“The Three Charlies”

Folly Magazine.

On a bitterly cold New England Monday in January 1978, I entered my third psychiatric hospital in less than six months. I would spend the next year of my life there, almost half of that time as a resident of Thompson 2, the Institute of Living’s most closely monitored, all-male, 24/7 locked-down unit.

I had been in such places before—New York’s Bellevue Hospital and the Carrier Clinic near Princeton in New Jersey—but my arrival to those “facilities” had been cushioned with substantial medication and no expectations. I arrived at Thompson 2 that January afternoon, expecting to step straight off a pampered country inns weekend and onto the idyllic rehab brochure that my Park Avenue shrink had shared with me in New York.

“Do it, Don.” He had implored. “A few months at the Institute is nothing compared to what almost happened last summer. You were lucky to survive a brush with death. Look at this as a fresh chance at life.”

His logic was sound, and persuasive, especially given that I knew I was sliding back into a very dark mental hole—a hole that had all too recently hurled me to suicidal depths and introduced me to handcuffs, straitjackets, padded rooms and electroconvulsive shock therapy.

The Institute’s idyllic brochure was in seductive contrast to all of that. It described a 35-acre campus dotted with magnificent ginkgo trees, striking 19th century architecture, tennis courts, a softball field, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and, of course, manicured paths for strolls around the grounds. All that was missing was a picture of Mrs. Robinson.

Nowhere, however, was any mention made of Thompson 2.

My first impression, stepping through the door, was of two large and fairly empty rooms; empty, I was told, because most of the residents (and psychiatric aides) were “at a class.” The two rooms were partitioned by a heavy door and thick, wire-mesh glass. The larger room contained an aides’ station encased in even heavier-duty wire-mesh glass, behind which stood a very large black man, staring at me.

Norman Virgo was an imposing figure—at least six-three, his body large and powerful, his skin coal black, and his manner no-nonsense. I instinctively stiffened on seeing him up close, but then he spoke. His was the sweet voice of his native Jamaica. And to go with it, a classic Jamaican smile—teeth whiter than white against that pitch-black skin—and the seemingly easygoing manner of his No problem, mon island heritage. But Mr. Virgo was the unit coordinator of Thompson 2, and his domain was no Caribbean paradise.

There were twenty of us—eight assigned to the group room, including me, and a dozen more who slept in individual rooms at the far end of the L-shaped unit. In time I would learn that single-room designation was one of Thompson 2’s few amenities. Most of the patients were young—teenagers (one just fourteen) and twenty-somethings. At thirty, I was downright middle-aged. There were a couple others in my range, and one really old guy about fifty. They had earned their spots on the Thompson 2 roster for everything from heroin addiction to attempted suicide, murder threats to paranoid schizophrenia, self-mutilation to rage against the world. Some were directed to the Institute by the courts; others by parents, guardians, or spouses who simply opted for committal in the absence of any other answer. None of them took much notice of me that first day and I returned the favor. I was, after all, planning to only spend the night. Tomorrow I would meet my assigned therapist, who, I was sure, would acknowledge my mistaken allocation and get me the hell out of there!

Dr. Joseph looked like a professor at a small New England college. Well into his fifties, with a close-cropped, salt-and-pepper beard and the calm demeanor of a practiced listener, his wardrobe of choice was heavily influenced by tweed, corduroy, and herringbone. Our first meeting was relaxed and congenial, thanks largely to my determination to convince him that a terrible mistake had been made. About halfway through our hour, however, it became quite apparent that he wasn’t buying it. “Given your recent experiences, we think this allocation is best for you,” he calmly informed me. “If all goes well here, you should move on fairly soon.”

“I know I can sign myself out of here anytime I want,” I replied.

“Actually, you can’t,” he said. “Your wife has the ability to commit you and is prepared to do so. She’s very concerned.”

