Inside Oregon State Hospital with Diane Goeres-Gardner

In this interview with History Press West, author Diane L. Goeres-Gardner offers a behind-the-scenes take on her new book Inside Oregon State Hospital: A History of Tragedy & Triumph. As Howard Baumann writes:

“Ms. Goeres-Gardner balances the unique and complex history of the Oregon State Hospital with the art of the storyteller. This well researched history extending from the earliest days of the Oregon State Insane Asylum to the present, although not always a pretty story, is exactly what we need to hear.”

Inside Oregon State Hospital: A History of Tragedy and Triumph by Diane L. Goeres-Gardner

HPW: What first inspired your interest in the Oregon State Hospital? Do you have a personal connection to the story?

DGG: I only research and write about parts of Oregon history that have never been researched before. Inside Oregon State Hospital: A History of Tragedy and Triumph, is the first and only book that chronicles the entire 130 years the hospital has been in operation.

I became interested in OSH while researching my previous book, Murder, Morality and Madness: Women Criminals in Early Oregon, published in 2010. Several of my characters from that book spent time in the hospital. I was intrigued with the listed causes of mental illness-particularly for women. Many of the supposed causes were related to gender, while causes for men did not involve gender. I started collecting other pieces of information about the hospital and began researching the book in 2009. Then Oregon began the hospital restoration and it seemed like the time for a book about OSH was precipitous.

HPW: What was your research process like? What history books or general texts did you find valuable in your research?

DGG: I think of myself more as a researcher than a writer. I write because I have so many stories to tell about my research.

For my primary sources of information I rely heavily on archived newspaper articles stored on microfilm at the University of Oregon and the Oregon State Archives in Salem. The newspapers focus on the more salient facts (murders, escapes, and violence) and the archives on the institution, political, and legal facts.

I also search the University of Oregon library for everything published about my subject – in this case the history of mental illness and mental asylums. Once I feel I have enough information to begin, I start developing my outline and do my writing.

I use general history books to see how other historians have organized and written about similar subjects. Sometimes I can get useful ideas about how I want my book to be structured or how I don’t want it structured. They also give me a basic grounding in the general subject area so that when I begin writing I have a good understanding of the specific vocabulary and historical context.

Photograph by Tom Green. Courtesy of the National Register of Historic Places.

HPW: Can you describe the look and feel of the hospital? In what ways does the hospital differ from common expectations or stereotypes?

DGG: There is a definite before and after aspect to Oregon State Hospital. Because the reconstruction is so new I will address that question to how the hospital looked and felt before the reconstruction.

The main building was the J building, built in 1883, and even though millions of dollars had been poured into it over the years, it still looked terribly depressing in 2010. One of my favorite quotes from the May 19, 1991 Oregonian described the maximum-security ward in 1991.

“Tall barred windows puncture the chipped, yellow brick walls of the J building, giving the hospital the look of an old fort. It is indeed a citadel of last resort.”

Huge portions of it had been abandoned to the elements and the outside walls bordering Center Street in Salem looked like a forbidding prison. That particular fact permeated the entire campus producing an atmosphere of despair and hopelessness. It totally amazes me that people were able to get well under those conditions. It speaks well for the professionals and staff who worked there during the last 100 years that they were able to create a climate of hope for the mentally ill confined inside.

I was surprised to discover how many people found OSH to be a haven and a safe place to live and recover. Many of the patients came back to the hospital repeatedly as their mental health issues waxed and waned. For them, it was a refuge from public derision and even violence. Not that they didn’t want to leave and regain the normality of outside life – they did. Often their illness just made that very difficult.

Salem press conference announcing "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" would be filmed at the Oregon State Hospital. Statesman Journal.

HPW: The filming of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is arguably the most well-known event from the hospital’s history. How did that film impact the wider perception of the hospital?

