’ I felt my stomach clench, and feared for my aunt. This place was dangerous.
The social workerspoke slowly, in a monotone, while we kept interrupting with more questions. She continued that at La Bête they used occupational therapy, which in fact meant gardening and raising crops, to keep people engaged in activities and functioning. We never saw the garden. It was in a distant corner of the large property, and she had no time to take us there. Even so, it must have been a slow morning, for the social worker was generous with her time with us, two high-school kids.
We followed behind her when she entered a large building. From the wad of keys that hung on a chain from her waist, she chose one to unlock the door at our first stop. It was a spacious room with a dozen bathtubs lined up in two rows. We stepped just inside the doorway and stopped. Ceiling fixtures with a couple of flickering neon tubes blinked unevenly, shedding a pale light over the windowless space. We peered in, hesitating to disrupt the quiet. Two naked women lay silent in their tubs. I felt awkward and embarrassed by the intimacy of the scene. We were intruding. At least, the women did not seem aware of us; they seemed peaceful. It was surreal to see them so exposed and vulnerable in a barren, military-like setting. A small table piled high with folded white robes rested by the far wall.
In her starched white uniform, an older woman stood by silently near the table, seemingly rooted to the cement floor in the grey room behind the vapors ascending from the tubs. She ignored us, barely nodding in our direction. The social worker spoke to us softly, explaining that they had a capacity for 1,000 patients and used the tubs for those who got agitated to ‘calm them down.’ I was ready to move on, away from this indignity.
The next stop was the dayroom, where she had told us my aunt would be. The social worker needed to leave us, but she said she would be in her office if we had any questions. All eyes in the room turned to see who the visitors were as I scanned the room for my aunt. Bright daylight streamed in through large windows. Varnished oak tables and chairs filled the space, with people placidly passing time. It was a tame scene until I noticed a man who stood by the wall. It was as if he was made of wax; he remained motionless all the time we were in the room, expressionless, in his pajamas, the pupils of his eyes glassy. Waiting for any movement that never came I realized he was suffering from a type of schizophrenia known as catatonia. What might roil inside him that had him so frozen in time?
Occasional cries and shrill sounds wafted out of patients’ rooms that opened to the dayroom, where groups of three and four patients together shared space along the long antiseptic-smelling corridor. My heart was beating louder, alarmed and overwhelmed by the sounds of human suffering.
I finally spotted my aunt. She sat by a window, clutching her ever-present hankie and gazing outside. Her eyes seemed larger than I remembered, piercing, fixed on something invisible. When she noticed Efi and me, she let out a high-pitched giggle, a sound I recognized, for I had heard that laughter at my grandparents’ home before.
‘Hello, Aunt Marika.’ I walked toward her and, leaning down, hugged her and kissed her on both cheeks. I was used to her warm welcomes, but she stayed seated and glared. This was so unlike her. Dressed in a green buttoned-down dress, she looked every bit like a patient.She was a shadow of the bright and fun-loving aunt I knew who used to smother me with treats and love. My heart sank as I hopelessly searched for the spark, the cheer I wanted to find.
Efi stayed by the entrance to the dayroom to give us privacy, watching the overall activity.
I looked around desperately for an idea, anything to draw a response from Marika. Around a large wooden table, some patients were using hospital supplies to roll their own cigarettes. Ashtrays were full and a heavy acrid smell filled the room. I would have made a cigarette for her, but my aunt had never smoked.
‘Shall we take a walk outside, Aunt Marika?’ I asked, wishing to see her more energetic, hoping to connect with her away from that room.
‘I don’t feel like it,’ she answered blankly. ‘It is close to lunchtime.’ She looked away, distracted. Was she annoyed? Maybe we had come too early for a visit. Maybe there was a better time when Marika would not be preoccupied with her daily routine and could really see me. Worst of all, she did not look in shape to leave this place.
Two nurses in white uniforms and caps showed up to dispense medications. I was surprised to see them ask patients to open their mouths wide after swallowing their pills. Afterward, I learned that some people would ‘cheek’ the medications and later spit them out. Staff was trained to detect these tactics. Here patients had little choice about how to act. My aunt’s victory wings had been clipped by her demons and the staff at La Bête.
Aunt Marika swallowed her Thorazine pills, an antipsychotic drug that, I later learned, had the side effect of photosensitivity, the result being a risk of sunburn. At least I found a reason that explained why we could not walk outside. There certainly was no privacy in this place. I handed her a small package of Oreo cookies I had brought, and she put them into her pocket. Then she said, ‘Go on, go to your friend,’ and waved me away.
Defeated, I hesitated, looked down to the tips of my shoes, around the room, and finally at my aunt. ‘I guess we should go. Goodbye, Aunt Marika,’ was all I could say.
She accepted a quick peck on her cheek, but remained locked away inside her own cocoon, a wounded soul. I turned, walked away, weaving between the long tables to where Efi was waiting. For all the effort it took to get there, our visit had been painfully short. I could not guess how long before she would come back home. The social worker had not said.
My aunt’s bright and limber soul would stay a hostage to delusions and hallucinations most of her life. Observing the galaxy of her visions and voices—possessive, demonic, and demanding—marked my soul with the song of Maenads that day.
‘Leaving already?’ asked Efi.
‘She is tired. Not in the mood. Not today.’ We found our way out of the institution. Coming down the marble steps, Efi observed wryly, ‘Not much different from a well-run camp.’
I laughed. ‘Hardly!’ I was grateful to have my friend along. ‘Thanks for coming with me,’ I offered. ‘It’s a terrible waste to see Aunt Marika in La Bête. You should have seen her before. Such a bright, smart, and loving woman, my aunt. My favorite aunt; my mother’s best friend!’
‘Such a waste!’ Efi repeated.
As we left the grounds to wait for the bus, she commented, ‘Did you notice? I did not see any other visitors today.’
‘Not a happy place,’ was all I could muster. ‘I hate to see her here.’ What was it that overtook her? Could pain lead to insanity? Why would she allow it to mess with her mind? I was naïve to imagine it was a willful decision on her part to sink into such a state. But will had very little to do with it. Karma might.
Although I could not visit her at La Bête again, Aunt Marika had delivered a gift to me. The stigma against mental illness and the ill-conceived secrecy that prevented people from receiving services were pervasive outside the walls of La Bête; it stung me and stayed with me even when I moved and settled in America. I learned not to judge the mentally ill and to look for ways to help, ultimately choosing a career in social services. As for Aunt Marika, I saw her very few times after that on return trips to Greece. She still lives in my heart despite the physical distance between us that would never close.
First published by The Blue Nib, November 1, 2020 Based on Sophia's memoir, Sophia's Return.