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America’s abandoned insane asylums
07.26.2013
10:11 am
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buffalo asylum
H. H. Richardson Complex/Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, Buffalo, New York

In the U.S. prior to the early 1960s there was a government-run system of mental institutions, some housed in grand Gothic Victorian buildings with impressive grounds. Following changes in psychiatric treatment and the deregulation and privatization of the mental health industry, many of these structures were simply abandoned. For decades they have stood empty, too expensive to demolish. The Kennedy administration planned to act on recommendations from the National Institute of Mental Health to replace these asylums with 2000 outpatient community mental health centers (one for every 100,000 people) by 1980, only a fraction of which were ever built.

Photographers have captured these old asylums in varying states of decay.

trenton cart
 
kingston trenton asylum
 
Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, Trenton, New Jersey

According to The Kingston Lounge blog:

Many of the patient rooms in the central wing [at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital] still contain beds and furniture, and in the northern wing, many still contain belongings. This suggests relatively rapid abandonment, and the fact that apparently usable beds, refrigerators, and other furniture and appliances were not removed for use in other buildings or state facilities helps to confirm this.

wvwheelchair
 
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, Weston, West Virginia

This West Virginia asylum is now a tourist attraction, hosting ghost tours, historical tours, an asylum ball, and stage production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. According to the official website, “The Asylum has had apparition sightings, unexplainable voices and sounds, and other paranormal activity reported in the past by guests, staff, SyFy’s Ghost Hunters, Ghost Hunters Academy, the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and Paranormal Challenge.”

mattresses overland
 
Overbrook Asylum/Essex County Hospital Center, Cedar Grove, New Jersey

Weird New Jersey describes Overbrook Asylum:

The hospital was laid out at the bottom of a hill atop which sat the Mountain Sanatorium – a facility used at various times to treat tuberculosis patients, wayward children, and drug abusers. These two facilities, and the many abandoned buildings associated with them, became Essex County’s most legendary location, home to escaped lunatics, troubled ghosts, and roving gangs of ne’er do wells. For a generation of North Jersey teens, a visit to the Overbrook site was a rite of passage – going to “The Asylum,” “The Bin,” or “The Hilltop”, as it was called by various gangs of teens, was a surefire way to test your mettle and impress your friends.

Unlike other abandoned asylums with patients’ personal possessions scattered all over the building, the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane in New York unwittingly maintained a goldmine for historians. The hospital kept the unclaimed suitcases of all patients who passed away there from the 1910’s to the 1960’s. When the facility closed in 1995 hundreds of intact suitcases were discovered in a locked attic space. These have been preserved by the New York State Museum and added to its permanent collection. Photographer Jon Crispin was permitted to document each suitcase’s contents, resulting in a fascinating but melancholy series of photos of patients’ personal items. You get the feeling most people assumed they would only be staying at the asylum temporarily.

suitcase asylum
 
Preserved suitcase of a mental patient at the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane, New York

Crispin said:

Originally, doctors thought that all you had to do was remove people from the stresses and strains of society, give them a couple of years to get their life together, and they’d get better. Eventually people realized they needed facilities where patients could come and never leave. There’s some question as to whether or not the patients themselves packed their suitcases, or if their families did it for them. But the suitcases sent along with them generally contained whatever the incoming patient wanted or thought they might need.

Overbrook Asylum, Cedar Grove, New Jersey, below:

Via io9, Kingston Lounge, and Collectors Weekly.

Posted by Kimberly J. Bright
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07.26.2013
10:11 am
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Discussion
Kill the Pigs or How I Stopped Worrying and Took a ‘Punk Vacation’
07.25.2013
11:32 pm
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New Cover Art for Vinegar Syndrome's Punk Vacation
 
There is something so delirious about punks (of the DIY-art-music-outsider variety, not the prison-wagon-train variety) being depicted in cinema. Some filmmakers got it close enough, like Penelope Spheeris with both Suburbia and the very-underrated Dudes coming immediately to mind. But for every Suburbia, there have been a LOT of interpretations of this initially diverse alternative culture that have been straight up from Mars. The way “punks” started popping up in movies and TV in the 80’s was akin to the whole juvenile delinquent craze in the 1950’s.

