No blame, no scorn in a label like feebleminded—just an inferior creature protected from a world that meant harm. Locked away for their safety and your safety. Saying feebleminded gave one the feeling of paternalism. Indeed, it was a word you could put at the top of stationary and feel good about. Only the older doctors used lunatic for the nomenclature, and when one of the doctors said that word tension could flood a room. Three decades had passed since lunatic had been part of the hospital’s name and two decades had passed since asylum had been part of the name. Both terms were features of a regrettable past, the board said. It was a much younger board now, having jettisoned a few elder statesmen after the war. The same board, in 1922, rebranded the hospital as The State Hospital of the Feebleminded and Infirm—bland, innocuous, paternal. The name deflected attention.
The hospital stood on an idyllic hilltop ten miles from the nearest city. A narrow road winded upward from the valley at a steep grate. Between the road and hospital grounds stood an iron gate topped with baroque fleurs-de-lis, trimmings to admire if one cared to linger and look. Beyond the gate, a complex of six buildings crowded by pines and cedars sprawled like a village. The surrounding woods concealed walking paths and hillside graves. In the autumn, which held on to color that year in Virginia, the gothic centerpiece, the original 1867 building with its sandstone façade and slender windows, gratuitous turrets, and clock tower, resembled an old university in New England. Upon approach, however, despite the leaves and crisp air, the illusion would fade. Iron bars formed grilles on the windows.
Olsen, like most of the attendants, lived in a dormitory at the western edge of the complex, a brick structure crammed between a vegetable garden on one side and the airy tuberculosis ward on the other. In the garden, frost glazed a mix of pumpkins and dead stalks and upturned roots. Olsen’s shift had begun at 7:00 am. Presently, with a cigarette locked between his fingers, he stepped out into the cold October morning. The breeze held a touch of winter. He took a drag on the cigarette to gird himself, and then he checked his watch. He was late. His head ached from too little coffee. Taciturn and sluggish, he started across the gravel on a footpath that led to the TB ward.
Olsen ascended the building’s wide stairway, passed faux columns, and entered through double doors. The air on the first floor was warm. A nurse working reception, surrounded by a bustle of activity, greeted him with a sour expression. A cathedral radio on the desktop droned headlines. The broadcaster’s rapid cadence fit the tense atmosphere. Olsen winked at the nurse, and then mashed out his cigarette in a receptacle by the door. The woman was unimpressed.
Another attendant, Mallory, the man who had gotten Olsen hired originally, rushed over. He held an armful of blankets and his face was ruddy from cold and excitement. He handed the bundle to Olsen.
Animated, Mallory said, “We found her up there with the old man again this morning.”
Olsen’s face reddened. He’d been on duty the night prior. “You’re kidding. I know I locked that door.” He sounded more certain than he felt.
Mallory shrugged. “It was locked. That’s ten times in two weeks. She was sleeping when I found her. She didn’t even try to leave. He was staring at the window like he does.”
Of late, it was an exchange the two men seemed to renew each morning. The odd case could build into trouble for both of them, Olsen knew. He worried for his job. Besides that, being outsmarted continually by the feebleminded looked bad.
“How in the hell is she doing it?” Olsen asked. “Scaling the front wall?” The old man’s an invalid, he thought. He couldn’t let her inside. “You don’t think they’re … uh—”
Mallory chuckled. “You know what I think.” He was a short man, rotund, and his clean-shaven face held a greasy sheen. He cut his own hair and it showed. Generally, he meant well, and when he didn’t mean well, he was good for laughs. “Anyway, Doc Kobel ain’t pleased,” he continued. “He’s up there now, ranting about it to Dr. Mundy.”
“Mundy didn’t say anything about me, did he?” Olsen wanted his cigarette again. He checked the nurse at reception and then glanced at the smoldering remains. Soft music played on the radio.