Compassionate Education Versus Dark Tourism at an Oregon Mental Hospital — Page 2
By Teresa Bergen

Dysart patiently guides me through the museum's eight rooms. The treatment room is probably my favorite. It showcases apparatus from different eras in mental health treatment. Some are relatively benign. This being Oregon, there's a bulky light with colored gels for treating what's now called Seasonal Affective Disorder. A beauty display represents the ascent of cosmotherapy, from 1952-1954, when therapists explored the idea that a manicure or a better brow arch could improve mental health.

Under the professional eyes of the board president, I try to check my baser interest, but my dark tourist side keeps slipping out. She explains that what I first take for an electroshock machine actually measured erection strength. "You mean they hooked a guy up, showed him pictures of kids and kittens, then shocked him?!" I blurt out. No shocks, she patiently explains, it was just a diagnostic tool used on sexual deviants. Even though I try to act like a professional journalist, when I look at my photos later—penis girth measurement tools, suppository molds, lobotomy tools, strait jackets—I realize my inner ten-year-old/dark tourist must have been all too apparent.

erection tester

Fortunately, I also have mature parts of my brain that can appreciate the well-executed educational exhibits. In addition to receiving mental health therapy, patients farmed and worked in vocational shops. They raised chickens and grew enough fruits and vegetables to be self-supporting, and to supply the state prison and universities with produce. Patients built furniture and made everything from saddles to jigsaw puzzles. Female patients working in the textile shop produced linens, sausage bags, and strait jackets for in-house use.

straightjacketVisitors can enter a typical pre-1930s ward room to see where patients slept. The occupational therapy room displays equipment patients used in vocational programs—such as the pedal-powered Theracycle for making jigsaw puzzles and cutting boards. There are productivity lists from different years (e.g. 2000 fly swatters made in 1953, $240,000 worth of food products grown on the hospital farm from 1916-18). Displays are designed to show both the big picture and the individual patient experience. Visitors see an enormous soup pot with ladles bigger than saucepans, then individually decorated cups that belonged to particular patients.

One display explains a 1972 wilderness program, led by Everest mountaineer Lute Jerstad. He took 51 patients and 51 staff members on an outdoor adventure to Anthony Lakes in eastern Oregon, featuring rafting and ice climbing. To ensure a sense of equality, the institute stipulated that the mountaineer guides would not be informed which were staff and which were patients. The outdoor program helped some patients a lot, and a few even earned release, Dysart says. I ask why this program was discontinued. Tax payers don't want to pay for the wilderness holidays of people who rape and kill family members, Dysart tells me evenly. Instantly I'm brought back to the reality of where I am: on the campus of a large mental hospital where most patients have been incarcerated in lieu of prison.

One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

In the early '70s, Hollywood filmmakers approached then-superintendent Dean Brooks about filming One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest at the hospital. Upon reflection, Brooks decided it could be a good thing. He required the filmmakers to involve patients as much as possible, and many appear in the movie as extras. Actors lived in empty wards during filming and got to know some of the patients.

Mental Hydrotheraphy

The Cuckoo's Nest connection is still a popular draw. An exhibit commemorates the hospital's partnership with Hollywood. One fun artifact is the original black and white TV that Jack Nicholson was watching in the movie. "We couldn't find the knobs," Dysart tells me. "Then we realized Nurse Ratched had pulled them off." Museum staff sent the TV to New York to be retrofitted so it could show a video of the movie.

Cuckoo's Nest had an enduring effect on the actors. Jack Nicholson returned several times to visit a patient he befriended, and Louise Fletcher, the actor who played Nurse Ratched, cut the ribbon at the museum opening. More significantly, the film inspired national discussions about care and treatment of mentally ill people.

A Lasting Mental Impression

While 60 basements' worth of stuff might seem like enough to stock the museum forever, staff is still collecting. When I visited, they were preparing an exhibit to open for Memorial Day called "War Wounds." Not only would it highlight World War I-era patients suffering from shell shock, but staff was recording oral histories with current patients who identify as veterans. Once inside the red brick museum, it's easy to forget that it's part of a much bigger, active hospital. But the staff doesn't forget how the past is connected to the hospital's present mission.

Mental Alcoholism display

At press time, more than 17,000 people from around the world had visited the museum, and it had just increased its hours from three afternoons a week to five. "So we're growing," Dysart says proudly. It's not the easiest sell. A mental health museum doesn't appeal to the widest audience, instead attracting people interested in medical history, dark tourists, and weirdoes like me who fall somewhere in between. But no matter the motivation for visiting, this museum leaves a strong impression, and even the darkest tourists will learn something above and beyond their baser impulses.

For more information, directions (to Recovery Road) and hours, see the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health website.

Teresa Bergen is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer who writes about fitness, yoga, vegan travel and outdoor adventures. She's the author of Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide and Meditations for Gym Yogis, and she writes the blog Veg Travel and Fitness.

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