The increasingly parochial observations of a casual runner in his fifties. Was "serious" about "the sport" until personal and sociocultural inevitabilities prevailed.

Friday, November 1, 2019

God knows there were holes in that barn

When I met my mom and Harper, her five-month-old Golden Retriever, for a walk at the Sewalls Falls Recreation Area on Tuesday, I happened to bring up a story about a different dog that took place about 30 years ago about a half-mile from our meeting spot, and a little over a mile south of the house I lived in for most of my childhood and young adult life outside of school, and visited regularly until my parents sold the property and moved to Dover in 2004. I'll describe that episode first, because it's kind of funny, and what follows as a result of watching a documentary film my story prompted my mother to describe is not funny in any way at all, and is in fact nothing short of horrible.

I was less than ten minutes into a weekend run from my house the summer after my freshman year at UVM when I was attacked by a dog. Technically. I had recently taken to wearing a Walkman (yeah, an old-school cassette player, carrying a tape that was likely rich in Dire Straits and Peter Gabriel tracks), so I did not hear the approaching animal and was not aware of it until its jaws clamped right onto the heel of one of my shoes. Try to imagine this happening and how your whole body might respond in the first second or two.

Before I could consciously react, I had taken a couple of steps thanks to sheer momentum, but then somehow spun around, flung off the Walkman and started screaming at the same time. As you'll learn in some detail, and in supreme detail if you watch the film yourself, this was not precisely in an abandoned area. On summer weekend days, it's unusual to not have at least one car in sight most of the time, as one can see for at least a few hundred yards in multiple directions. In 1989, that part of Concord was less developed than it is now, but my point is that any noisy public antics in the middle of a spectacular sunny day were unlikely to go unnoticed if perpetrated for more than a few seconds.

The risk of attracting attention was not on my mind as I watched my aggressor running across Mountain Road toward the yard it had evidently come from. It was a Dachshund, and about as fundamentally dangerous as a squirrel. But this one has almost sent me tumbling, and I was a mess of adrenalin as I decided to chase after the little bastard, mostly to convince it I could keep up. When I got to the other side of the road, I stopped, and the dog kept going full-tilt in the direction of a dilapidated eyesore of a barn that was reputed to have existed since the reign of King Henry V. Not content to let things go without a symbolic effort at pointless retribution, I picked up a rock off the shoulder that I'm guessing was about the size of a racquetball and heaved it at the barn itself, which was maybe 60 or 70 feet away. I was not altogether surprised to literally hit the broad side of a barn at close range, but I was quite surprised when my blazing 55-MPH slider didn't bounce off the side of the structure. Instead, with an almost timid cracking noise, the rock punched through the side of the barn and landed somewhere inside.

This unexpected development immediately transformed my stance from pissed-off to bemused. I stood there for a second, and had visions of The Money Pit, then only a few years old. If you have seen this Tom Hanks vehicle, you'll understand why I had the sudden, graphic thought that the entire beat-up building would collapse in on itself as a result of me taking out one last critical nail or joist or whatever glues examples of architecture from the Cretaceous Period together. I kept going without incident, and have found occasion to relay this tale numerous times since then. It's probably only funny if you can duplicate my vision of a barn collapsing while some little wiener-dog huddles and snickers just out of reach of falling wood, decades-old hay, and the decay of ages.

The image below is from a video recorded over a quarter of a century after my contribution to the wreckage. It seems likely in retrospect that I did not so much create a hole as find an existing one and possibly enlarge it.

After I told my mom this, she asked if I had seen or heard about God Knows Where I Am, which came out in 2017. I had not. You can view it on Netflix, and if you want to spend a few hours away from yourself and thinking about what it really means to be isolated from reality and how a series of apparently small missteps by multiple parties can be lethal -- and you really should -- then set aside a couple of hours and do it.

