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A Trip to Purgatory

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."

The psychiatric technicians called her "bitch" and "crazy nigger," she said. They nicknamed her Mad, because after a while she became tough to control. She went AWOL three times, but was always spotted somewhere out near Highway 1, almost tasting freedom as it mixed with salt air. The words Camarillo State Hospital stitched on her clothes were a dead giveaway. Each time she escaped, burly hospital workers ended up taking her back in a barred bus, leather straps holding her down.

Going down memory lane can be risky. Some people would rather just move on. Yet what Green and others experienced, and a large part of what haunts the Camarillo campus, includes abusive, degrading treatment and isolation that left a painful mark on individuals and society. For decades, people who had lost everything lived ä unseen by the public and worked in the fields of the 670-acre campus for the food they ate. They watched strangers and fellow patients die from illness, old age or neglect. They endured shock therapy, ice-cold towels and leather restraints, and carry such memories as a badge of survival.

CAMARILLO OPENED IN 1936 AND BY the 1950s was home to more than 7,000 alcoholics, pedophiles, and people with mental illness, retardation and violent propensities. It housed almost as many nurses, doctors and hospital workers. Throughout the next several decades, it occupied a central place in the coastal communities of Ventura County, not only as a source of employment but also as a destination for families that relocated to be closer to relatives committed at the hospital. The subject of myths, novels, film and song, Camarillo closed its doors in 1997, after Reagan's deinstitutionalization policy finally rendered it obsolete, leaving behind a unique place in the community and a disturbing history of institutional care.

Maybe that explained the anxious resignation in the room earlier that Friday in August when Green and the others gathered at Project Return: The Next Step for the trip to Camarillo. A self-help group run by and for the mentally ill, Project Return is part of the California Network of Mental Health Clients, which together with the Peer/Self-Advocacy Unit at Protection & Advocacy Inc., a nonprofit law firm, and Capitol People First, a civil rights advocacy group, compose the California Memorial Project.

It was around noon, and Green, a program coordinator, was sitting at a conference table in the middle of Project Return's office suite near downtown Los Angeles. She was eating shepherd's pie out of a Styrofoam container and complaining about an upset stomach. Her colleagues milled around nervously, waiting to depart. Denise Cate, a former housewife with a meek voice and gentle demeanor, rocked back and forth and reached into her purse for some Rolaids. She offered them to Green, who said no thanks, and took a couple for herself.

Ed Ellis Compton, 34, a thin, angular man in matching, mustard-yellow slacks and shirt, wore wraparound Bolle shades and paced nearby, complaining of a headache. An elderly, bohemian-looking man named Mitchell Eisenberg hovered by the conference table. He had gray sideburns, wore sandals and carried a courier's bag. He was hesitant at first to be identified by name. A stocky man named Jose emerged from inside an office cubicle and signaled that it was time to go. Jose had never lived at Camarillo. He was the driver of the van.

During the ride up Highway 101, the group's stories flowed rapidly and were frank in detail. Sometimes, the riders talked impulsively over each other. They all had been homeless at one time, or married and divorced, or abandoned by everyone they ever knew. They recalled sleeping in squatter's houses, parking lots or cars as simple matters of fact.  

Seated in the middle row of the van, Compton, an outreach worker for Project Return, took off his shades and revealed a lazy eye. His teeth were either missing or stained from smoking cigarettes and crack. He started abusing drugs and alcohol when he was 11 and has had two lung operations because of damage caused by emphysema.

Compton began hearing voices when he was a teenager during driver's-education class in the Santa Clarita Valley in the 1980s, he said, his words punctuated by a deep, phlegmy cough. He had imagined students making fun of him. The voice of God told him to start a rock band and lead his followers to an island, where Jesus Christ would come and take them to heaven. "I had seven years to complete my mission, or I would be dead," he said, above the roar of midday traffic on the 101. "I started to isolate myself in my room, reading my Bible. I stopped functioning as a normal human and became what you might call a Jesus Christ walking robot."

Compton's memories of Camarillo reflected youth and resilience. During his six-month commitment, in 1986, he played baseball and enjoyed using the pool and gymnasium. He remembered the cigarettes they sold at the canteen. "They were called Centuries," he said. "They came 25 in a pack." There were endless rules, Compton added with a throaty laugh. He broke many of them. Like when girls from neighboring dorms sneaked into his room. "We had to take this medication that was like birth control," he said. "You could get aroused but you couldn't come."

