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Fighting the dark beast
To claim our mental illnesses without shame, to be treated humanely when we have them, to not be forgotten - is that asking too much?
-- Mary Logue

by Mary Logue

My great-aunt Irene McNally was committed to Fergus Falls State Hospital when she was in her 20s. She was never released. She was severely medicated, given electric shock treatment and finally lobotomized. I never knew her. I was 14 when she died. I'm not sure my mother ever met her. She was not talked about in our family. But I don't think it was from shame. I just think she was forgotten.

I found out about Irene when I was writing the story of my mother's mother's life - my grandmother, Mae Kirwin. That would be Irene's older sister. I asked for Irene's hospital files just in time. Fergus Falls was being shut down and all the files destroyed. Instead Irene's files were sent to me.

My book, "Halfway Home," came out nearly 20 years ago, but I think of Irene often. Especially a few years back when I was going through a bad time in my life. Odd that I don't know what to call what happened to me. I, a writer, am at a loss for words. Did I have a nervous breakdown? That's what my mother would have called it. A severe depression? An anxiety disorder? A slump? When I wrote to friends to explain that I was not doing well, I described it by saying it was my turn to "fight with the dark beast."

Irene was strange. She would dance in the park, talk to trees; she had insomnia, fits of anger. Her family didn't know what to do with her. Here, again, the language fails. Was she schizophrenic? Delusional? Hyperactive? Manic depressive? Melancholic?

In order to get a clearer understanding of what had happened to Irene, I sent her files to a psychologist at the Mayo Clinic.

He wrote back to me: "I don't think manic depressive illness was your aunt's most appropriate diagnosis. She had paranoid features, hysterical conversion features, manic features, and clearly depressive features. In addition, she was obnoxious, and at the time she was alive, society had even less use for obnoxious women than they do now. I really feel for her situation. Mental hospitals, even (in) the [1930s and '40s], were used more often for women than men."

Irene was 66 when she died. She had spent more than half her life in an institution.


I don't want to forget Irene. I do want to be able to name what happened to me in my late 50s and to talk about it as easily as one would talk about being sick with pneumonia or a broken leg. To claim our mental illnesses without shame, to be treated humanely when we have them, to not be forgotten - is that asking too much?

Mary Logue writes mysteries and poetry and her picture book, "Sleep Like a Tiger," was a Caldecott Honor Book. She lives in Golden Valley. www.marylogue.com

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