The film revolves around a woman named Linda in her early fifties who was released from the New Hampshire State Hospital in the fall of 2007 near downtown Concord and made her way out to 393 Mountain Road, a trip of about six miles if you know the shortest route. She did not, picking her way through the woods and winding up at what would be her final home by happenstance. Linda discovered that the property, which held a dilapidated barn and a house a little further from the road that was not in the pink of condition itself, was for sale. She managed to get inside, and spent the next few months of one of the harshest winters in memory -- and even "mild" winters in New Hampshire are rough -- living on apples she picked from trees in the back yard and collecting rain water to drink.We now know all this because the woman kept a meticulous and exquisitely detailed journal of her days and ways. She mostly went out at night and bathed herself in Hayward Brook, which I and a few of my teenage friends used to navigate for a couple of miles on inner tubes through the same spot depicted in the film before being dumped into the Merrimack River less than a half-mile from the property. She found the owner's college textbooks from the late 1960s and early 1970s in the attic and set about reading them.

All along, she seemed both exquisitely aware of what was happening to her and absolutely blind to the reality of her situation. This should not come as a surprise because Linda was schizophrenic. There was no earthly reason she was not still under care, but this is how the law works and it would be a mess if facilities could refuse to discharge people who appear stable.

This is not a referendum on the mental-health system, because what's the point? We Americans don't currently live in a country where the right people give a shit about serious mental illness. Depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders are all mental-health problems that can and do kill a lot of people every single day, and grab most of the attention because they're more common and affect the kind of people who tend to have voices and influence. But when I think of "serious mental illness," the kind of prison that only the right drugs can hope to grant some level of freedom from, I think of schizophrenia. Given a Sophie's choice, I would sooner inflict most forms of cancer on someone than the ghastly lives people unable to live fully in reality are forced to endure. And while I have implied that schizophrenia is comparatively rare, it still affects about 2.6 million Americans, half of whom are unaware that they are ill.

Meanwhile, somehow -- and this is the part I don't like to reconcile even though I understand exactly how such things happen -- no one in the area noticed Linda's presence. Apparently. My guess is when it all ended like you already know it did, a lot of people had in fact spotted her out and about and were not eager to report this after the fact of Linda's lonely death. In fact, the film reveals that the owner, who lived 90 minutes north, came by at one point with a companion to check on things and one of them saw a face in the attic window. They went inside to investigate, having to break in because the doors had been locked from the inside. They found no one despite what they described as a thorough check, and Linda reported in her journal that she had evaded some visitors, though she didn't describe how, Why this failed to result in a formal police report goes unexplored, but the owner most likely believed that area kids who knew the place was essentially abandoned had gotten up to some stupidities. Nothing was stolen or damaged, after all. I can see why he really didn't suspect anything serious was afoot.

She combed her increasingly ratty hair with a fork. She fantasized about an old love interest whose role in her life was nothing like she believed it was. She continued keeping a journal even after she had gone 35 days without food. She may have been delusional in many ways, but she was hellishly aware at every step of what was happening to her, and she was also not wrong about some her fellow human travelers having failed her. Her rancor toward her family members was misguided and the results heartbreaking, but in context it is completely understandable.

You can see in the film that Interstate 93 is less than a tenth of a mile from the rear of the house, but this was about as much use to her as an X-wing fighter. I kept vacillating between not wanting to watch and being mesmerized by the sheer familiarity of it all -- not just the proximity but the number of childhood experiences I had very close to this spot. One of my friends used to live in the house across the street that featured a big-screen television Officer Nelson could see from a window in the farmhouse. And yeah, my friends and I were not a trouble-making bunch, but we used to sometimes find ourselves in spots we weren't necessarily supposed to be and that house could easily been one of them had the timing been different.

The most striking part otherwise was the presentation itself: The producers decided to use Linda's journal to tell the story and intersperse readings of these entries with various interviews with family members, mental-health workers and representatives of the legal system. The Concord police officer who responded to the scene was deeply troubled despite the various human malignancies and absurdities he and all cops continually deal with, and struck me as the most compassionate person about the whole thing, which is not entirely surprising. Linda's sister and daughter had done about all they could to cajole their loved one in the general direction of stability, which for a schizophrenic invariably means medication. Even the newer anti-psychotics have some dismal side effects, and someone harboring paranoid delusions is not an ideal candidate for complying when a stranger who has her locked up is trying to convince her to swallow a pill. I wouldn't.

