The sound of a person hitting the ground
from a great height is hard to describe.
It is sort of like slamming
your hand down with full force
on a table. It will ache for days.
From “Facing Suicide Bridge”
The Naked Room is a collection unlike anything I have ever read, a searing indictment of mental health practice in the United States and a breathtaking journey into the minds of those experiencing mental health crises. Author Willa Schneberg draws on journals, diaries, clinician’s reports and extensive research to develop a collection that effectively bridges numerous styles into a single, cohesive narrative. The book is split into six sections: Asylum, Case History, Straitjacket, Fifty-Minute Hour, Reality Testing, and Termination. Each section considers its titular issue through a series of poems that often span historical periods, evoking the voices of practitioners, patients, loved ones and witnesses.
The first section, Asylum, looks to the history of institutionalization and the effect of various treatments on patients inside mental health facilities. “Unsanctioned” offers a haunting look at early treatments of women and how institutions perpetuated abuse:
We are the women relieved
our children are born dead.
In the wards at night, if we pace or scream,
we are tied to our beds, and matrons shut
our mouths with their palms until we blubber.
Schneberg effectively captures the voice of an institutionalized woman, calling to mind pivotal literary work on mental illness like “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Girl, Interrupted. “Admission Criteria for Oregon State Insane Asylum, 1906,” a found poem, presents a jarring list of possible conditions and observations that could result in institutionalization. The conditions are alphabetized and offered without commentary, decisions that serve to intensify readers’ realizations about how easily someone might be committed at the time.
“I,” the first poem in the section titled Straitjacket, is an intriguing persona poem in the voice of Eng, one half of the most famous conjoined twins during the 19th century. The speaker describes the ways in which he detaches himself mentally while his brother, Chang, is with his wife, Adelaide. This signals to readers that the theme is grounded in confinement, rather than literal uses of straitjackets on patients. Against the matter-of-fact tone with which Eng describes disassociating while Chang and Adelaide have intercourse or visit one another, he offers a sorrowful wish at the close of the poem: “grace would be to sit by myself/in a closed room upon a chair built for one.”
The final section, Termination, is by far the most traumatic. Readers encounter death and near-death experiences repeatedly, including several poems that directly address suicide. Among them is “Paying Homage,” perhaps the most wrenching poem of the collection. The speaker in the poem describes frequent drug use with peers, including a woman named Suzie who continually takes more drugs than the rest of the group. Schneberg explains that “she wasn’t like the rest of us” early in the narrative, juxtaposing “a puffy cloud like a hat” on the speaker’s head with “an iceberg stabbing [Suzie], her hands frozen to its sides.” As the poem progresses, we learn that the speaker has a method for saving the lives of her peers when they overdose, something that upsets Suzie because “she wanted to die.” Ultimately, the speaker directs her rage at the implied wards of a mental facility that, instead of providing “a suicide blanket, paper scrubs,” gives Suzie “a terrycloth robe with a long sash.”
It is difficult to encapsulate what makes The Naked Room so special, but suffice to say that I have already added excerpts from the book to teach alongside Gilman, Plath, Sexton and others whose legacies are so inextricably entwined with mental illness. Add Schneberg to the list of authors you turn to, in your own crises and in the crises of others.