It all started with the idea to put up an exhibition of things stolen from psychiatric wards. Well, to be more precise: it started with meanings missing in academic “patient history”. Historians writing “patient history” and combining it with the “material turn” seemed fascinated by the observation that psychiatrized persons had in fact agency and did things diverting from what was being expected from them. Of course, this was relevant only if proof was needed that even psychiatric patients were human beings – and not passive reflections of the structures they were exposed to.
For anyone who had ever been in the patient role this was clear. Even more, it was an offensive thought that the fact that we did have agency seemed a point worth making. It showed the degree of Othering and of the public silencing of psychiatrized people … Challenge accepted: Let’s appropriate the “material turn” – the scholarly interest in the meanings of things in making up people and society – as an avenue not just to talk about our abstract agency but to show more of what is at stake in madness beyond patienthood and medical definitions of mental illness. Things stolen from psychiatric wards seemed a good starting point. They appeal to the popular fascination with subversion but can take us further: They may look like souvenirs but have more complex stories to tell.
I knew of just a few things. A towel, to start with. Stolen from a psychiatric crisis intervention centre in 1996. White terry cloth, with blue letters like an ornament running along the length of the towel in two stripes, reading: “Land Berlin 1994”. This is why: the thief reaffirmed the meaningfulness of “1994” by stealing the towel; 1994 having been the year of a significant personal crisis which had brought memories of abuse and violence to the forefront. However, since medical wisdom categorized this crisis as “psychosis”, its meaningfulness had to be denied. While it is tough to live with memories of abuse, it is devastating being told that trying to grapple with them is meaningless. And what but an attempt to grapple with them had this “psychosis” been? Stealing the towel was a bit like Galileo murmering “and yet it moves after all”. Leaving the crisis intervention centre, seemingly subjecting to the doctrine that despair and hopelessness after “psychosis” was just a chemically logical thing but somehow knowing that this was all wrong. The act of secretly taking the towel, stuffing it into the bag, looking at the numbers 1994 was like murmering: “yet it is meaningful after all.”
That’s the kind of agency that had sprung into my mind when thinking about the “material turn”: Such an act was not about some arbitrary sense of agency but about contesting psychiatry at the core of things: the meaningfulness of madness.
Upon receiving a research grant on “meanings of things in experiences of madness, crisis and psychiatric reactions towards it”, I circulated a call for interviews. In an accompanying note, I mentioned the example of the stolen towel and asked a group of Hamburg psychiatric survivors who had emerged from an earlier initiative to strengthen participatory research whether I could discuss my research plans with them. 15 people participated. When I entered the room, I saw a bundle of cloth on the table: another towel.
What is the likeliness of a former psychiatric patient to have stolen a towel and to have kept it? And what is the likeness of this person to bring it along and expose her experience on such an occasion? I was lucky: Two towels meeting right at the beginning of this research project set a hopeful scene. One of them stolen to insist on the meaning of something which was summed up by the numbers “1994”, the other one stolen after having been subjected to fixation and isolation straight upon admittance to hospital in a confused but not violent state. This person had nicked the towel together with a patient gown and a comb as a proof: Overwhelmed by an act of institutional coercion which she would had thought impossible, she wished for something material to be able to double-check, memory and item, a token confirming: this had been real, she had been there, this had happened to her, indeed. When the towels met, their object biographies took a happy turn: having been appropriated in contexts of isolation and despair, they now became emblems of solidarity and self-empowerment.
Two years and 20 interviews later, they have been joined by more than a hundred more items. They speak of dealing with pain as well as of the creativity entailed in madness, of brain-cracking riddles and of sometimes very simple solutions when trying to muster support. Some items are about taking something without permission but still not “stealing” since notions of property may be suspended in madness. However, a few more things purposefully nicked from hospitals as a response to psychiatric intervention came up, too: There is a set of patient clothes, shirt and trousers, taken from a large asylum, after several stays and just before it was officially closed down. The thief wore it at a carnival short after – dressing up as a “madman”. There is a file, used as a means to write a book about one’s personal journey through various psychiatric facilities in a multi-perspective way. And there is a little cup made of glass with measures printed on it, that was used in hospital for administering medication. As the thief explained: “I had never stolen anything before, I would have thought it wrong. But I nicked this glass, thinking: They have wronged me, they have taken my dignity, so I will take something away from them.” Back home, she used the little glass every now and then to have a sip of “good spirit”.
At some point the glass broke. The thief’s spirit did not.
Interviewees became donators to a new online museum: MAD. Museum Anderer Dinge. It will open in March 2022. Skål! (online address will confirmed by mid-December)