The fundamental feeling I was left with is how embittered the experience left those closest to her. In recounting all of the madness and hostility and nonsense she had foisted on them over the years, some of them clearly still cling to the notion that Linda herself might have had more agency than she really did, and that despite her scrambled neurochemistry, she was basically just a bitch who refused to do what it would take to get better and stop causing problems for other people. I don't know how right they are about this, assuming my read is correct -- and I think it is, because I empathize with this brand of thinking to a considerable degree of fidelity. It is truly marvelous how we as people often need to believe people are at some level willful fuckups so that we can more easily stay pissed at them for all of the disruptive things they do. And face it, "mental illness" is, stripped to its essentials. a label affixed to people whose behavior is sufficiently annoying to a sufficient number of others to compel society to intervene in some way. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with believing you're the King of Prussia, Jesus, or a future CIA cyber-security maven. But it's impossible to be in the world and foment such ideas without being challenged, and when a fundamentally unpleasant personality is superimposed on the whole mess -- which for Linda doesn't appear to have been the case most of the time -- it's a near-guarantee that the person will never get adequate help, and will in the end die in some way as a direct consequence.

Most of us know someone like this -- in particular, the undiagnosed ones who would be wards of the state if not for partners or others who function, often but not always with good intentions, as enablers. You might reasonably think that when a person's symptoms have become persistently destructive enough to command legal problems and opprobrium from a variety of sources, people in her orbit would use all available levers to put a stop to it. But in Linda's case, everyone did exactly that, and the system failed by working exactly as it was designed to -- by favoring the preservation of liberty over extreme but potentially life-saving interventions. (The New Hampshire State Hospital wound up paying Linda's daughter a $275,000 settlement, but I'm not sure whether the aggressively misguided psychiatrist who rejected Linda's family's petition for power of attorney was shitcanned if not stripped of his medical license.)

By the time Linda took to the woods of East Concord to die, she had alienated even the most accommodating and desperate people in her life, and that's despite being fundamentally kind, unlike a number of afflicted people I've known. And it's bizarre and discomfiting to be fully aware of people who are probably about two-thirds of the way along the same general life arc as Linda followed. The main contributor to seriously mentally ill people going perennially untreated is their landing with feckless assholes who prioritize having someone to copulate with over having someone relatively free of crippling psychological demons.

Someone local bought the land in 2017 and the barn and house were destroyed shortly after the film was released. I passed the spot in both April and October of last year and seem to remember a pad there the first time and a house-in-progress the second. The 21.7 acres have been divided onto seven lots, which is unfortunate because it means even more people in a part of town that stopped being truly quiet as soon as the Concord Monitor set up shop nearby in the mid-1990s and has gotten worse since.

I took a photo today of the one new house on the lots, which remains unoccupied. As far as anyone knows.

One other thing to note: Yesterday marked my 365th consecutive day of running, a first for me. I decided months ago that if I made it to a year, I'd take a preemptive strike at extending this further, and as if to signal assent, my left hamstring started complaining in mid-October. As is typical, I can jog around almost endlessly without seeming to make it worse (though it clearly doesn't help), but anything close to 6:00 pace reminds me I that probably should have started aiming for a 50-year non-running streak at the tail end of 1969. I'd be getting very close. And I wish I hadn't timed this shit so that potential consecutive day 366 coincided with being in southern New Hampshire on a windy but otherwise sublime fall day. As usual, I really just wanted to go running because it's fun and, around here, assured of exposing me nostalgic stimuli.

I'll decide later whether I can call today the day off it was intended to be. Probably not, and the experience was again worth it, but if I don't give the leg a real rest, this will eventually encroach on my Rosie-jogs, and that's the only kind of running I need to preserve.


  1. Great post. I need to watch that.

    1. It's hard to know how I would react if I wasn't so familiar with the surroundings, and I used to wander in those woods along the Merrimack before there were trails (which is where she found herself in 2007). I've also been in the same hospital she was discharged from, although not for quite the same reasons and a long time ago.

      But I'm pretty sure it would have felt very personal anyway.