This trend was already starting to fade by 1990, but there was at least one more film to tackle this, creating a strange hybrid between The Wild One and your typical revenge flick with a splash of the great outdoors. The result? Punk Vacation. A title that instantly makes me think of Johnny Thunders’ “Sad Vacation,” the film begins in pastoral, small town California. Deputy Steve Reed (Stephen Fiachi) is target practicing with some old Pepsi cans when he gets a call to check an alarm at a nearby gas station. It ends up being a false one, but it gives Steve a chance to scoop on his old flame, Lisa (Sandra Bogan). Her little sister, Sally (Karen Renee), thinks it sweet, while their gruff dad glowers in the background.

While Steve gives Lisa a lift home, Sally notices a young man outside, wigging out and wailing on their already battered looking soda machine. Everyone has an anger trigger and for this particular freakazoid, Billy, it is the twin combo of no orange soda and having his change devoured. Unfortunately, Sally and Lisa’s dad is kind of a reactionary redneck and immediately greets the young man with a rifle. Seems a bit extreme and sure enough, Billy is a punk rocker and the rest of his friends, led by the fierce Ramrod (Roxanne Rogers), arrive for some revenge. After some friendly car windshield destruction via baseball bat, things get decidedly nasty. By the time Steve finally arrives, Dad is dead and Sally is near-catatonic. Everyone but Billy leaves the scene, with the latter getting hit by Steve’s police vehicle head on.

What emerges from there is Lisa wanting vengeance for her father and little sister, Steve and his fellow officer Don (Don Martin) trying to do the right thing despite their hugely incompetent co-workers and Ramrod and company plotting on how to get Billy out of the hospital. The culmination ends up being the “punks” versus the “rednecks,” including the uber-dumb Sheriff (played by former Warhol actor Louis Waldon?!?) and his crew of future Tea Party members, with Lisa and Steve separate from the two herds.
 
Ramrod & Co
 
Punk Vacation is one fascinating film. On one hand, there are all these non-campy elements. The editing, of all things, is subtly creative and lends a serious tone to the proceedings. The whole brutalization of sweet Sally is certainly no fun to watch either. Then there’s the whole semi-nihilistic angle. The punks are all prepped up to be the villains, but then with the Sheriff, who is loud-mouthed and constantly ranting about “fascist communist pinkos” and his rogue gang of ball-scratching, gun club touting merry dumb asses, the lines become blurred. One punk takes the time to fasten his newly dead comrade’s metal studded wristband in the middle of a life & death chase. All of which is interesting since there is this whole earlier build-up of the punks identifying heavily with Native Americans, giving you this false illusion of some kind of metaphorical old West battle. Instead it ends up being a more anti-climatic rumble between the young, restless and ignorant and the middle-aged, inbred and idiotic. Not quite the epic moral battle, but really, isn’t more interesting that way?

On the other hand, there are some really goony things here. For starters, there is some of the more cherry dialogue, with my personal favorite being “I think he looked like Gomer Pyle’s Grandfather,” uttered by one of the punkettes regarding the man they killed the night before. Even better is that she utters this like it’s a positive thing. Speaking of the punks, holy hell, about 90% of these cats would be devoured at any hardcore punk show of your choosing. They range from looking like extras from the nightclub scenes in Purple Rain to college dudes scuzzing it up. The girls fare a little bit better with Ramrod and her French girlfriend looking very punk meets goth. That said, the other women are one article of clothing away from New Wave Hookers, so there you go. And for the record, what was it with so many movies and TV shows making “punks” look like some kind of New Wave/heavy metal mutant? It’s so strange, not to mention most punks are not going to kill your father and terrorize your sister. If they’re like some of my friends, your 12 pack of Natural Ice and copy of Black Flag’s Who’s Got the 10 ½? might be in danger, but your family will probably be fine.

The absolute best bit of weirdness is the premise itself. The idea of these street gang punks, complete with faux-hawks, leather and ripped fishnets, taking some time off from LA living to go fishing and camping a hundred miles away from the city, is definitely novel. It’s a literal punk vacation.

Vinegar Syndrome
have done a fantastic job of taking this fairly obscure title, that had one VHS release, to my knowledge, on Raedon Video back in the day. The print looks very good and there are some nice extras on the DVD version, including some funny interviews with star/producer Steven Fusci and producer’s assistant/stuntman Steven Rowland, a gallery and Fusci’s earlier action film, Nomad Riders. Wisely, they also changed the artwork to something way more striking and less Gouda. (Anyone that has seen the Raedon Video cover, which looks like a Betsy Bitch cover-band from Hell, understands.)


