The Third Table

07: Bill Gibson

Chapter VII:

EARLY DAYS

by  Bill Gibson

Bill Gibson

Bill Gibson -- Margaret Brenman's Husband

When Bob Knight came to Riggs in 1947 he brought Margaret with him and I came along with Margaret. Knight was a kind of George Washington, a man of great stature, physically and ethically, and everyone trusted him. All sides knew he would understand their particular point of view. People went to Bob Knight with their problems and got justice.

In 1951 Joan Erikson asked me if I would consider teaching a couple of classes in literature and music. There was a group of patients – bright young people –  who didn’t have anything to do. If there were any therapeutic concerns attached to the Activities Program they didn’t divulge them to me. Riggs paid me $50.00 a week to teach them and I did.

In those days the upstairs of the Lavender Door was a living room with a grand piano and sofas. After about a year I got pretty sick of  just lecturing and said to the patients, “ How would you like to put on a play?” They seemed interested. This had to be cleared with Bob Knight and some therapists took a rather dim view of the idea. “They won’t be able to learn lines!” they predicted,  “And certainly not perform in public.” Bob Knight cleared it and we got started.

I picked plays to fit the patient’s potential. I didn’t open tryouts to the public since my job was to keep them busy. These patients had been “interrupted” in their college careers. Many  were bright, sophisticated, attractive people. We played to an audience of about eighty locals, doctors and their wives and others from the wider community and gave four performances. We made a small theater in the round upstairs in the Lavender Door and created lights from grapefruit juice cans – everything was improvised. One young man sat at the piano improvising what he called his “Symphony Desolato.” We used it as a score for No Exit. One woman became suicidal during the rehearsals but I told her she would have to wait until after the play was over. At no point was any therapeutic use mentioned but I thought that we needed to decompress, so after the shows we had long discussions and we made tapes of those discussions. For all I know they may still be locked up in the archives at Riggs.

In about 1954 I made some money on my book The Cobweb and I invited Dick Spahn, an old friend of mine and Arthur Penn’s, to take over. Later Jayne Mooney Brookes became the long-term director. Her productions were very good, and I always enjoyed them.

Otto Will became the Medical Director after  Bob Knight died. He was from Chestnut Lodge, a closed hospital. Margaret had lobbied the board and the staff to get him in. He accepted the job but said that Riggs would have to wait six months. Then the night before he was to arrive, he sent in a refusal. At that point Margaret had to start all over again to convince Will – not to mention the staff — that he would be right. Again she succeeded. But unlike Bob Knight, Otto Will was not trusted by all sides, and Riggs no longer seemed like such an open place and the Activities Program became more therapy – integrated.

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