In lyrical, honest language, a painter describes her adolescence in a New York psychiatric hospital.
In 1967, 15-year-old Lewis was remanded to a psychiatric facility following charges of drug use and school truancies. She remained there until her 18th birthday. Her first-person, present-tense narrative describes her life with other adolescents deemed “unmanageable.” Lewis, 13-year-old Marjee (committed for swallowing 20 aspirin), heroin addict Laurie, and high-school dropout Harold form a community of sorts as they spend their days on the ward medicated, endlessly smoking cigarettes, under close observation. By the time Lewis is 18, most of her friends have been released or have run away while on weekend passes. Misdiagnosed as an acute schizophrenic and plied with a cocktail of drugs including Thorazine (the drug’s manufacturer was a major funder of the hospital’s research studies), Lewis is afraid of being a “career mental patient.” She throws herself into her schoolwork, gets a part-time job outside the hospital, and is allowed to go home on the occasional weekend. She’s completely unprepared, then, when the staff encourages her to sign herself in voluntarily when she turns 18, and her angry response gets her shipped to the state mental hospital. Terrified that she’ll never be released, Lewis desperately pulls herself together and within a month is free. The memoir’s second half chronicles her attempts at self-rehabilitation. She becomes an artist, creates a circle of friends and lovers, and works as an advocate for mental patients. Finally, 33 years after her admittance, Lewis requests a copy of her hospital records and visits her old ward. Her former psychiatrist admits that the heavy medication and lengthy incarceration of adolescents is now viewed as harmful; therapy has changed since the mid-1960s. Lewis tries to locate her friends from that time and discovers that many have committed suicide, while others suffer extreme side effects from their medication.
Complex, chilling, luminous: not one false step.