I have some vivid memories of playground experiences during my childhood years. I remember a young girl called Jackie who showed me my first lady willy. I remember Stephen who offered me a tune, no, not the sung variety but a cherry menthol. I also remember the day the lunatics escaped from the asylum.
We were playing hopscotch when suddenly there appeared close by a posse of ruddy faced and panic stricken classmates. I can see in my mind’s eye the terror in the face of one of the lads, half hidden behind his sky blue National Health specs and squint correcting bandage. “There’s loonies on the loose! There’s loonies on the estate.” With all the haste we could manage we ran across to the three-foot-high stone wall that was our only security against the outside world. “There!” he cried; “There they are; can you see them?” I could not see them for love nor money. “Where? Where?” “There down the Meadow!” I lived on the Meadow. Surely these loonies weren’t near to my house? Mum was there alone. How terrible if I should get home and find that Mum had been graped and foraged (or whatever it was that lunatics did!).
Five minutes of eyeball straining passed by and eventually, intrigued by our anxious cries a teacher approached; Mrs Henthorne wanted to know what all the fuss was about and why were we leaning over the wall. “The loonies are on the loose Miss. There’s loonies loose in the Meadow.” She cast a longer stare than we could manage across the landscape of the estate. “All I can see is sheets boys; white sheets blowing in the wind. It’s washday.”
That was my introduction to madness. That’s what we called it in those days. It wasn’t mental illness, it was madness, a derangement of the normal thought processes. Mad people were described as having their wires crossed or brains that has become softened by wicked thoughts. They were rightly locked away from normal people like us.
The local nuthouse was in Chester, twelve miles away, a gaunt Victorian building known as The Deva. Years later I had a friend whose late mother had died in The Deva. She clawed the walls by day and screeched at the ceiling by night. “Did you go to see her?” I enquired. “I wrote letters,” he said, looking at the floor.
How times change.
Madness is different these days. For some inexplicable reason it has become synonymous with violence, even with murder. These gross acts were once understood as emanating from minds that were wicked, evil, maladjusted. They were rarely seen as being symptoms of an illness. People were intelligent beings, and although their view of the world and of other people might become distorted or infected by wild imaginings, they were considered to be responsible for their actions.
I don’t know what it was that sent my friend’s mum over the edge. I don’t think he knew either. All he had to go on was the fact that she acted strangely and was considered enough of a threat to herself and others to be locked up where she could get the appropriate treatment and be confined in a place of relative safety. It was not a nice place, but it was the best that was available. One thing I do know was that there was no talk of radicalisation, or of any other ‘-isation’ that might have contributed to her madness. She was just mad and that was sad.
Today’s madness is outside, it seems. It does not come from within. It is something that comes to us from another place rather than being a state that we arrive at by ourselves. It happens when we are exposed to forces that take a grip on our understanding, that skew our view of the world and those who live within it. Ideas, creeds, suggestions, political theories; these, they say, conspire to deflect us from the sanity that is the normal state of the mind. In short, the violent are relieved of having any contribution to make to their own state of mind. Should we step out into the street with a machete in our pocket intent on slicing and cubing our neighbours and be successful in our ambition, there will be many who will search around the detritus of our lives looking for reasons. What was it that made us like this? What ‘possessed’ us?
In ancient times the mad were considered to be inhabited by evil spirits. They were cast out of the towns and villages to live amongst the tombstones. There, they could cry to the moon to their heart’s discontent. It seems that we are returning to that past when we seek to find excuses for the murderous treachery of those who live alongside us. The idea that they are evil is just too difficult, too inconvenient to accept, but the evil ones are legion. Such murders are a weekly occurrence. Bombs, blades and bullets pierce, blast and slice their way through innocent and unsuspecting flesh and rational, scientific twenty-first century men and women revert to a first century diagnosis……..the perpetrators are men possessed, mad, lunatics……..not murderers, thugs, or killers. That would be unacceptable and a judgement too far.
With each new outrage I ask, “How many times………?” It seems to me that like the sheets, the truth is blowing in the wind.