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Elizabeth Buzzelli - August 9th, 2010
Admissions: Novel probes a mental hospital’s past
by Jennifer Sowle
Arbutus Press, 19.95
By Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli
There is something about the Old Traverse City State Hospital —
“mental hospital” it was called back when it functioned as a home for
the mentally ill, or home to the dysfunctional, or home to people
warehoused to make life more convenient for their relatives, more
convenient for abusive husbands, even business partners wanting a too
inquisitive partner quieted. Certainly more convenient for society.
In Jennifer Sowle’s new novel, “Admissions”, (Arbutus Press, $19.95),
the old state hospital becomes the place where Luanne Kilpi, a sad
woman who has lost a child, is taken after a suicide attempt. It is
the place of monumental cruelty and callousness and then kindness and
healing. Building 50, very different today, rises like a kind of
ghost, to haunt the imaginations of all of us who have ever walked the
hospital grounds and wondered as we shivered: Could it have been me
trapped behind those walls?
Sowle, a practicing clinical psychologist in Traverse City, when asked
about her interest in the hospital as the setting for her novel, said,
“Ever since I was a teenager and vacationed in TC, I’ve been
fascinated with the State Hospital. Perhaps because I’ve always been
interested in what makes people tick and conversely, how they come

While doing research for the book Sowle found “there is surprisingly
little research of the type I’m interested in… Thank god the
librarians here hooked me up with the State Archives in Lansing where
I had access to old copies of the Observer, the hospital newspaper.”
When she first came to Traverse City, Sowle said, “I did some
consulting with mental health and several of my patients had been in
the state hospital. They told me first-hand stories. The rest were
second or third hand stories… Luckily this is fiction. I’m allowed to
use my imagination.”
In the novel, Luanne Kilpi is delivered to the hospital by her husband
who is dealing with his own grief and doesn’t know how to help his
wife through her deep and continuous sorrow. A weak man, the hospital
seemed his salvation. He would leave Luanne and she would be cured of
feelings of guilt and pain. It was a favor he was doing her, wasn’t
it? His own misery and self-pity led him to sideline Luanne from his
life. He leaves her in the state hospital for over a year. Leaves her
to carry the weight of their dead child alone. Life goes on for him
while Luanne is trapped in that horrible moment when their little boy
Moving from hall to hall—depending on her healing, Luanne is at first
confined to a dark hole where the insubordinate are placed. Weeks of
cold cement and darkness. Eventually she lands in Hall 5 of Building
50 where she meets five other women confined with her. All the women
have varying reasons for being in a mental hospital. Most of the
reasons have little to do with mental illness and more with life
experience. It seems that being brutalized was reason enough to lock
up a woman, being rejected, being anorexic. Heidi, Isabel, Beth,
Autumn and Estee. They become Luanne’s friends. The friendships make
life behind hospital walls livable, make the days pass, fill days with
caring and storytelling, with the kind of physical and mental
protection only friends provide.
The story of these five women isn’t, ultimately, a dark one. Of course
someone has to die, her death figuring large in the lives of these
confined women.
“I just keep thinking about her,” Autumn says after the anorexic woman
dies. “Trying to imagine what happened.”
Luanne can’t control her lips. They quiver. “You know,” she says,
“something passes between people who suffer together. It forms a
bond, like a sister.”
Of course someone has to regress. Of course someone has to heal and
someone has to learn lessons taught only through the classroom of life
at its hardest.
“I don’t really see “Admissions” as a book about mental illness,”
Sowle says. “As strange as that may sound. I see it as a novel about
the human experience. The core story is based on my own losses early
in my life and, in that sense, it is a bit of a catharsis.”
Sowle has mined the fear we all feel when looking up at the abandoned
buildings of an institution. I don’t know what that fear is. I know
mine goes back to a visit I made with a friend, to the Northville
State Hospital. We were 16, my friend and I. Her grandmother was
confined to Northville because she was old, because no one wanted the
burden of her in their homes, because she was sick. We found her in a
bed left out in a crowded hallway. The woman cried when her
granddaughter woke her with a touch to the cheek. On the way out a
mad woman lunged at a heavy screen over a window and screamed at us.
That’s what I remember when walking the grounds of the state hospital
in Traverse City. I remember sadness, and I remember fear.
I always thought the fear we felt near prisons or mental hospitals was
a fear of losing everything, of being locked away, fear of the horrors
we make up and the horrors we learn of. But now, after reading
“Admissions”, I think the fear comes from emotions out of control,
exposing something we all carry with us.

For me, any background other than the one Sowle chose would have
lessened my interest in the story. It is almost a relief to have
those visions of brick walls—building after building; the memory of
heavily screened windows; of empty, stark porches softened just a
little bit by a very human story of women who save themselves and each
other as they share the worst a society can heap on them.
Because the hospital is now being carefully restored by the Minervini
Group who are bringing the buildings new life and wiping away much of
the horror, it is important to gather the history of the place while
we can. There are videos on YouTube—some cheesy, some poignant.
There are wonderful books of photographs such as Heidi Johnson’s
“Angels in the Architecture” and Geoffrey Vail Brown’s “Beauty in
Ruin -- The Asylum Nudes.” “Beauty in Therapy: Memories of the
Traverse City State Hospital” by Kristen M. Hains captures the
memories of a man who worked at the hospital for many years, while
“Traverse City State Hospital” by Chris Miller tells the story of the
old buildings.

Bob Underhill of Leelanau has just published his fifth novel, “Once
Dead, Long Dead.” It is the chilling story of a woman who finds
herself accused of murder and winds up having to fight for her life.
Underhill is a retired psychiatrist. His previous novels include
“Strawberry Moon” and “Cathead Bay.” “Once Dead, Long Dead” is
available at all local bookstores.

Elizabeth Buzzelli’s third novel in the Emily Kincaid series, “Dead
Sleeping Shaman,” is available in bookstores everywhere.

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