The 1940s and 50s were difficult years to be non-conformist, and that was doubly true if you were a woman. The writers of the Beat Generation, as well as their friends and families, who lived bohemian lifestyles in a buttoned-up era, found that their very existence could be dangerous in those days. Whether they were driven to genuine mental illness by the shackles of a repressive society or deemed unfit for society because of their individualist life choices, many of those who fell under the Beat label ended up in the “nuthouse.” For some of them it was just a temporary stay that gave them inspiration for their art, but for others it was a deeply traumatic experience that irrevocably damaged their life.
- “I take my madhouses seriously”
Allen Ginsberg was no stranger to madness. As a child he watched his mother lose her mind, and as an adult he saw many of his friends, including his lover, Peter Orlovsky, battle mental health problems. For eight months, Ginsberg was himself a resident of the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute. It was here that he met Carl Solomon, to whom he dedicated his great poem, “Howl.” In fact, madness was a major theme in Allen’s other masterpiece, “Kaddish,” a tribute to his mother.
While enlisted in the Navy in 1943, Jack Kerouac demonstrated such an extreme lack of discipline and rejection of authority that he found himself very quickly in the mental section of Bethesda Navy hospital. The doctors examined him and read his novel, The Sea is my Brother, in search of clues to the state of his mind. In the end, they decided that he had “strong schizoid trends that have bordered upon but not yet reached the level of psychosis.” He was diagnosed with dementia praecox, an old term for schizophrenia, and released with an honorable discharge for his “indifferent character.”
William S. Burroughs
In 1939, Burroughs cut off part of one of his fingers in an attempt to impress a man called Jack Anderson. When he presented his therapist, Dr. Wiggers, he was tricked into being committed at Bellevue Mental Hospital. His father soon appeared and transferred Bill to a private hospital, Payne-Whitney. When he heard that Allen had been institutionalized, Burroughs said, “I wouldn’t let them croakers up there treat my corn let alone my psyche.”
In 1947, following a massive breakdown after years of Benzedrine abuse, Joan Vollmer was sent to Bellevue, where her husband, Burroughs, had been sent. Thankfully, after just ten days she was rescued and Bill whisked her away to Texas, where they set up on a farm. A few years later, in 1949, their roles were reversed and Bill was again forcibly hospitalized. This time, Joan sprang him and took him back to the Texas farm.
Relegated almost to a footnote in Beat history, Cowen is known as one of Allen Ginsberg’s girlfriends from a period when he tried to be a heterosexual. Yet she was a poet in her own right, sometimes engaged in lesbian relationships, and like Ginsberg, she met Carl Solomon in a mental hospital. She was a bohemian with in many ways similar to her more famous male counterparts, except life was always more difficult for the women. Family pressures were far greater, and they bore a great deal of suffering. Cowen killed herself by jumping from a window in her parents’ house, and many of her poems were subsequently destroyed lest they embarrass her family.
Kaufman’s behaviour was often erratic. Although many of the Beats (and people related to other countercultural movements) appeared eccentric, Kaufman’s odd antics have been speculated by some to by the result of electroshock therapy. He had been arrested during a short stay in New York (during which he lived next door to Elise Cowen) for walking on some grass and confined to a mental institution, where he was given the violent therapy.
Corso’s life read like a tragedy and at times was so awful it is hard to believe. His childhood in particular is an example of a total failure of society to deal with a troubled child. Abandoned by his family, he was incarcerated among adults at New York’s notorious Tombs prison, where he was abused by the adult inmates. He also spent “3 frightening sad months” in Bellevue, again locked up amongst adults while he was only a young boy. It was Corso who later explained the relative absence of women from the Beat movement by noting how they were locked up in mental hospitals.
The man who coined the word “Beat,” or at least introduced it to the generation that would take it as their name, was a lifelong criminal and drug addict with a long history of incarceration. By the mid-sixties he was faring badly and had overdosed on his drug of choice, heroin. Allen Ginsberg came to the rescue when Huncke was at his absolute lowest, and had him checked into the Mendocino State Hospital (formerly the Asylum for the Insane).When he got out, Ginsberg paid his airfare east and allowed him to stay for free at his Cherry Valley farmhouse.