By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photos by Ted Soqui|
THE CAMPUS OF WHAT USED TO BE Camarillo State Hospital is practically desolate on an overcast day in October. At first, the only signs of life among the verdant grounds, cloistered hallways and walled courtyards nestled in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains are maintenance workers tooling around on golf carts and a handful of students straggling in from parking lots. Inside many of the buildings, however, construction workers are loudly tearing away what's left of the most notorious forensic mental hospital in California.
Just over the Ventura County line, five miles inland from the Pacific coast, Spanish Revival buildings that once housed the largest population of people with mental illness in the country now host college classes. Camarillo State Hospital, which closed in 1997, is being reincarnated as California State University Channel Islands, the 23rd campus in the CSU system and the first full-time, four-year university in Ventura County.
"New Thinking for a New Century" is just one of the slogans university officials use to proclaim CSU Channel Islands as a cultural and educational hub. Welcome signs addressing new transfer students and red and gold CSU banners present a happy façade that belies the unfinished business of burying Camarillo's 60-year legacy of contradictions: Healing and abuse, fond memories and nightmares, myth and brutal reality -- call it institutional purgatory -- the aura of unfinished cleansing is undeniable.
Mitchell Eisenberg walks through
the past, darkly.
Students linger on the quad between classes. An old church bell chimes. The pastoral beauty merely cloaks the remnants of state psychiatric care. Where renovations have yet to begin, long, grimy linoleum corridors lead to metal security doors and into tiny, dank rooms with peeling wallpaper, rusty supply cabinets and medical sinks. Dingy pastel curtains droop from reinforced-glass windows with steel bars, through which curious visitors can look out and see how the surrounding farmlands must have looked to men, women and children in the labyrinthine locked units.
For some recent visitors, it was not a matter of wondering, but of remembering. On a Friday afternoon in August, one week before the university's inauguration ceremony, a group of former Camarillo patients journeyed north from Los Angeles to witness the campus' final passage from asylum to potential bastion of higher learning. For most of the visitors, who had not been to Camarillo in more than 20 years since their releases, it was a journey of reckoning.
Gail Green, Denise Cate
and Ed Ellis compton
share memories at the
old art-deco bowling alley.
Gail Green, who was committed at Camarillo in the 1960s and again in the 1970s, stepped out of a van along with three other former patients. "I feel like I could be thousands of miles away, like in Europe or something," Green said, gazing up at the cloudless blue sky and the 100-year-old sycamore trees that lined the roads and foot trails.
The smell of wild sage wafted from the hills where the Chumash tribe once lived. A bell tower rose above tile roofs. Green, her Afro clipped short, glided along on Air Jordans with a wallet chain dangling from her car-mechanic slacks. She curled an upper lip over her Marlboro and pinched the butt between thumb and forefinger. Her voice was raspy but deep, a bit masculine. "I'm a little nervous," she said, exhaling.
Green and her fellow pilgrims on this trip are the vanguard of a statewide coalition of organizations seeking to preserve and tell the stories of those who lived and died in places like Camarillo. The mental health client movement, as they call it, has been 30 years in the making and has reached a critical moment, according to Green. Mental health patient-advocates around the state have banded together to form regional committees under the rubric of the California Memorial Project in an effort to research state institutions, restore archives and hospital cemeteries, and document their own survivor movement. The hope is that by uncovering the past, prospects will improve for more humane mental health treatment than the kind Green and others got at Camarillo.
Memorializing their shared history and lobbying for change, though, requires reconciling the past. While advocates had been on fact-finding missions to other mental hospitals throughout the state, meeting with administrators, archivists and historians, Camarillo, because it had a dark, rich history, carried a certain mystique. Besides witnessing the early stages of Camarillo's rebirth, Green and the others were taking their first steps toward confronting the place as a specter of their own painful memories. Upon arriving, the group moved apprehensively in the direction of the former admissions department.
"We used to have a song we made up," Green said, as she approached the steps of what is now the university administration building. "Cama-ree-yo here we come, right back where we started from, Cama-ree-yo U.S.A. Hey!"
Green, 53, was committed there by her parents in 1966, back when adolescents lived among adults with criminal records, and she stayed institutionalized until 1968. She was 5150-ed (deemed a danger to herself and others) by the state in 1977, and spent the next year at Camarillo State Hospital in a catatonic stupor. "I didn't know where I was when I came out of it," she said. She had one friend, an older woman named Mary who used to drag her into the shade when the mixture of Thorazine and 90-degree heat got too heavy. Then Mary died one day. "My family never came to see me," Green said plainly. "It was as if they forgot about me. I became numb. I thought I'd die here."