By Marie Manilla
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in West Virginia was a dump by 1974. Opened in 1864, it had outlasted its luster and usefulness. If it had ever been useful. In its golden days, it’s rumored that nineteenth-century men dumped their unsuitable wives there. The reasons were spurious: female trouble, laziness, grief.1
But we weren’t thinking about that, us twentieth-century Catholic girls jammed into my father’s Skylark in Huntington, one-hundred-fifty miles south of the asylum. Two girls sat in the front bench seat, three in the back. I was newly licensed. Dad still trusted me with the car then. I’d scooped up girl after girl, and though I don’t recall the exact configuration, the likely suspects were Dee Dee and Cher. Bev, the girl who’d yelled at us during a freshman party: “No alcohol allowed!” I’d admired her bravery if not her tea-totaling stance. Beside her in the backseat was a ghost girl who might have been Amy. Next to her, perhaps Jane, who had us eye-rolling over her admission that her parents prayed for conception before sex. They had ten kids already. Being overly religious could get you sent to the nuthouse, as could using birth control.
Tobacco and alcohol use could earn you a padded room.
At sixteen, we were still virgins, at least I think we all were. Some of us were late bloomers, others, resistant ones. We crossed the river and state line to collect Debbie, the steel bridge grate vibrating beneath the tires. In Ohio, I got confused by the traffic pattern and drove into lanes for oncoming traffic, traffic-less, thankfully. I barreled over the grass median, dirt clods thumping the oil pan. We collectively sighed once we were in the correct lane and bypassed the Starlite Drive-In, the junkyard, to scoop Debbie up.
We likely had beer in the car, Bev no longer Carrie Nation. A quart cost fifty cents then, as did a pack of cigarettes. Tobacco and alcohol use could earn you a padded room. Cher and I smoked, as did Amy. So did Jane. I picture her in the backseat by the window blowing smoke out the cracked pane. Perhaps Bev gave her a little extra space. Jane had become a militant figure the previous year when she shoved photos under our noses of fetus parts: little arms and legs, images that induced nausea—the exact intent. The Supreme Court had been deciding Roe v. Wade. Political fervor could get you locked-up, too.
Us boyfriendless girls didn’t have to worry about unwanted pregnancies—yet. We drove back across the bridge and cruised Fourth Avenue, Ritter Park, inched by the houses of boys we had crushes on. We’d assign him a window, imagine him in there at his desk, or in his bed, fantasizing about one of us. Masturbation could get you committed, both the suppressed and outright kinds.
I took dark backroads away from city lights. Raucous laughter and chatter bounced off the dome light. Not every girl in the car was mouthy, but Cher was, something I admired about her. She wasn’t afraid to show off her brains and opinions. Some boys didn’t like that. “She’d be cute if she kept her mouth shut,” one had said. Cher was from a family of loud women, her mother included. Hysterical, my father called them, not something he easily abided. Domestic strife could disappear a wife. I was glad Cher didn’t keep her mouth shut.
… it felt good to whip ourselves into a frenzy—yet another asylum-able offense.
We wound our way to Route 10 and spotted a cop car, red lights flashing, on a desolate feeder road parked behind a white car. I slowed—we had beer in the car, after all. Cher or Dee Dee or I likely had pot in our purses. As we got closer, we saw the hose running from the white car’s exhaust pipe to the front quarter-glass window. Then we understood. It was a suicide.
From the back seat, Bev screamed: “It’s Joey!” The sweet boy so many girls loved. Did he even drive a white car? I think we all knew it wasn’t Joey asphyxiated inside that vehicle, but it could have been him. It could have, and it felt good to whip ourselves into a frenzy—yet another asylum-able offense. I pulled over and cut the lights so we could sit in the dark and grieve the unimaginable. But abrupt death wasn’t unimaginable at all.
The summer between first and second grades, my best friend’s parents had driven her and her siblings to the family farm in New York. Neighbors turned the family’s house lights off and on. Collected their mail, though I doubt my friend got any. We hadn’t yet learned cursive. I missed her. Every morning I looked out our front window hoping to see their car.
Then the morning I was asleep on the pullout couch in the living room. My sister Chris burst through our front door waving the newspaper. “Mr. Derleth and Mark got killed in a wreck!”
It was a brutal awakening and I sat up to deny it: “No, they didn’t!”
Chris showed me the front-page photo of the mangled car. All the kids had been injured, my best friend included. Hit by a drunk driver on their way back to West Virginia.
