Door Wide Open
by Patrick Thornton
I saw you on TV. I thought that you were a character on American Horror Story. You were standing on the steps of the asylum in a green suit, ballpoint pen and steno pad in hand, an independent woman of the sixties. It gave me an overwhelming sense of dread to see you on the show, to know what was going to happen to you.
I saw how they locked you up because you wouldn’t stay quiet, because you were gay. I saw the electroshock. Weren’t you scared? Weren’t you scared that first time, Margaret?
I was scared for you.
I saw everything that happened to you and I finally knew.
But what did I know?
No. This is not you. I have to keep reminding myself this isn’t true—not entirely. This is me trying to impose a narrative. But I know the story now.
At least I think I do.
Here is what I remember: Gramma was not herself at my tenth birthday party. As I sat eating birthday cake, sucking frosting off the tines of my fork, I heard her say to my mother, “My sister isn’t doing too good.” I thought the only sister Gramma had died before I was born. I didn’t know there was another. I didn’t think to say anything in that moment because I was only ten, and it was my birthday, and surely I must have misunderstood.
The day after my tenth birthday my mother sat me down at the kitchen table and explained to me that you were our aunt, that you had spent most of your life in a mental hospital, and that you had died that morning. She said she was ten when she found out about you. Your mother had died and they put your name in the obituary. Mom didn’t know who you were. Grampa told her not to ask questions about you. I think Grampa is still afraid of you. I can’t get a straight answer out of him when I ask about you. He said you liked to smoke, then after a long pause added, “and cuss.” He didn’t say anything about the fire. It seems cruel to press him for questions at this point in his life. There are only five people left who knew you from before.
My mother remembers going with Gramma to visit “a friend” on Sundays. They would go to a place that looked like a hospital, but it had a bowling alley and a malt shop in the lobby. Mom never went beyond the lobby, never got to meet the friend who lived at a hospital that wasn’t a hospital.
That was the first part of the story I learned. I was an adult when I learned the rest. I was afraid that I would never be ready. I still don’t think I am.
When they took you it was in the 50s. It was 1952 and you were thirty-eight, although I always picture you in your twenties, the same age as myself. You had been living with Gramma and Grampa and you set their apartment on fire. Gramma said it was an accident, though there had been another fire before. That one, as I would read in your medical records, was on purpose.
Before the fires you went to California with a friend. One aunt says you went there because you were pregnant; I wondered if your friend was your lover and the two of you needed to go someplace far away where you could start over. In your medical records it’s explained that you met a man out there, but had a nervous breakdown and had to come home. They say you never got over your lost love. This was a part of the story that made sense. I know the urge of wanting a lover, a new life, a new beginning, and all of it being too much to bear.
Then there was the story of the butcher knife.
I know you tried to stab your mother with a butcher knife so they put you away. They called you schizophrenic. Your niece told me that the door to your bedroom was always closed, then one day the door was wide open and you were gone. No one talked about you after. It’s mentioned in your medical records how much time you spent in your room, how it began in your teen years. This information is meant to sound strange in your records, but to me it seems normal. I still don’t like to leave my room, and when I do I feel vulnerable. It’s easier to hide, but people don’t understand that. I wonder how much of this story is merely about not understanding one another.
I have told both of my therapists about you. I try to talk about you so I don’t have to talk about me. They ask me about the washing, the obsessing, the dark places I have to snap myself out of before I go in too far. Even on my best day there is an underlying despair that cleaves to me. Does any of this make sense?
Both therapists tell me that you were probably bipolar. The disorder runs in our family, though schizophrenia does not. They say that your doctors might have gotten the medication wrong—this part I understand. Could you see when they got my medication wrong? Did you see all the times I cried for no reason, my bursts of anger, the kind you were famous for?
I keep writing about you, Margaret, because it’s the only way I know how to keep from turning into you. It’s the only way I know how to keep from going crazy. Isn’t that what they called you? Crazy? Not right in the head. On the first page of your medical records the word “insane” appears three times. I hope you never had to see those papers. There is a part of me that wants to protect you, another that loves you even though we never met, and still another that is afraid of you too.
I don’t think I think right Margaret, even when everyone says how well I’m doing. I hope that if I can make sense out of your life then I can make sense out of mine. When I look at photographs of you from the 40s, wearing the expensive dresses you spent months saving up for, I can’t help but notice how normal you look. You are with friends, you are at the beach, you are holding a bunny in your hands. I imagine someone picking up a picture of me someday and wondering who I am. But I can’t know if that will ever happen. There’s so much I don’t know.
I only know that it seemed easier when you were a character on a TV show and not my great aunt.
It was easier not to think about sharing DNA with you.
It was easier not to think about how I don’t think right.
It was easier to think I’m not already you.
Perhaps the door has always been wide open after all.
Patrick Thornton is a 2015 graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s Creative Nonfiction MFA Program. After completing school he attended a summer residency at the Vermont Studio Center. His work has previously appeared in Redivider, The Lab Review, and Ghost Proposal. He has also performed his work in Listen To Your Mother, a national reading series featuring local writers.