“Two months after my partner Billy dies, I am offered his place on the Writing the Asylum project. I am raw, grief-stricken (what a word, stricken) and not at all sure how I will respond in my new inside-out, afflicted state. Will I be able to write from my own perspective, or will I have Billy whispering in my ear?”
At the end of 2021 I started work, alongside 27 other artists, on the Writing the Asylum Project * exploring the archives of the Gartnavel Asylum, bringing to life the voices of those whose stories have been buried in the archive.
Walking the grounds of Gartnavel after Billy’s death became a way of grieving while simultaneously delving into the experiences of patients at the Asylum in the 19th century. I was given the notes for patient Egbert Jongevos, sent as a pauper from Glasgow City to Gartnavel Asylum on 7th April 1874. The house surgeon describes Egbert in the admission notes as “a seaman, single and a Protestant. This is stated to be his first attack of insanity and of 7 days duration, cause unknown.”
Egbert was a troubled soul, not speaking English, tormented by visions of being burned by electricity and pursued by characters from his past, I can’t know anything for sure. I rely on patient notes for details of his stay, my imagination to supply emotion, and on historical texts for other aspects, for example Let There Be Light Again : A History of Gartnavel Royal Hospital From its Beginnings to the Present Day.
I attempt a poem in his voice, trying to imagine what a year in Gartnavel might have felt for him; the passage of seasons clouded by mental ill-health. I do wonder at the ethics of using his notes as an imaginative springboard into the poem but decide that providing him with a voice to speak is better than not being heard at all.
I'd like to say that the grief-walks I undertook as part of this project were ‘healing’ but they weren't, in the sense of 'therapeutic writing'. Egbert’s pain certainly felt real, as real as my own, and the work in creating the poem absorbed me. In that sense the experience was therapeutic. But really, I wasn't ready yet for a notion of healing. What I wanted was a fellow sufferer. What I can say is that Egbert became my grief companion - he felt familiar to me, and I took great comfort from his ghostly pain alongside my own.
*The project is funded by the University of Glasgow and Wellcome Trust through the Glasgow Medical Humanities Early Career Awards in 2022 and 2023, and conceived by Dr Gillean McDougall@ @writing_asylum