Green had a normal childhood growing up in Oregon, she said from the front of the van, until she was overcome by paranoid schizophrenia. Her parents sent her to Camarillo and apparently forgot about her. One day, her aunt, who served as her conservator, signed an order for her to receive shock therapy. "They strap those electrodes to your head and tie you down and then ZAP!" she said. "You lose control and go into total body convulsions. When you know they're gonna do that to you, you get all tense and scared." Following her release in 1979, Green went to court and fought successfully to become her own conservator, in 1981. Now she has a partner, a home in Long Beach and two adopted children.

Cate, 48, a short, plump woman who is now a secretary at Project Return, was married and divorced three times by the time she was 24. She lost her two daughters in a court proceeding after voices told her to hurt them. She has granddaughters, but to this day her daughters are leery of allowing her to visit them. After becoming homeless and destitute and sleeping in her car, she tried to kill herself, she said. The court committed her to Camarillo in 1982, where she remained for nine lonely, terrifying months. "I went for shock treatment twice a week," Cate said in a tiny voice from the rear of the bus. "They'd put a Kotex in your mouth and make you bite down on it so you wouldn't crush your teeth." She rarely ventured off her unit, and spent a lot of time in restraints and seclusion. But she liked being picked up by staff on Sunday mornings and taken to Catholic mass. That, and going to the hospital's bowling alley. "It's an old-fashioned one," she said, "the kind where they set the pins manually."

Next to her, the slight and demure Eisenberg, 67, said his parents put him in Camarillo in 1951, after he had a mental breakdown as a teen and they ran out of money for private psychiatric care. He has received shock therapy 100 times, he said, and hydrotherapy, which is a warm bath followed by a wrap of ice-cold towels. Since he got out of Camarillo in 1955, he's received voluntary outpatient treatment on occasion and has been married and divorced with two kids, drifting to Texas and Oklahoma and back. More recently he has led a quiet life with the help of disability insurance, family support and various jobs. Eisenberg has a girlfriend and lives in Silver Lake, where he is active in community affairs.

Before long, Jose the driver took Pleasant Valley Road, the way to Camarillo. The van drove past fields of migrant farm workers, up a lane lined by eucalyptus trees and wild fennel. "The hospital grew all its own food here," Green said. "There was a dairy and strawberry fields and chickens and cows. The patients worked the fields. Camarillo even had its own soda. It was state soda. The first thing I did when they let me go to the canteen was to get a real soda . . . a real soda, not that state soda."  

As they reached the administration building's steps, the group met its chaperone, a university tour guide named Jim Cochran, a ruddy-faced man with kinky hair and a high-pitched voice -- like that of a host from a children's show. A public relations consultant named Peggy Hinz greeted the group as well, and discreetly inquired as to whether it was necessary to have a clinical escort for Green and the others.

"O-kaay, we have lots of good information for you today," Cochran, a de facto historian, said as the group piled into a deluxe golf cart. "The hospital opened in 1936 and was built in an architectural style known as Early California Mission. It closed down in 1997. This is the prettiest part of the campus," he said cheerily, as he turned the cart through a short tunnel onto the South Quad, bordered by two-story concrete buildings with arched entrances and russet -- or "Camarillo red" -- trim. Cochran parked the cart while everyone marveled at the serenity of the South Quad.

Camarillo State Hospital was a part of popular lore for much of the 20th century, he informed the group. Actor Jack Webb referred to it in ominous tones in his narrative voice-over at the end of many Dragnet episodes. Hollywood actors such as Frances Farmer and musicians such as Steve Mann, Frank Zappa's guitarist, were rumored to have spent time at Camarillo confronting their inner demons. Saxophone legend Charlie Parker composed "Relaxin' at Camarillo" in 1946 after recovering from a nervous breakdown fueled by alcohol and drug abuse. "The movie companies started coming out to Camarillo in the 1940s to film television shows, movies and commercials, because of its beauty," Cochran said, noting that scenes from the TV series M*A*S*H were filmed here. "It is just a very photogenic place," he said. "This is where we will hold graduation ceremonies."

