Saturday, August 26, 2006

Uncle Hunter

“Who said that people searching for the meaning of life are sick? Freud? Whoever it was, I think it makes sense. Healthy people accept life.”

This scrap of paper, written by Bea in pencil, became stuck to an envelope. Whether she intended for them to be together, I do not know. The envelope, postmarked July 7, 1942 and addressed in Harry’s bold scrawl to Bea’s Georgetown address, held this letter from Hunter:

West Hill Sanitarium, Riverdale, New York July 1, 1942

Dear Dad,

This briefly is the record:

1.) 3 months “Overbrook”
2.) 14 months “Hartford Retreat”
3.) 1 ½ months “Morristown.”

I have something to write about as well as Seabrook who wrote “The Mind that Found Itself.” Now I am in “West Hill Sanitarium.” Believe me, I don’t like to look back on two years spent in asylums any more than you do. It represents some $4000 of your money, a great deal of worry for you and the family, and unhappiness and misery, to a large extent, for me.

In that same time I could have gotten my M.A. in physics or pretty well established myself in some sort of occupation.

Dad, I can’t go on staying at these places indefinitely. I have a theory that “nature is the best cure for practically everything.” I think that if I had gone out west when this business first struck me and lived on a ranch, this business wouldn’t have happened.

All yesterday and today I have heard no voices. I could hear them if I chose to, but I have consciously tried to “not listen to my own mind.” Sounds sort of funny, doesn’t it?

Dr. Durham came up to see me today and we talked about things, mostly what I should enjoy after I got out of here. He said, in his opinion, an outdoor life was the thing for me.

The food is good, but there is no “Golf House” as in the Hartford Retreat where you can buy food, cigarettes, or candy between meals. There was an “Extension Unit” at Greystone Park that fulfilled the same purpose. That is one of the few things I can say for that place.

So help me God! I want to live, not join the shades or souls in limbo. No more of this rope stuff or hanging anything but pictures, and I mean it!

I have but one shirt and two pairs of shorts. Some of my clothes got lost, no doubt in moving around from ward to ward. When you come, could you bring: shirts, shorts, slippers, carton of Chesterfields?

I am fine and this place is 10,000 times better than Greystone Park.

All my love to you, Hunt”

Shortly afterwards, Hunter wrote brother Bob:

“I am having the opportunity of making a better acquaintance with your mentor, Dr. Durham. He is a rather likeable chap, but my feelings about psychologists and psychiatrists is about the same.

It seems I got damned “hanged” sick of Greystone Park. I am treated here as a result like a ten-month-old baby. I have an aide all day and one all night. They both are nice fellows, but being trailed about and confined to one floor gets awfully tiresome. My life consists of crossword puzzles, the paper, studying physics, reading and after supper, pool and bridge.

What the hell are you doing these days – no doubt waiting for your number to come up? Do something, Bob, some sort of job. The money is not important. Hell, the only worse thing than hanging around in that house is a mental institution.

Give my love to Mother.


On July 16, Bob sent Bea a note on a small page torn from a notebook, enclosing Hunter's letter.

“I saw Hunt yesterday with Mother. He is on the verge, I think, of either settling down and making a conscious effort to adjust to the environment and cooperating, or trying to escape to Alaska. Is quite ambivalent. He was sitting outdoors on the terrace with an aide. West Hill is a veritable Shangri-La, one of the most beautiful spots for a sanitarium that I have ever seen.

Your things came yesterday from the warehouse in New York City.

Enclosed is a letter from Hunt, which I forgot to send with my last letter.

He asked about you and said he hoped you would write him. He also asked for a typewriter.


Dorothy’s daughter Sally wrote me, “My strongest memories of Hunter are the times Mom, Bob and Helen would drive to Southern NJ to see him in the mental hospital. Mom would buy all sorts of basics - underwear, etc. and "treats" such as candy - and would also bring cash and small gifts for the staff. She always said that the clothing she had brought the time before was stolen and that he gave some of his stuff away. Sometimes they could take him off the grounds and sometimes not. He was lucid at times and ranting and raving at others. Sometimes he would refuse to see them at all. It was always an exhausting day for her. She would pick up Helen and Bob in NYC and sometimes she would have to get them up and wait until they had breakfast and wouldn't return home until the night, sometimes with Helen or Bob in tow. Then they would sit up all night drinking and talking. These were emotionally wrenching times for her, and difficult for the whole family. Mom always held it against Harry that he had remarried without discharging his responsibilities to Hunter and Helen. She felt that he had no "right" to seek his own happiness when they were in dire straits. Also, I remember her being very upset when he relinquished custody of Hunter and turned it over to the state. I have heard of this happening a lot. It is strictly a matter of finances - if you can't pay anymore, the state takes over and the patient gets the care they need. Of course today he would be on medication on an outpatient basis. The whole thing is very sad and haunted Mom forever. I have the general impression that the family didn't handle his illness well. Of course at that time there was so much stigma and Freudian stuff that it was all caused by bad parenting, etc.”

Bea is sound asleep. As I listen to her rhythmic breathing, I cannot help but wonder about the pain she must have felt at Hunter’s institutionalization.

Uncle Hunter, two words I never associated. Auntie Dotty, Aunt Helen, Uncle Bob – these were my mom’s siblings. Bea never ever mentioned Hunter. I do remember, however, overhearing her say that one of the voices in his head was hers …


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