Friday, September 24

The great power of life

In 1986 the closure of the asylums in Spain was decreed for their bad practices and for promoting the dehumanization of patients. From one day to the next, the 200 women who had suffered for decades the confinement and mistreatment in the horrifying Asylum of Santa María de Jesús in Valencia were transferred to the Bétera Psychiatric Hospital. They had nothing with them, not a suitcase. Not their stories. They didn’t even know their own names. Some had been locked up for 30 years. The young doctor María Huertas Zarco, an anti-Franco activist at her university and an incipient feminist, a doctor living in Bétera at the time, saw them arrive as specters, women without memory or identity, stripped of their memories and their previous life by dint of electroshocks, humiliations. and extreme medication. The experience of those years in which she accompanied them, along with other specialists, during the process of recovering all that they had taken from them ended up forging María as a feminist psychiatrist. Faced with the bleak outlook of the trade, she and her colleagues had the audacity to want to change the way of understanding mental illness and its treatments. And so they took away the drug overdose, they lived with them, listened to them, got to know them, gave them their own rooms, painted them in bright colors, took them out to the streets, to fairs, they gave them back their names.

Perhaps what stirs the most, among all the things that stir about the reading of Nine names (Temporal, 2021), the story of the drama and redemption of nine of these women, is to discover that what we call madness is often called patriarchy, poverty, Church or barracks. Although today hospitals have been modernized, no one is lobotomized and the treatment of patients has improved ostensibly, the system that makes us ill still subsists, lives and kicks, and also its supposed cure: psychiatric violence, electroshock or death. drug abuse. And all crossed by the stigma. That is why almost as important as knowing the voices of these women is the work of reconstruction and resignification of these stolen memories, which helps to look forward, repair and not repeat history.

There is no prologue in this book, because the author has preferred to explain her reasons with great delicacy in an epilogue, so the book is accessed through the first name, Ana, a name for each chapter and eight more women, all finally identified . Ana’s story is that of a sparkling girl who liked to water the geraniums in the summer until one day she became quiet, as if alienated, stopped doing housework and was then abandoned in the madhouse. Amparo was a large and luminous woman raised by nuns, who joyfully assumed her clerical destiny, but could not become a nun because one day she was removed from the order and locked up in the Santa María de Jesús. The diagnosis: “mystical delusion, erotic content”. Felipa one day threw herself over the side of a ship with her son in the port of Valencia, shortly after rescuing her, they locked her up in the asylum. Maria, who was very poor, worked as a maid in a house until one day she stopped talking, was sinking into sadness and ended up also locked up.

What is not usually known and later we will know is that Ana had been subjected to all kinds of violence by the man who said he loved her, beat her, raped her, got drunk, constantly abandoned her to consume prostitution, insulted her by telling her that she was useless for nothing, not even to give her children. She no longer fixed herself, nor did she change, nor did her eyes shine, Ana was dead in life. And we will know that, in reality, the mystical and erotic delusion had been the father who subjected Amparo to undue touching and abused her, but who was separated from the Church was not him but Amparo. That Felipa had thrown herself into the sea after experiencing an ordeal with her husband, a civil guard, beatings that ended in the hospital and that once he even threatened her with a gun to her face. And we will know that Maria had been raped and pregnant by the boss of that family.

They called them crazy and the medical institution placed the blame on them for their ills and then imprisonment as punishment.

Huertas Zarco recounted in an interview that in the 1980s they conducted a study on the reasons for women entering the psychiatric hospital: “there were more than 40% of those admitted for things that had to do with social problems, not with mental problems. That is, with their gender role, with things that were frowned upon and that did not fit that role: having single children, painting themselves a lot, going out too much, being very rebellious in adolescence … things that are considered more normal in boys , and in them, a danger “.

This lovingly written book –told at times as a devastating thriller and at times as outlining the best literary journalism on gender violence in medicine–, with infinite respect for the lives of these women, does not end there, nor in the causes or in the report of the damages. Because thanks to the fact that violence from outside and inside the asylum stopped, thanks to the arrival of young psychiatrists with a critical, healing and feminist look, Ana returned to watering geraniums; Felipa, to laugh and Maria, to dream. Well, Amparo was not saved from a second attempt by the Church to protect her rapist, but for that they will have to read Nine names.

Alda Merini, Italian poet who narrated his painful time in a mental hospital and the psychiatrization of his life in The crazy woman next door (Transit, 2021), wrote: “I often tell everyone that that cross without justice that has been my madhouse has only revealed to me the great power of life.” They called them crazy but they were only aware of the great power of life.

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