The visitors, though, were focused on other aspects of the campus.

"I was right over there, man," Compton blurted, pointing to the far end of the courtyard. He hopped out of the cart and ambled off, as Cochran watched nervously. "Yeah, Unit 15," Compton shouted, his voice echoing off vacant buildings. "That was my unit. I was right there, man." Eisenberg gazed down one of the cloistered hallways at a building known as Unit 13. "I broke a window when they transferred me from an open ward to a locked ward," he said softly. "Then they put me in Unit 13, the violent ward."

Compton soon returned, and Cochran led the group into the four-lane, art-deco bowling alley from the 1940s, complete with teal-colored wood benches and built-in drink holders. A tall bookcase with dozens of cubbyholes still contained musty-looking pairs of old bowling shoes. The bowling alley brought back a flood of memories. "We begged to go here," Compton said. "This place and the gym, and the canteen."

"My ball always ended up in the gutter," said Green. "My average was 13. I'm not a bowler, but it was something to do." She recalled that it was always hot with all those bodies crowded into the gallery. "Water was the big order of the day," she said. "There was no air conditioning. We had to wear sweatshirts. Mine was yellow, canary yellow. Different units had different colors."

Leaning on the back of the gallery, Denise Cate looked on silently, resting her chin on her arms. Her eyes darted around. Compton sat down in the gallery in front of her and spread his arms across the backs of two adjacent chairs. "It smells the same," he pronounced. "It smells like sweat and wood." Eisenberg was impassive. His eyelids moved, but in slow motion, as if they were held down by tiny weights. "Everyone just loves the old bowling alley," Cochran, the tour guide, said with a grin, as he hustled the group off to the men's dining hall, a Moorish building with peaked arches, reinforced, 30-foot concrete ceilings and white walls with blue trim. On one wall there's a giant mural of deer crossing a creek. "They filmed the last five minutes of The Snake Pit in this very room, in 1948," Cochran said, referring to the film adaptation of Mary Jane Ward's fictionalized memoir of a woman's descent into "the labyrinth of insanity." "It's the scene where they sing, 'Going home, going home, I am going home,'" he said. "Olivia de Havilland was nominated for the Academy Award."  

Mentioning the movies dislodged another current of memories. "One of my favorite things was going to see movies here on Sunday nights," Green said. "It was a big treat, with popcorn and everything. But if you had demerits, you didn't get to go to the movies." Green pointed to a brown telephone with a rotary dial mounted on a wall near the cafeteria line. "If someone got too out of hand, a supervisor would pick up that phone, and staff would show up immediately and take them out," she said. "And the staff were not littleä guys either; they were big, like football linebackers. They were not gentle. But some of us were pretty rough too," she added with a chuckle. "I was the second most dangerous patient at Camarillo."

A look of recognition crossed Eisenberg's face. "It's coming back to me a little," he said. He recalled a guy in the row behind him on movie night banging the back of his chair. "I turned around to let him know he was bothering me, and he wouldn't stop, so I started tossing peanuts over my shoulder, to irritate him like he was irritating me. When I stood up, he punched me in the face. That's how I remember this place."

He blinked his weighted eyelids. "This other time," he said, "we were lined up waiting to get into the dining room, and there was this big boisterous guy who would go around shooting off his mouth, acting real bold and thoughtless. He was real irritating. One day I went up to him -- I can't remember what led up to it -- and I kicked him in the shin. He punched me right in the eye and split my eyelid." Eisenberg held one eye closed and pointed to a tiny scar.

THE GROUP SPENT THE REST OF THEIR time touring the campus in the golf cart. As they cruised along on newly paved roads, Cochran looked at his watch every so often. Aside from the bowling alley and the dining room, he skirted around inquiries about specific buildings the group was interested in. He brushed aside questions concerning a dilapidated metal barn in the distance, which stood next to the graffiti-sprayed ruins of what someone remembered as a dairy. Instead, he told the group about the student dormitories that will open in 2004. He directed their attention to a new housing tract tucked away in a clearing beneath the scrubby foothills, where faculty members have taken residence.