DGG: For many people, that film is their only exposure to mental health hospitals, and they come away with a distorted view of what happens there. Unfortunately, I think the film propagated and reinforced a negative attitude toward mental illness and the various state hospitals built to help people. Dr. Dean Brooks was superintendent at that time, and he supported the filming because he believed “Cuckoo’s Nest” was controversial, not because it took place in a mental hospital but “because it has exploded into consciousness the things we have refused to look at.” Ken Kesey used the hospital setting for his story – an allegory about life in an authoritarian government and what can happen to people caught within that structure.

Unfortunately, the history of mental illness management in the United States is mostly one of how badly the mentally ill have been treated for the last 120 years.

Roy DeAutremont was a convict transferred to OSH and given a lobotomy in 1949. Oregon State Archives.

HPW: The hospital’s history can be traced back to the earliest days of Oregon statehood. What are a few of the contributions the hospital has made to research or treatments in that time? What would you describe as some of the most dramatic changes in mental health practices?

DGG: In many ways the attitudes and knowledge of the people in Oregon are represented in the history of OSH. For example, hundreds of lobotomies were performed at OSH because families, physicians and patients were desperate for anything that gave hope for a cure. When the promised results didn’t happen the brain surgery was discontinued.

OSH has always worked well in conjunction with the University of Oregon Hospital training their nurses and doctors and as new methods and discoveries were developed over time, the hospital benefited from those developments.

The most dramatic change in mental health care was the discovery of neuro-psychotic drugs. That discovery helped empty the mental hospitals all over the United States including Oregon and returned millions of people to their homes, communities, and to the streets.

While superintendent of OSH, Dr. R. E. Lee Steiner was a major advocate for the sterilization of Oregon’s institutionalized patients. Oregon State Hospital.

HPW: Can you share a few facts about the Oregon State Hospital that most people would find surprising?

  1. Patients with anorexia were sent to OSH as early as 1886.
  2. In 1916 a young man was sent to OSH for threatening to enter a local elementary school and shoot all the children.
  3. We always hear about the J building because it is the oldest. However, the most beautiful building on campus is the Dome building erected in 1912. Its unique shape, use, and glass dome make it an architectural and historical gem.
  4. OSH was the main state facility for sterilizing thousands of Oregonians whose only crime was being poor, ill, or gay. In essence, it permanently harmed the most defenseless citizens in the state.

HPW: What would you like your readers to take away from your book? How is the heritage of the Oregon State Hospital pertinent to today?

DGG: I would like readers to come away with a new sense of compassion and understanding for people with mental illness, the staff that worked in horrible conditions to help them, and a firm resolve to change the negative attitudes and laws holding back the positive changes that are so necessary.

Critical to that understanding is the knowledge that one out of every five Oregonians will suffer from a mental illness, have a family member with a mental illness, or have their life impacted by someone with a mental illness. Oregon State Hospital is the last resort for those with severe mental health issues and how we as a state deal with the hospital represents our individual convictions about mental illness in general. Over the last 130 years the state has tried a variety of methods and hopefully readers can figure out for themselves which methods were positive and need to be continued, and which were negative and need to be discarded.

My books are written from the individual’s perspective. I want the reader to feel a personal connection to the subject when they finish and from that connection develop an informed and intelligent opinion about the subject. If I can do that, then I have accomplished my goal.


Diane L. Goeres-GardnerDiane L. Goeres-Gardner is a fifth-generation Oregonian whose ancestors came to Oregon in 1852 and settled in Tillamook County. She is the award-winning author of four books, including Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon, 1851-1905 released in 2005 and Murder, Morality, and Madness: Women Criminals in Early Oregon released in 2010.

Inside Oregon State Hospital: A History of Tragedy & Triumph by Diane L. Goeres-Gardner will be available from the History Press and Oregon bookshops May 2013.

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Interview with JD Chandler, Author of Murder & Mayhem in Portland, Oregon

Interview with Randol B. Fletcher, Author of Hidden History of Civil War Oregon

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