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A Return to the Drooling Ward

by Ed Davis

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2014
ISBN: 978-0986069727
Publisher: The Wedgewood Press

A 17-year-old undergoes training as a psychiatric technician at a California state hospital in this fictionalized memoir.

Davis (Road Stories, 2013) bases this novel on his experience in a training program for psychiatric technicians at then–Sonoma State Hospital in Eldridge, California, beginning in 1970 when he was 17. Noting that the book is fictional, Davis states that he has “taken some liberties to serve the story. But the place and the people are just as I remember them.” Davis skillfully evokes the setting with its hierarchies, routines, customs and varied characters. A shift supervisor explains the classifications for one ward: “The Thunderbirds…are mostly high functioning morons. The Falcons are mostly imbeciles, The Ravens mostly mongoloids with a few cretins.” The narrator’s tour that day ends in a small outdoor yard: “The Thunderbirds, Falcons and Ravens were all there; sitting or rocking or staring up at the sky through the fencing that sealed off the top of the space as well as the walls.” Medications, the narrator learns, “did most of the supervising.” Characteristic of the book as a whole, the quiet contrast here between the patients’ soaring bird names and the reality of their caged lives is the more poignant for its understatement. There are few snake-pit horrors here, but more prevalent is the sadness that results when the best solutions available are bad ones. When a trainee trying to restore range of motion pushes a little too far, “the sound of her case study’s arm breaking echoed through the ward like a branch snapping in the forest.” The narrator’s compassion, the way he listens to and really looks at his patients, is a reminder of the possibilities for connection even among the grimmest surroundings, balanced by an acknowledgement of the limitations. Gerald, for example, is a hard case known for biting (until his teeth were pulled out) and running away (until an orthopedic surgeon’s operation prevents it). The narrator manages to build a tentative, fragile understanding with Gerald, but even so, he can’t give him the freedom he craves.

All too short but powerful; beautifully written, well-observed and effective.