Images of an asylum trigger memories of first law job

Through pure happenstance, two state-run “insane asylums” in Massachusetts were the backdrop for significant firsts in both my journalism and legal careers. As a journalism undergrad at UMass/Amherst in the early ’70s, the Daily Collegian assigned me to cover U.S. District Judge Joseph L. Tauro’s tour of Belchertown State School, a facility for people lumped together in those days by the label “retarded.” Judge Tauro was taking an aggressive role in enforcing efforts to improve conditions for patients at state schools and hospitals, and his tour had attracted a flock of print and TV reporters. At one point, he directed the reporters to wait behind while he toured a particular building. A UMass professor in Tauro’s entourage motioned for me to continue along. Thanks to him, I became the only reporter to cover the entire tour. The story I wrote for my college newspaper was my first ever to be picked up and distributed by the Associated Press. I was so proud of the $5 check AP sent me that I didn’t want to cash it, but so broke that I did — only after photocopying it.

Flash forward a couple years to my first year of law school, supporting myself by driving a cab nights in and around Boston. After twice being robbed in my cab at gunpoint, I decided it was time to look for my first law-related job. I became an intern with the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, an agency operating under the state Supreme Judicial Court. MHLAC assigned me to run its field office in Worcester State Hospital, a facility for the mentally ill. A couple days a week, I sat in a tiny room, counseling chain-smoking patients about civil commitments, guardianship and conservatorship, and a range of day-to-day legal concerns, while also learning a lot about the so-called mentally ill and our ignorant ways of dealing with them.

So what’s all this have to do with a blog that reviews Web sites? A new site, Danvers State Insane Asylum, revives ghostly memories of those days with a series of photographs of the now-abandoned state hospital in Danvers, Mass. In fact, it even includes photos of the also-now-abandoned Worcester State Hospital where I spent part of my first and second law-school years. The haunting collection of images is taken from a new book, Abandoned Asylums of New England: A Photographic Journey.