Friday, May 16, 2008


Screw: A Guard's View of Bridgewater State Hospital by Tom Ryan (South End Press, 1981)

Frederick Wiseman's Titicutt Follies is the only film in American history banned for reasons other than obscenity or national security. A 1967 verite documentary chronicling the less than stellar conditions prevailing at a Massachusetts state hospital for the criminally insane, a judge put the kibosh on it ostensibly on the grounds that it invaded the inmate's privacy.

As a Wiseman fan since seeing High School in high school, I rushed out to see TF when the ban finally expired in 1992. It was a great film, but the hospital didn't come across as the snake pit I'd expected from the press clippings. Perhaps I'm jaded. For the real horrorshow, you'll have to turn to Screw.
Ryan was a psychology student working with Bridgewater inmates who took the job in 1974 to check up on the abuse stories he was hearing. And neither he (nor I!) was disappointed. The picture he paints of Bridgewater is of a combined human warehouse and open sewer. His fellow "COs" were the flowers of Dorchester and South Boston manhood. They cheered the hospital's modern therapeutic methods ("...a lobotomy. That what should be done to all these maggots") and criticized its failings ("Counselors, hah! It's do-gooders that wreck this place"). So socially conscious were these guardians of the sick that some spent their off hours drilling with a chapter of the Minutemen. Patients were locked in cells without toilets or sinks. Doctors were virtually nonexistent; drugs were dispensed by nurses. Beatings were common, and not of the COs. Ryan himself got in trouble with his comrades for refusing to join in on a 10-1 affair. So much for camaraderie.
Needless to say, patients failed to thrive in this environment. One ripped open his cheeks. Another, mocked by the guards, plucked out one of his eyes. A few days later, he plucked out the other . And then he plucked out his glass eyes! Ryan admits that things got better when the old hospital closed and they moved to a new facility. But not that much. Ryan ended his correctional career after 18 months and one witnessed beating too many.
It's something to consider whenever someone rants about "getting off" via the insanity defense.

Monday, May 5, 2008


The Big Love by Florence Aadland with Tedd Thomey (Lancer, 1961)

"There's one thing I want to make clear right off: my baby was a virgin the day she met Errol Flynn." This line opens The Big Love, the true story of the then 48-year old Errol Flynn's affair with 15-year old Beverly Aadland as told by her mother Florence. Imagine Day of the Locust as told by a "Mommie Dearest;" it’s the ultimate testament to stage mothering run amok.

Of course, Florence denies being one of those Hollywood mothers, even though she had little Beverly modeling at six months and taking singing and dancing lessons at two. Fortunately for mother and daughter alike, Beverley had looks and talent. She was on the cover of Collier's before she was five, and made her first movie in first grade. And Florence proudly noted, "For the first 15 years of her life, I kept that girl in a cellophane bag."

Then Errol Flynn noticed the new leggy blonde the Universal lot. Before you could say "Robin Hood," the aging swashbuckler had the underage ingenue up at his lodge to "read for a part in a play." Florence wistfully wrote, "It must have been quite a front of the fireplace, the two of them alone together." And, pray tell, how did dearest Mama know? Florence gushingly points out that Beverly "...told me everything she did with Errol Flynn. And in detail, because she and I love details and get a kick out of things like that."

Sadly, Errol died just weeks after announcing the engagement at Beverly's 17th birthday. Cut-off from the Flynn estate, the Aadlands's life quickly degenerated into chaos that ended with Florence convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and losing custody of Beverly. But regrets? Florence had none. She wouldn't have deprived her "baby" of those two precious years with Errol for anything. The Big Love ends with Florence proud of her daughter's new nightclub act and confident of a successful appeal of her conviction and ultimate victory over the scandal mongers.

Sadly, it wasn't to be. Beverly ultimately left Hollywood for a quiet suburban life as a wife and mother. But Florence only spiraled further out of control. A hopeless alcoholic, she died of alcohol poisoning six years later. Her end came as a surprise no one, least of all those who have read The Big Love.