In Conversation With K J Steele: Inspiration For The Bird Box

Recently I read and reviewed K J Steele’s The Bird Box, I was very impressed with this novel that has opened up some frank and useful discussions regarding  abuse, domestic violence, the treatment of the disempowered, mental health and what it means to seek refuge/asylum, to name but a few of the issues raised by this novel.

In this interview K J Steele talks about her inspiration for writing the novel.

PS

K J Steele will begin sharing a series of short posts next week on her Facebook author page. She will be posting (twice a week) the 86 reasons why a person could be committed to an asylum in the late 1880’s; “the various, mundane and novel reasons why you could have found yourself in the asylum along with the characters of ‘The Bird Box’. Think it couldn’t have happened to you? Well . . . let’s just wait and see what reasons for committal are all included on the list! 🙂 ”

 

A big welcome to K J Steele.

 

 

Suitcase Secrets

Finding inspiration for ‘The Bird Box’ in unexpected places.

When a dead man speaks people listen. There is just something compelling about a voice that reaches out to us from beyond the grave. I’m not referring to spooks here, but rather to mankind’s phenomenal ability to impress ourselves onto the fabric of this world even long after the physical self has departed.

Music, literature, art, etc., are some of the common daily communications we have with the dead. The emotive essence lingers on. But for one fragment of society their voices came forward in a much humbler way.

When I set out to write my novel The Bird Box I spent some time on the grounds and in the buildings of a former insane asylum. Although the physical location was beautiful it was best described as a melancholy beauty. The memory of the former patients lingered.

I began to wonder about them. Not as patients but as people. Who were they? Before and during their committal’s? What had their lives been like? Their childhoods? Had they flown kites? Liked kittens? Plums? Had they been bold and adventurous or shy and cautious? What had formed their hopes and dreams and secret fears?

I went to the Mental Health Archives in search of answers. I found none. Researching patient files was often heartbreaking. Not so much by what was written there, but by the lack thereof.

After the initial admittance notes there was very little new information. Staff were busy and it was not uncommon to have whole lives –40–50–60– years condensed down to a few brief notes.

The brevity of it haunted me. Not that I blamed the staff. Their hands were more than full with practical matters. But still, it felt inhumane to me that whole lives had been pared down to a few paltry lines. I wanted to know who these people were. Above and beyond the narrow label of psychiatric patient.

I was soon to find out. Their voices began a torrent of stories into my mind. They demanded a place on my page. They had stories to tell; lives and loves, laughter and tears. They too had experienced great joys and devastating loss. They had suffered deeply as well and yet none of these things fully defined them.

Synchronistically, as I was writing their stories I was sent a link to Jon Crispin’s stunningly evocative photographs of the Willard Asylum Suitcases. Jon’s photographs visually dovetailed so perfectly with my written efforts to portray the person behind the label of psychiatric patient that I knew immediately I had to travel to the exhibit The Changing Face of What is Normal in San Francisco to further explore his work.

What followed was an astounding opportunity to speak with the dead. Or rather – listen. Displayed alongside some of Jon’s photographs were the original suitcases and their contents. Each suitcase, no matter how carefully or haphazardly it had been packed for that initial trip to the asylum, spoke volumes to me. Each one was a virtual time-capsule illuminating the individuality of its owner. Bibles and poetry books, family pictures, lotions, musical instruments, detailed diaries, loving letters. Objects as seemingly disparate from one another as mending kits and (in one case) a small hand-gun. Items that symbolically spoke of the desperate need to either mend or end the suffering.

Few people in our society’s history have been so reviled and disenfranchised as the mentally ill. Our discomfort and fear of those we could not understand or control led to some less than glorious years.

Those committed to the care of an asylum were in some ways excommunicated from the rest of humanity. They were held in institutions where their sense of autonomy was met with resistance. Their personal mail was opened and relieved of any unsettling or dissenting content. Their objections were routinely overruled. Not only did they become powerless they became voiceless as well.

Obviously it was far easier to silence people back then in an age before today’s instant and ubiquitous technology. Problematic dissenters were easier to erase; sometimes permanently.

And sometimes not so permanently as evidenced with the Willard suitcases. The contents of the suitcases serve to form an intimate choir of ghostly voices. They speak of each person’s individuality. Of their uniqueness. Some of them give evidence of seemingly competent minds while others show an obviously distorted grip on reality. Mental illness can be frightening. Perhaps to no one more so than to the person caught within its shifting shadows.

The people who filled the wards of the former insane asylums were as individual as they were unique. To paint them all the same would be but an erroneous reverse stroke of history. The contents of the suitcases they left behind now speak formidably for these long dead patients.

I have listened to their stories and endeavored to capture the echo of their hearts and minds in my novel The Bird Box. These were people who contributed to the diversity of life. And their lives mattered.

 

http://kjsteele.com

 

http://www.willardsuitcases.com

 

 

 

 

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6 thoughts on “In Conversation With K J Steele: Inspiration For The Bird Box

  1. What a powerful post! Thank you both. I’m sure those suitcases must have spoken very eloquently. As you say, it is a unique and important way to give voice to those who had no voice. I’m glad youi’ve shared this.

    • Thanks Margot – I am delighted to have made contact with Karen (KJ) Steele and to have been able to share this with you. One of the powerful incidents in the book is of a female patient at the asylum desperate for the return of her false teeth (they were stored in the roof in her suitcase, never returned) for what good purpose? How deplorable, the poor woman had so much trouble eating…all about the power imbalance, the way the patients were regarded…the Suitcase exhibition must have been very powerful.

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