April 2, 2020

Spend 45 Days in the Traverse City Mental Hospital

By Clark Miller | Jan. 21, 2017

Raised on his family’s farm on Old Mission Peninsula, accomplished journalist and author Johnston (Jack) Kerkhoff (b. 1900, d. 1958) later lost his sanity and nearly ended his life twice, but he knew where to turn for help: the Traverse City Mental Hospital.

To figure out how to go on with life, he voluntarily checked himself in for a short stay at the sprawling hospital during the early 1950s.

Kerkhoff had at least one thing working in his favor: he knew the outward reasons for his severe depression and failed suicide attempts. His wife Eleanor had died suddenly in 1940. Eight years later, his daughter Mary Ann, married and pregnant, also died. 

In spite of his tragic personal circumstances, Kerkhoff seems never to have lost his writerly perspective. While being treated, he observed and recorded everything around him – the other patients, the hospital routine and even his own deep pain – and in 1952 published How Thin the Veil: A Memoir of 45 Days in the Traverse City State Hospital.

The title refers to a line by Irish painter and poet George W. Russell: “Ah, to think how thin the veil that lies between the pain of Hell and Paradise!”

It is a fitting description of the precarious life Kerkhoff – and most of his fellow patients – led.

Now in the public domain and just reprinted by Traverse City-based Mission Point Press, this very personal story is also a chilling account of standard, mid-century mental hospital treatments such as electrotherapy and insulin therapy.

How Thin The Veil offers a detailed account of the daily life of patients at the hospital. Out of bed at 5:30am. Lights out early. Supervised baths. Saturday dances (no more than three turns on the dance floor with the same partner.) Canteen privileges for the better behaved. Reassignment to different wards if a patient’s mental state improved or declined. Work “therapy” for many. The Colonic Room. The Day Room, where so many personal dramas were acted out.

Deep Roots

The hospital’s roots reach deep here in northern Michigan. Today’s younger set might think of wine shops, restaurants and summer concerts in the former hospital’s vast expanses, now called The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, but older readers no doubt remember how some patients were allowed to walk downtown and how, over the life of the original facility (1885–1989), many people had family members who worked (or were patients) at the hospital. 

Respect for Hospital Staff

Ask longtime Grand Traverse-area residents about the mental facility, and they are likely to say that it was a gentle and caring place. In spite of some of the more unsettling details included in his book, Kerkhoff reinforces that impression. With very few exceptions, he paints the attendants, nurses and other staff members empathetically.

Kerkhoff particularly singles out for praise male attendant Ken Bates, with whom he formed a friendship of equals. By the time he finally felt strong enough to leave the hospital – something many patients never achieved – Kerkhoff had also developed great respect for the doctor who guided his recovery.

Above All, the Patients

Kerkhoff, a self-admitted champion of the underdog who had already written a book about the Dreyfus affair, saves his best depictions for the patients he came to know in his month and a half on Ward D-3. Changing names to protect identities, he portrays them as real-life human beings, worthy of respect and with incredible if at times delusional stories to tell.

There’s Willie, the hermit squatter and erstwhile guitarist who plays one chord over and over. There’s the taciturn German with the nickname “Heil Hitler” who spends most of the day reading the Bible and otherwise yelling “Heil Hitler!” There’s Franklin, a former store owner who is convinced that electrotherapy is merely a prelude to his death by electrocution. There’s also Boy Blue, who eats “like a starving dog” and holds his shoes in his hands but never wears them. Then there’s the Brat, a persistent moocher, and Teddy, the awkward young backwoods womanizer, and of course the Frenchman, who is known for his violent streak.

Kerkhoff can see the sad humor in each story, but he never belittles anyone. Along the way, he develops close friendships with two patients. Always there for support is his sidekick Len, an alcoholic and close observer of the human condition, and Kerkhoff’s spirits are also bolstered by his growing affection for Suzie, a sensitive longtime patient who intuits much about the author and who understands that her uncontrollable mood swings mean she will probably never leave the hospital.

Healed

When Kerkhoff ends his self-imposed stay at the Traverse City Mental Hospital, he decides to live near his surviving daughter in southern California. Recovered from suicidal thoughts and better equipped to deal with the loss of his wife and family, he went on to restart his writing career but died in 1958 of unexplained causes during a trip to Mexico. His daughter died in 1999. It is believed he is survived by a granddaughter.

Kerkhoff started his career as a journalist at the Traverse City Record-Eagle. He later worked for the Grand Rapids Herald, the Detroit Times, the New York Journal-American and the Philadelphia Record. His other two books, which are still available in limited supply, are Traitor! Traitor! The Tragedy of Alfred Dreyfus and Aaron Burr: A Romantic Biography.

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