The Third Table

02: The Reunion

Chapter II


Austen Riggs's 75th Anniversary

Austen Riggs's 75th Anniversary

There was a great deal of excitement about the 75th Anniversary and Dr. White wasted no time in pulling together a committee of five ex-patients to organize the reunion, the centerpiece of the day.  Debby, a patient from the 80’s, also a psychologist, and I picked up most of the early energy and pushed the panel along. She told me that she had to be very careful about her anonymity during and after the reunion since the stigma of mental illness was a serious professional liability. Even when she was an in-patient she was treated by the staff with a certain reserve, or was it distrust?   How ironic, I thought. We artists and theater people have a reverse prejudice. Mental illness is seen as an added cachet. Psychologists, it seems, are suspect if  one of theirs crosses the line and goes for help.

Debby and I called both people we knew and those we didn’t . We finally decided on a panel made up of people from each decade, starting with the 1950’s. We consciously picked people with different issues:  gay; straight; male; female; some who came to Riggs when they were older; some who had flipped out of college. We made up a series of questions that they could use if they needed. But we also said, “Just throw the list away and wing it if you prefer.” The idea was to give voice to as many experiences as possible.

The first speaker we chose was a woman who had been at Riggs in the 1950’s. She sounded militant but passionate on the phone. We hoped her story would be provocative without being so radical that she turned everyone off. Dr. White convinced me to tell my story and we also asked Roger. I pushed to have Roger because he had been one of the few openly gay guys at Riggs in the 60’s. Everyone else was busy trying to “get well ” because, until the 70’s, the world considered homosexuality an illness.

An Informal Shot of Roger

An Informal Shot of Roger

Even the one obviously gay therapist at Riggs was deeply closeted and although he died of AIDs years later, I heard from Dr. Margaret Brenman, a Riggs fixture, that he’d never come out. Roger was amazing because he didn’t deceive himself or anyone else about his sexuality regardless of the prevailing opinions. In other words, Roger had not let Riggs, define and confine him. That especially interested me. We asked a man from the 1970’s, another woman who was also a psychologist from the 80’s, and a young woman from the 1990’s. We also invited Jayne Mooney Brookes to contribute as an ex-staff member.

The reunion arrived. On Friday evening there was a cocktail hour and an art show. Although I no longer drank, I quickly noticed that the concept of a cocktail party was still completely routine at Riggs. It was one of the things I took for granted from the day I first walked into the Inn. Riggs felt like home because it was like home: Stockbridge was a wealthy, Waspy town with a small but dominant ruling class – just like my hometown. The Inn was a comfortable converted “big” house, just like the home I grew up in; The rooms were designed with lots of light and space which felt welcoming, just as my home had felt. And in both places, every day, the cocktail hour was observed religiously.


An Art and Historical Exhibit

An Art and Historical Exhibit

At the cocktail party/art show I was delighted to see Leo, still the director of the Art Program as he had been since the 1950’s. Next to Dr. White he was the most senior person still at Riggs. As popular as Leo was, I’d never worked with him. My hang-up was two fold: one, Leo had a speech impediment that I couldn’t understand. I was too embarrassed to ask him to repeat himself and too awkward to pretend I understood; two, painting was painfully intense. I was already seeing faces everywhere and picking up a paint brush released those demons before I had any ability to contain them. Theater would turn out to be my home while I was at Riggs.  Before Riggs, when I was at Sarah Lawrence, sculpture and art were my passions. But before that I had always wanted to be in the theater. In fact, I had spent the summer of my junior year at boarding school as an apprentice at the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge. That was where I’d first learned about Riggs and had even fallen in love with and dated a patient. When things fell apart for me emotionally a few years later, Riggs was a place I immediately thought would be a safe haven. Of all the activities it offered, it was natural that I’d end up in the theater. So it was both with delight and nervousness that after the cocktail party we all walked down the main street to the Lavender Door to see a play.

Walking Down Main Street to The Lavender Door and the Riggs Theater

Walking Down Main Street to The Lavender Door and the Riggs Theater

I walked to the theater with Roger and his lover Eric. Roger was practically the only person from my “class” that had arrived on Friday. I had assumed that the reunion would be flooded with the people from the 1960’s. After all, that was “my” Riggs and I had assumed it was “the” Riggs. But there we were, Roger and I, practically the only two representatives from that generation of ex – loonies. On the good side, Roger hadn’t been involved with the theater which helped since he couldn’t nudge me and whisper, “Remember…?” Like the MOB, the theater itself was imprinted on my psyche and each tiny detail of that space released a flood of memories. During the play I tried to be present but I kept thinking that the young girl playing the lead reminded me of me when I was her age. She looked about 19 and was pretty and slight, as I had been, and I was sure that I’d have played that role if we had done it when Jayne was the theater director. A year or two later I learned this patient committed suicide. It was like hearing a different ending to my own story. I wished I could have shared with her how life can open up if you can hold on.