I stopped hearing him after is prepared to do so. I looked around at the small, spare room we were in…Thompson 2’s patient-doctor therapy suite—four walls, two straight-back chairs, and one opaque, wire-mesh window. I realized that I was trapped—in the room, in the unit, in the hospital, in my head. It was time to settle in and get to know my fellow patients.

Oddly enough, there were three guys on the unit named Charlie. Charlie One was a 26-year-old heroin addict from New York City with a Master of Ceremonies complex. Charlie Two was an 18-year-old psychopath from Hartford who had voices in his head and self-inflicted wounds all over his body. Charlie Three was a 14-year-old child—too young, too pretty, and too vulnerable to be in this place. I didn’t much like Charlie One, entertaining though he could be. I really liked Charlie Two, but he scared the shit out of me. And I loved Charlie Three like the little brother I never had.

“Who’s Dick Hertz?” It was a question Charlie One never tired of attempting to get the aides to ask. Before we could leave the unit to attend a “class” (molding clay in Pottery or stamping belt designs in Leather), one of the aides would write the participating patients’ names on a pad, and then, just before we were to be escorted off the unit, the aide would do a roll-call to assure everyone was accounted for. Charlie One loved trying to access the list and insert the name “Hertz, Dick,” thereby eliciting a question to which the patients could respond that, in fact, all of their dicks hurt. Ha. Ha. It was the kind of infantile joke that one generally outgrew in fifth grade. It was also a perfect reflection of Charlie One’s personality.

Charlie One worked as a shift supervisor at his father’s business in New York City’s Garment District, but his real avocation was ascending the roof every afternoon to shoot up. He was arrogant, egotistical, and childish; one of those people whose arrival has an immediate impact, thanks to a booming voice, a nose into everyone else’s business, and a conviction that every word he utters is clever, funny, or both. He was a boor and he pissed off a lot of people, especially a guy named Rick from Cleveland.

Rick was a scary son-of-a-bitch—a hard case with no sense of humor and less tolerance for being its butt. On his calm days he had wildness in his eyes that made you want to look away. I never fully understood why Rick was at the Institute, but I’m certain that a lenient judge had a hand in it.

As a general rule it was a good idea to give Rick plenty of room, if only to maximize reaction time. Mostly, though, it happened too fast…it being impulsive acts of violence. Like the day Rick calmly rose from his seat in the dayroom, walked over to one of the aides, and sucker-punched him in the face—smashing the aide’s glasses so badly that the cracked frames dug into the bridge of his nose and very nearly took out an eye. Blood was everywhere as psych aides swarmed over Rick. He just laughed like he was auditioning for Cuckoo’s Nest. From that moment on, anytime Rick was within a few feet of me, I began to twitch.

Charlie One, however, had no such defensive radar and, foolishly, got under Rick’s 20-year-old skin with his center-of-attention act. The inevitable played out one morning in the dayroom. Charlie and three others were playing cards at one end of the room, Charlie aggressively chatting up a young female nurse who was making rounds. The rest of us were sitting in chairs that lined the walls, some reading, others just gazing off into space or mumbling to themselves. Rick was one of the gazers, but his was firmly fixed on Charlie One. I happened to look up at the instant Rick launched himself across the room. It was as if a starter’s gun had sounded Rick’s heat for the 100-meter hurdles. Nanoseconds later Rick was raising his right leg as if to triumphantly clear the first barrier. His boot landed square against the left side of Charlie One’s head. Charlie One went down hard and took another patient and the young female nurse down with him. As the table upended, Charlie One was trapped in a corner; the young nurse alongside. Rick was all over him, literally hammering Charlie with his fists. Charlie’s head alternately slammed against the wall, the floor, and the nurse, who took a couple brutal, if indirect, shots. Aides were everywhere, but the melee had assumed an overwhelming energy of its own. Rick was a man possessed.