Punk Vacation
is an entertaining hybrid, capturing a moment in time where punks were depicted as the nastiest of JD’s, with lots of fuchsia eyeliner, hairspray and character names straight out of a Class of 1984 name generator.
 

Posted by Heather Drain
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07.25.2013
11:32 pm
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Discussion
Sifting through 82 hours of Andy Kaufman’s private anti-comedy field recordings
07.24.2013
10:36 am
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Last week Drag City released Andy & His Grandmother, previously unheard “field recordings” made by the legendary dada anti-comic Andy Kaufman in the late 1970s. The tapes show Kaufman pulling friends, family members and total strangers alike into his provocative acts of real life mayhem and reality-altering pranks. (My best friend once gave him a lift home from LAX. Kaufman, then a highly recognizable face on network television, walked up to his girlfriend at baggage and asked for a ride home. I asked him what it was like and he said flatly “Really weird.”).

Andy & His Grandmother was edited down from from 82 hours of micro-cassette tapes by Vernon Chatman, one of the geniuses behind Wonder Showzen (he’s also the voice of “Towlie” on South Park) and Rodney Ascher (the director of Room 237). I posed a few questions about the release to Vernon Chatman over email:

Eighty-two hours of raw material to sort through is a daunting task, to say the least. How did you attack the “not enough hours in the day” problem? Were you just listening to Andy Kaufman in the car for months on end? Multi-tasking while listening to Andy Kaufman’s private recordings seems like it would be a difficult thing to do.

I had to rage against my deep inherent laziness and force myself to sit upright, undistracted, with headphones on, listening to every second of the tapes, taking notes.  So it took way too long – a couple years passed between receiving the tapes and honing the final cut with Rodney. There was a lot of marinating in different approaches and shifting ideas around.

A few times on the tapes, Andy would randomly call up a stranger who had sent him a letter, and invite the stunned fan to spend an afternoon with him – just running errands and stuff. Occasionally, listening to the tapes felt like I got to be a fly on Andy’s face for the day.

What was the signal to noise ratio like, the solid gold stuff vs the recorder merely being switched on? I would think some of it, maybe a lot of it, would be incoherent.

Tons of it was indeed incoherent. I think he was interested in the ambience and texture of his life as much as the moments of lucid goofiness he created.  He’d record a blaring party.  Or the rumbling white noise of a drive to the airport in his car. Or a casual meal with his parents. But mostly the tapes showcased Andy shifting in and out of performance for the benefit of no one/ himself/ the tapes. He was always on the lookout for ways to give people an experience. For the album, we focused on those moments.

Did certain themes present themselves as you went through the tapes? What was the editing philosophy?

There didn’t seem to be any guiding theme, other than Andy’s personality, his impulses. The editing philosophy was to follow Andy’s lead as much as possible—to zero in on the moments where he spelled out his intentions and execute them as we thought he would have. The overall goal was to not craft a biographical or historical document, but build an album of tracks – an entertaining interesting strange funny honest experience, as true to Andy’s intentions as possible. Of course, it isn’t possible to fully achieve that goal, but we figured don’t mess with his tapes if you aren’t going to try. 

In these field recordings, were there certain “sleight of mind” tropes that Kaufman utilized to get his put-ons moving in a Kaufman-esque direction?

Well, I know from Lynne [Margulies, Kaufman’s girlfriend] that occasionally Andy put on little costumes when he would go out messing with people in public. But most of the stuff on the tapes were bits he created spontaneously. He slid invisibly in and out of performance. Sometimes he would use the sliding back and forth to further befuddle folks around him. His greatest “trick” might have been his weird combination of relentless commitment and infinite slipperiness. He never had to hide an ulterior motive because all (none) of his motives were ulterior. He had no corners to get cornered into. He was compelled to meddle in any available cranny, and equally interested in every type of reaction.

He’d get obsessed with certain things – he loved tormenting one particular woman, a good friend of his, whom he couldn’t help winding up just to see her spin. We thought briefly about making the whole album only tracks of Andy infuriating this woman.  But there was too much other great stuff.

The liner notes aren’t very forthcoming about what’s what. Were you able to piece together the context for most of the things you selected or was that mostly mysterious to you?