On Saturday morning Dr. White was fluttering about like a mother hen. The day was muggy and we all wondered how many people would show up.The panel presentation, open to past and present staff and patients was held at the Red Lion Inn where Riggs had rented an air-conditioned room. There must have been 60 ex-patients crowded in with name tags and waivers allowing (or not allowing) them to be filmed for a video. The room was full and the atmosphere was almost festive. Again I was surprised not to see the Riggs of my past – until two people walked in: my old boyfriend, Peter; and one of my best friends from those years, Beth. After Riggs they had married and then divorced and I hadn’t seen either for 23 years. Beth had gray hair but otherwise looked exactly as she had then. Peter, still a drinker, had seen better days. But those surface thoughts disappeared as the tone and lilt of their voices washed the years away. Then Jayne Mooney arrived and after we all embraced, we took up our positions on the panel.

Jayne Mooney Brookes

Jayne Mooney Brookes



Sylvia and Mary

Sylvia and me

Common to everyone was Dr. Ess White who had made the hospital his mission as well as his home. He was beaming as everyone took their seats. Sylvia, the first ex-patient to speak, remembered the struggles to form a community in the 1950’s, a project Dr. White and Dr. Eugene Talbot had led.  This was the aggressive lady we had worried about. Over a rather corpulent body she wore a tee shirt that read, “I survived Riggs” on the front, and “Misdiagnosed” on the back. She told a story of deep frustration with Riggs and with her doctor who did indeed seem to have misdiagnosed her. Nevertheless, bitching or not, she was participating at this reunion with extreme wit and insight and although her story was not positive, there she was. Looking around I could see that this was another indication of how unique Riggs was. Just as in therapy, the idea was to  welcome each individual experience. At the end of her talk she mentioned that she had laid out fifty  forms that are necessary if you should ever want to get your medical records. She had struggled long and hard to get hers and wanted to help anyone cut through the red tape. (As I left I picked up several.)

Each story, it turned out, would prove to be vibrant and different and the event would surpass my every expectation.

Me,  Jayne, Peter, Beth

Me, Jayne, Peter, Beth

After the panel presentation, Jayne Mooney, Peter, Beth, and I had lunch in a tent set up behind the MOB. We sat around the table laughing and joking as if we were again at The Third Table, the table in the Inn dining room where many of us had held court all through our years at Riggs. This was the table where conversations could erupt into loud irreverent laughter, drawing the frowns from the nurses and tight, beady-eyed glances from other patients. The population of the Third Table often included Jayne Mooney- at least at lunch – and the nurses were as apt to be furious at her for inciting some raucous behavior as at a patient.  Most of the people at the Third Table were members of the theater group, so it was natural that Jayne was involved in the Inn’s dramas.

After the reunion lunch the in-patients allowed the ex-patients to visit the Inn; this time there was no restraining us. We saw the dining room with The Third Table still in position, we saw the living room where Community Meetings were held, the library, the Nurses’ Room. A few of the current patients even allowed us into our old rooms. Each step down into the rabbit hole released intense memories and our voices mirrored our excitement. It was the basement, however, that unleashed our unruly selves. The basement project had been Beth’s baby. Along with her friend Rush, an older patient, she had overseen the renovation of the entire basement, which still looked very much as it had when we first finished it. I remember laying the tiles on the floors and painting cement wall after wall. The brick wall in the TV room that Ralph and Billy built was still there. I remembered the bar that Judy and Tilo (a craftsperson and teacher at the shop) made and polished to a glossy shine. The final touch had been the nude painted by Turk which hung over it. Sadly, both were gone.

The banished bar suggested that drinking was no longer such a central part of the Riggs experience. I wondered if that was true. Something about cocktails the night before suggested that the culture had not changed. Furthermore, Riggs , still an open hospital, must still have great trouble controlling what comes in and goes out of the hospital. Knowing that drinking or drugs were involved in every Riggs patient’s suicide or death I’d known of, I asked one of our guides about the hospital’s attitude about substance abuse. The answer was vague and ambiguous. She did tell me that there were group meetings to deal with alcohol and drug abuse – but no AA. I assumed, almost cynically, that AA would never be accepted by the medical establishment even though it is the most successful group dealing with addiction. From all my meetings at AA, I had learned that doctors, in particular, don’t seem to get the problem. Is it a kind of snobbery that assumes that doctors are the only ones who can make people better? Or is it some educational/class conceit that tempts Riggs to assume they can do better because they are brighter? I assumed that the only way to know for sure would be to live in the Inn, and that seemed an extreme solution.

Taken as a whole, the 75th reunion was a moving and radical day.

 Me, Roger, Dr. Shapiro, the Medical Director, and Dr. Ess White

Me, Roger, Dr. Shapiro, the Medical Director, and Dr. Ess White

I was extremely pleased by the success of the panel presentation. Debby and I gave each other a huge hug and eventually went up to Dr. White to say goodbye. He was smiling like the Cheshire cat and said, “How many mental hospitals have reunions. It is all part of what makes us so unique.” Then he reminded me that there was still work to do on organizing the alumni meetings. I turned to Dr. White and said,

“Okay, but now it’s time for you to help me.”

“Name the time and we’ll get started. “


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