Green told Cochran about the California Memorial Project, and asked whether Camarillo had its own cemetery, as many mental institutions did throughout the 20th century. Some still do, she said. Advocates from the project had been researching county death records and comparing them to hospital admission and discharge logs, trying to account for former patients, she said. Cochran said no cemetery ever existed at Camarillo. Most likely, he said, patients who died without relatives to claim them were buried in nearby cemeteries in unmarked graves.

She asked Cochran if CSU had any plans to memorialize the patients who lived at Camarillo or the legacy of the state hospital. "Well, we don't think that is something the students are really interested in pursuing," he said. Eisenberg wondered out loud if the university had any plans to teach courses related to the history of Camarillo and other such institutions in the United States. Cochran was doubtful it did.

Eisenberg and the others persisted with questions, their curiosities piqued. He expressed interest in visiting the Studio Channel Islands Art Center, a facility for artists-in-residence that now figures prominently in the regional art scene. "I took an art class once on the potter Beatrice Wood," he said. Compton asked if they could see the old gymnasium where the hospital rationed out recreation like a treat. Cochran said he thought it was time to end the tour. "Maybe you can come back and visit us again some time," he said.

On August 16, the week following their visit, Governor Gray Davis attended the CSU Channel Islands inauguration ceremony on the South Lawn with a U.S. Navy Color Guard and a marching band. University officials and state and local politicians heralded the university's promise. "Today, we usher in new symbols of hope and opportunity for future generations of students," Dr. Richard Rush, university president, said from the dais. "The journey they begin may indeed open future doors of success for their entire family." The Reverend James Decker-Mahin, who gave the invocation, briefly referred to Camarillo as "a place of healing." No speaker mentioned Camarillo State Hospital by name.  

The administration is conflicted over what to do with its inherited institution, according to Dr. Nan Yamane, a history professor at CSU Northridge. Yamane has taught a course called "Camarillo State Hospital: Separating Myth From Reality," and is writing a book based on oral histories. She is not sure whether her course will become part of the Channel Islands curriculum. "There are some very thoughtful people among the new faculty, but the new administration does not understand they are not creating an entirely new institution," contends Yamane. "It is one with a layered history already, in spite of the desire among some to move in and pretend that they are the first. But history persists regardless of what any of us want, and the history of what Camarillo was will persist."

On September 7, Davis signed SB1448, a bill introduced by state Senator Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata), which calls for the state to work with the California Memorial Project on restoring state hospital cemeteries, where bodies have been exhumed and relocated, and the sanctity of burial sites has been violated. Green and her fellow survivors hope for more. Some day, they hope for an apology from the state for the abuse they and thousands of others suffered, and recognition for their perseverance in overcoming their illnesses, despite everything.

But, by the time of the inauguration ceremony and the passage of the new law, Green, Cate, Compton and Eisenberg would be back to their daily lives. Fall classes would have begun and so too, it seemed to the pilgrims at the time of their visit, would the process of burying the past. But among them, their memories of Camarillo date back 50 years and endure in the face of Camarillo's new makeover.

As they returned to the center of campus, ending their tour that August day, the visitors continued to share dark visions as well as recollections of simple pleasures -- such as a cheeseburger in the canteen, or a trip to the "House of Style," their name for the room where they'd go for new clothes, all of it labeled Camarillo State Hospital.

"Because we all had mental disabilities, we got the worst of everything," Compton said, turning sour. "We were treated like prisoners. This was like punishment."

"They treated us like slave labor to run the place," Eisenberg said, joining the chorus of bitter reflection.

"My job, when I was 17 years old, was to take people back to their unit after shock treatment," said Green. "That was not fun."

"Every time I went for a commitment hearing, they'd make me wear shackles on my feet," Cate added. "Where did they think I was going to run off to?"

During the drive back to Los Angeles, the mood in the van lightened. Once again, they had survived Camarillo. Denise Cate said she was going to see a play that night. Ed Ellis Compton was going swimming at a friend's house. Gail Green was returning to Long Beach to prepare for a trip to Sacramento to attend state Senate committee hearings on mental-health reform. Eisenberg said he would be looking after his girlfriend's cats while she was away.

Jose the driver piped in for the first time all day, voicing a shared sentiment. "What was up with that Jim guy?" he said.

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