A lot of it was like holding my head under murky water with open eyes, looking around trying to cobble a sense of what the hell is going on. More often than not, the context became clear. One time, Andy was talking openly on the phone with a sweet young lady about how desperate he was for some help getting laid (or as Andy called it, “getting some hey-hey-hey”). After 5 minutes, I realized the woman on the other end of the call, happily trying to help score him a little hey-hey-hey, was Andy’s sister.

How much of it was labeled in a useful manner to a future Andy Kaufman archivist like yourself?

Andy labeled the tapes in an almost illegible scrawl. I couldn’t understand most of the labels until after I listened to the tapes. I kept only scrappy sloppy disjointed notes to myself.  Also I dribbled a lot of gravy on them. Maybe there should be a website that just runs the tapes uncut on a loop forever. And plays a live video feed from one of Andy’s favorite brothels or/and petting zoos to go along with it.

You write in the liner notes that you can’t really learn anything about a person from listening to 82 hours of them on tape. C’mon! Nothing?

Here’s something I didn’t exactly learn, but that I had confirmed: Andy really seemed to be, in every crevice of his life that I got to peek into, as driven by sincere kidlike wonder as I had hoped he was.  There was no evidence of a cynical or needy ego manufacturing his persona or contriving a myth – even though he enjoyed playing around with all that stuff, his creative urges all seemed to come from an utterly pure place.

Buy Andy & His Grandmother on Amazon

Posted by Richard Metzger
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07.24.2013
10:36 am
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Discussion
The ‘Rusty Knife’ of Arigó, Brazil’s amazing psychic surgeon
07.22.2013
11:55 am
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With their sleeves surreptitiously stuffed with chicken blood and pig guts, so-called “psychic surgeons” have been hoaxing the vulnerable (the most vulnerable) for centuries.

Yet every vein of the paranormal has its hero, its standard-bearer… and psychic surgery is no exception. Nestled in its dubious and oft-maligned ranks is the charming, beguiling and relatively well-authenticated instance of Arigó, Brazil’s celebrated “surgeon of the rusty knife.”

Regardless of its veracity or verifiability, it is an incredible story—science and spirituality shaken together into a narrative cocktail worthy of the finest magical realist imagination.

Born José Pedro de Freitas in 1921 on a farm in the Brazilian Highlands, Arigó was an entirely unschooled miner up to the age of thirty. Then, however, his life took an unexpected turn, when he became plagued with terrible depression and headaches and hallucinations. A local spiritualist informed him that the maladies were symptomatic of a spirit’s attempting to work through him: they would persist, he was assured, until he obeyed the entity’s bidding.

How Arigó first succumbed to the will of this sprit (ostensibly a German surgeon called ‘Dr Adolphus Fritz’, who died during WWI) is one of the more colorful episodes of a colorful life. Attending some political convention with fellow miners around 1950, an entranced Arigó reportedly entered a sleeping senator’s hotel room, and carved out a recently diagnosed tumor with his razor.

A little later, he similarly plunged, blade first, into an unwell relative’s vagina, plucking the cancer from her uterus. In both instances, the recipients of such spontaneous and unorthodox treatment apparently experienced no pain or panic whatsoever, nor subsequent infection, and were completely healed—all elements that remained characteristic of this strange surgeon’s practice for years to come. (Arigó never, I should stress, made use of any anaesthetic.)

Arigó went on to treat thousands from every walk of Brazilian life, from peasants to politicians, sometimes up to 300 a day, never accepting payment, diagnosing with instant, unerring accuracy, and occasionally complimenting his free jazz operations with detailed prescriptions this illiterate and unschooled man would churn out in an unusually academic example of automatic writing. While at his work Arigó would speak, fittingly enough, in a thick German accent.

Although he operated in relative harmony with the medical profession—sometimes he would send people away without treatment, telling them a less transcendent physician would suffice—this establishment still persecuted him, in concert with the Catholic church, and Arigó would serve some time in jail for unlicensed practice. He died in 1971, a controversial legend and enigma.

Now cop the following: the American intelligence asset, psychic researcher, and author of The Sacred Mushroom Andrija Puharich’s account of his own time with Arigó—and his own brief but remarkable experience under the latter’s notorious blade. The not-a-little sinister Puharich’s credentials are far from impeccable (he was, after all, patron of that “spoon-bending” charlatan and spy Uri Geller), but his tale is still a powerful one…
 

 
Finally, watch some of Puharich’s bizarre footage for yourself, and see Arigó gouging out cysts, fishing out tumors and whipping out cataracts as if it ain’t no thing, while his unflinching patients sit there cool as cucumbers. You even see him rooting around in a guy’s skull.