When it finally ended, Rick was “transferred” out of the Institute, presumably to a nice prison; the young nurse was taken to the infirmary, badly shaken but spunky enough to return a week later; and Charlie One, well, I never saw him again. He didn’t look good when they carried him out.

On to Charlie Two. A nice kid with a tenuous grip on reality, he’d been in and out of the Institute for years, a charter member of Thompson 2 residency. Heavily medicated, he had his lucid moments when he’d speak about his parents and life in general, normal stuff. But you never knew when lucid would give way to Lucifer. One minute he’d be sitting quietly in the dayroom, and the next he’d be having a rather animated conversation with no one I could see. Suddenly he might swing his fist into the face of the guy alongside him, presumably because some voice in his head told him to do it. Unpredictable as he could be, Charlie Two could also be vulnerable. He was with me the entire time that I was a patient on Thompson 2 and often, given his apparent perception that I was wise with old age, sought my counsel. But being Charlie Two’s confidant was a double-edged sword.

One night, after I had finally graduated to my own room, Charlie Two appeared at my door, wanting to talk. He came in, gently closing the door behind him, and sat on a chair between the bed where I had been reading and the door he had just closed. His doctor wanted to move him to more powerful meds, but Charlie Two didn’t want to become a zombie. What did I think?

“Why is the doctor suggesting that now?” I asked.

“Because of the stuff the voices have been saying.” At this point Charlie Two started telling me about the voices. As he did he began to move his head from side to side, as if he was looking over each of his shoulders at something. After a couple minutes his eyes started darting toward the ceiling, and his fingers were scratching at his arms. I felt like I was sitting with David Berkowitz; I could almost hear Sam’s dog barking. I felt a case of the shakes coming on, but knew I had to control it, convinced that if Charlie’s inner demons smelled my fear, they’d pounce! Eventually he calmed down and I figured I had dodged a bullet. I never let myself be alone with Charlie Two again.

Finally there was Charlie Three—a beautiful young boy, of whom I felt very protective. There was no question that he needed a big friend, if only to try to keep Larry at bay. Larry was a 53-year-old arsonist and sexual pervert from Hawaii. When he wasn’t setting fires, he was trolling for beautiful young boys. Charlie Three was prime meat to Larry, who wasn’t shy about making that fact known. Even worse, Larry’s outspoken lust tweaked the interest of one of the unit’s other closet sodomists, making things very uncomfortable for the young teenager.

Even in the locked-down, aide-heavy world of Thompson 2, predatory sexuality was a threat. The drugs that we were all on certainly helped to minimize it, but sexual perversion has its own powerful chemistry. Larry was like a dog sniffing at Charlie Three’s ass wherever it went. Showers were particularly treacherous.

One morning I had an early session on the unit with my shrink. We were using a room adjacent to the bathroom. Suddenly there was a commotion outside, the details of which I never got, but the gist of which was obvious. Charlie Three returned to his room bleeding and limping. Larry was in restraints.

Such was the world of Thompson 2. It wasn’t the most barbaric and dangerous of places, but it wasn’t summer camp either. I spent five months on that unit. It aged me. It aged Charlie Three more.

*  *  *

Decades later, my journey through the dark corridors of mental health solidly behind me, I remain nonetheless tethered to the characters I met along the way. Indeed, though I now live far from The Institute, I do occasionally find myself within its orbit. It draws me like a magnet. Walking the hospital’s meandering paths, even stealing into its more accessible buildings to voyeuristically peer through the glass paneled door of a mid-level psychiatric unit to see myself inside again, I recall how I came to be there and those with whom I shared the experience.

Our trek through life exposes us to lots of “Charlies”—the brash, the damaged, the innocent. And every one of them leaves its mark…some by virtue of circumstance; some by the absence of virtue; all by their reflection of our inner selves.

I’d like to believe that my three Charlies lived happily ever after, but I’m too pragmatic to think that’s likely. Regardless, they live in my memory, frozen in a long ago time—a constant reminder of the vagaries of life.


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