It was months before they were healed enough to return. Their mother was battered the worst, sitting in the front seat between her husband and son. My dad and other neighbor men knocked down the wall between their kitchen and dining room. Added new paint and linoleum. They must have known it was Mr. Derleth’s big plan.
We met under the streetlight and hugged and wept. Nobody could talk. Nobody, as bats swooped in and out of the streetlight’s beam.
And then they came home, at night. I was still keeping watch and saw an unfamiliar car pull into their driveway, saw my friend and her three sisters fling open the doors. “They’re home!” I yelled. Or must have. Because soon Chris and I were running downhill just as they were running up. Other neighbors poured from their houses. We met under the streetlight and hugged and wept. Nobody could talk. Nobody, as bats swooped in and out of the streetlight’s beam.
The girls fretting in my father’s Skylark didn’t know about this trauma, but they had their own: dead grandpas and aunts and cousins. We also shared a wound we hadn’t fully processed.
In 1970, our town’s college football team and dozens of boosters were killed when the plane they were in slammed into a hillside just short of our airport’s runway. I was standing in the Derleth’s kitchen, the one my father and neighbor men had reconfigured six years before. It was a Saturday night, rainy. Mrs. Derleth was stirring something in a stewpot on the stove. Lindy burst through the side door wearing her Pep Club sweater, blue with an appliqued megaphone on the chest. She wasn’t waving a newspaper, but she might as well have been.
“The Marshall football team crashed in a plane!”
“No, they didn’t.” I was still a denialist.
But they had. I was too stunned to register the looks on the Derleths’ faces, if they were sucked back into their car seconds before their own tragedy.
I hope those cheerleaders fell apart somehow, somewhere. Their dorm rooms or sororities. I hope their shrieks shattered glass.
We all knew someone impacted: classmates or parishioners or neighbor kids who’d lost one parent or both. Funerals for weeks. More newspaper photos, especially the one of all those cheerleaders’ stoic faces. There hadn’t been room for them on the plane. How gracefully they contained their grief, perhaps taking their cue from Jackie Kennedy years before in her blood-stained pink suit, standing stoically by as LBJ was sworn in on that plane. I hope those cheerleaders fell apart somehow, somewhere. Their dorm rooms or sororities. I hope their shrieks shattered glass.
Two years after that tragedy, my sister’s boyfriend and three other boys were killed driving home from a high school ball game. I’d egged cars with Bob once in our neighborhood. Chris and Bob and Chris’s best friend Terry. We lobbed eggs at cars until one of them stopped and the burly driver got out. “Who the hell did that?” Bob and Chris darted between houses. I dove under a bush. Terry climbed a tree as the man’s flashlight beam scoured the landscape. “Damn kids!” I’d never contorted myself so small. Finally, he left, and Terry and I raced to my house where Chris and Bob sat at our kitchen table, giddy. I’m glad Bob laughed. He’d be gone in a few months. His funeral parlor overflowed and it was the first time flowers didn’t smell sweet. The thick silence was occasionally punctured by sobs from girls who secretly loved him. No wails from his family. None from my sister, who sat too quietly, mascara dripping down her face. The stalwart beauty of restrained grief.
That night in the Skylark we didn’t rein ourselves in, though hysteria could send you to the asylum. Stunted sorrow could too. We’d already had too many lessons on the polite behavior of women, but we didn’t care. At that moment we were safely keening in the company of girls. We weren’t grieving just for Joey. We were mourning our past losses, the personal and collective, and the ones that would be.
I started the car and drove girl after girl home, drunk on beer and release, toward futures we weren’t ready for: bad marriages and good ones, live births and still ones. Lost voices and choices. For one of us, an early death.
When I got home, I knelt in the driveway to inspect the car’s undercarriage. I hoped my father wouldn’t see the grass clumps clotting the axle, wouldn’t hear our residual screams.
- The various motives for institutionalization were taken from a 1993 pamphlet, written by Marjorie E. Carr. “Reasons for Admission, West Virginia Hospital for the Insane (Weston), October 22, 1864 to December 12, 1889.” appalachianhistory.net/2008/12/125-reasons-youll-get-sent-to-lunatic.html
For more on Marie Manilla and her work, visit www.mariemanilla.com.
MARIE MANILLA | Part 1: Driving By Her Own Headlights: Award-winning writer and Huntington WV native Marie Manilla talk about the highs and lows of writing; the ‘snotty literati,’ who use labels to belittle writers; and the novel she scrapped after pre-publication reactions by African American and transgender sensitivity readers.