“So this is my return to Traverse City, Michigan. Not to the sprawling white house on Washington Street … but to Traverse City State Hospital, in other days bluntly called an insane asylum.” —Jack Kerkhoff
Jack Kerkhoff was born to the news. His parents both worked at the Grand Rapids Herald, and Jack got an early start at the Traverse City Record-Eagle. Bigger papers followed: the Detroit News, New York Journal-American, and the New York Post.
But Kerkhoff’s professional success was overshadowed by personal tragedy. His wife died suddenly in 1940 and then his 25-year-old daughter eight years later. Severe depression and two suicide attempts followed.
Kerkhoff had done some growing up in the Traverse City area — his parents owned a home on Old Mission Peninsula — and he was well aware of the form and function of the State Hospital.
How many times I had scampered up that driveway with my gang, fearful yet curious. How many times we had wandered outside the bleak, tower-topped buildings that had iron bars at the windows, and shouted at the men and women behind the bars and giggled over the obscenities they tossed back at us.
So, on a wintery November day, Kerkhoff checked himself into the asylum, hoping that the treatment provided there would lift the veil of sadness.
How Thin the Veil is a 45-day account of Kerkhoff’s treatment, his conversations with the nurses and doctors (some of them with their real names), his interactions with the inmates, and his trips to downtown Traverse City watering holes. There’s also romance in the form of Suzy, a pretty, lisping waif whose “bad spells” had kept her hospitalized for eight years.
First published in 1952, How Thin the Veil shines a “hard-boiled” light on the mid-century conditions of patients of mental illness. Booze and cigarettes abound. Insulin-shock therapy was in vogue, as was what the patients called “eloctros.” However, the overall treatment is ultimately sympathetic and humane. Kerkhoff recovered and returned to work.
Ray Minervini, who restored and developed Building 50 of the old Traverse City State Hospital, provides an insider introduction to this classic memoir of mental illness.