While I would hardly describe the following as “safe for work” (puss flies, blood oozes), your correspondent happens to be an almighty wuss about this kind of thing, with an outright phobia of doctors, surgeries, surgeons, gory flicks et al— yet still managed to find this footage quite bearable. Either because it’s uncanny. Or because it’s bullshit. Take your pick…
 

Posted by Thomas McGrath
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07.22.2013
11:55 am
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Discussion
Insanity: Female inmates of California prisons coerced into tubal ligations
07.18.2013
04:29 pm
Topics:
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Female Prisoner
 
Between 2006 and 2010, at least 148 female inmates were sterilized by doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, according to a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Though there was no official state approval for the tubal ligations—commonly known as having ones “tubes tied,” a procedure in which the fallopian tubes are blocked or cut, permanently sterilizing the individual—the state is recorded as having paid doctors $147,460 to perform ligations between 1997 and 2010.

According to inmates and prisoner advocates, women who underwent the surgery (while incarcerated at the California Institution for Women in Corona or the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla) were coerced into agreeing to tubal ligation. The women were signed up for the procedure while they were pregnant—inmates who had served multiple prison sentences or had several children were suggested for the operations.

Though state funds for tubal ligations have been restricted since 1994—requiring approval from a health care committee and investigation into each individual case—doctors continued to perform the ligations under the assumption that they didn’t need permission. Officials claimed that the operations were performed to benefit the health of women who had undergone multiple C-sections; women were told that the ligations would be empowering, putting them on equal footing as women on the outside.

However, women who underwent the ligations stated that they had only had one C-section, were repeatedly pressured into agreeing to surgery and were not told why the surgeries were considered necessary. One inmate was pushed by a doctor to agree to ligation while sedated and strapped to a surgical table. Though in an altered state of consciousness, she successfully resisted—records show that doctors had tried talking her into ligation twice previously, without providing any reason or justification. Other ligations were pressured for while women were undergoing labor—which would be illegal in a federal prison, and has been ruled coercive, as the trauma of labor can impair a woman’s decision-making process.

Corey G. Johnson—the reporter who broke the ligations story for the Center for Investigative Reporting—told me that interviewing the women who had undergone the ligations was an at-times grueling process due to the suffering they had withstood.

“The women have expressed sadness, mostly, with dashes of anger and reluctance,” he explained. “Prison is not a happy place, and many of the women I spoke with experienced various traumas while on the inside. It hasn’t been easy reliving those moments.”

Questioned about the ligations by Johnson, officials claimed that the $147,460 the state spent on the procedures was minimal “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children—as they procreated more.”

Johnson relayed that the public and governmental reaction to the story has been massive:

“The public’s response has been overwhelming. Strong outrage for the most part—with some counter voices of support for the doctors involved. The interest has crossed gender, religious, political and geographic lines… Reaction from governmental actors has been what I expected. Lawmakers called for investigations. The federal office in charge of prison healthcare told me they thought the story was fair. They’re now responding to legislative questioning. And the state correction department—where these surgeries sprung from—has been quiet and virtually non-responsive.”

Forced sterilizations of prisoners, the poor and the mentally ill were only officially banned in California in 1979. From 1909 to 1964, California was the United States’ top sterilizer, forcing surgery on over 20,000 men and women under a statewide eugenics program so successful that even the Nazis asked for California’s advice in the 1930s.

Much like the justifications given by the Valley State officials above, the reasoning behind California’s early eugenics program was to save the state money by reducing welfare and relief. But California was by no means the only state running a eugenics program on its citizens—32 states in the US passed laws allowing forcible sterilization in the early part of the 20th century, beginning with Indiana in 1907; by 1979 over 60,000 Americans had been sterilized.

The dark history of America’s eugenics programs is only now being publicly re-assessed. 2003 saw California’s then-Governor Gray Davis issue a formal apology for the program. Some states, like North Carolina, are considering reparations.

With the old wounds of California’s history freshly re-opened, the state is calling for an open investigation of what happened at the California Institution for Women and Valley State. But for the women who underwent ligation, the damage is already permanent.

Get Jason Louv’s new free ebook, “The Apocalypse is Cancelled,” here.

Posted by Jason Louv
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07.18.2013
04:29 pm
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Discussion
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