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Social Distance Files: perspective at Medfield State Hospital

By Stephen Press,
Hometown Weekly Editor -

I park my car and exit, taking a breath of fresh air and looking out at a skittish flock of starlings dancing in the field.

Over the last weeks, I've been seeking out places in Hometown Weekly's communities that are both conducive to social distancing and, rather crucially, open to the public. Today, it's brought me to the Medfield State Hopsital (MSH), formerly known as the Medfield Insane Asylum, during a moment of collective uncertainty.

The concern in the community is palpable. We've taken to donning masks in public; friends and loved ones, some with whom we may not have been in contact for ages, are crawling out of the woodwork to check in; we nervously eye fellow shoppers on our rare trips to the supermarket, making sure neither they, nor we, violate the requisite six feet of physical space between us; dry coughs and sniffles that would have once been laughed away as seasonal hay fever have alternately become fonts of morbid humor or legitimate worry; we wonder when, or even if, our lives will return to pre-pandemic normalcy.

I've come here, swimming in this stew of concern, looking for some semblance of peace. That isn't to say that I'm seeking solitude - even on a drizzly day like this, I know I won't be alone at this popular Medfield locale - but perhaps perspective in what has been a confusing time for all.

And so I walk, trying to absorb every bit of detail and meaning I can: grass taking hold in the cracks of old paved surfaces; red painted boards, framed in brick, shuttering the windows of the structures; footprints of a dog and its human companion in the rain-softened earth; an isolated, rusted fire hydrant, seemingly resigned to its irrelevance in the here and now.

It is my understanding that this place was on the cutting edge when it was built. These neglected buildings represent the first mental health facility constructed using the so-called "cottage plan," which saw such institutions being laid out in a similar manner to college campuses. Walking here reminds me of my own alma mater, itself built only thirty years before. There is a regal, monolithic air to the buildings and layout, one that dwarfs the friendly dog-wranglers and power-walkers who shuffle between the old walkways and boarded-up windows. 

We are but 128 years away from the opening of this facility - a relative blink of an eye in terms of human history, but nonetheless lengthy enough to have rendered MSH obsolete and crumbling. Antibiotics are less than 100 years old. We're 65 years out from Salk's polio vaccine. Advances in HIV/AIDS research, in the thirty or so years since Magic Johnson announced his diagnosis in 1991, have made the disease treatable - far from the death sentence it once was.

I take in my surroundings and think of the announcements Hometown Weekly prints all the time for the National Alliance on Mental Illness or the IAM Strong Foundation, of the advances in cognitive science, and of the perpetually decreasing stigma around mental illness in general. How far have we come in just a few generations?

Today, the methods and ideas that led to the construction of the Medfield Insane Asylum in 1892 are seen as horrifically antiquated and imperfect. The campus ruins are testament to the steadfast march of science and progress, and our ability to perfect both of those things with time and ingenuity. But the hospital's stark emptiness is also a reminder of our fallibility. As humanity seeks answers to its most complex existential questions, there are rarely miracle cures and direct routes - only long, circuitous roads of optimism and pessimism, trial and error, triumph and tragedy. As I drink in one final view of the grounds, I remind myself that these long roads do, in fact, lead to a brighter future, even as we suffer in the present.

I enter my car and remove my surgical mask, realizing there's one last place for me to visit today. I hop on 27 and make the turn for the State Hospital Cemetery. As I pass the iron gates and make my way into to the clearing, I move slowly and deliberately, careful to maintain a posture of respect. Here is where I find the solitude that I had not expected.

I read a few names on the memorials aloud, no more forcefully than a whisper, to break the silence. It is not a vaccine, or a day at the ballgame, or a lunch shared with a colleague, or even an embrace from an old friend - but it is certainly something.

There is still peace and perspective to be found here and now, providing you don't mind looking for it.

At the time of print, the Medfield State Hospital is still open from dawn to dusk, and remains one of the town's most vital outlets for social distancing and quiet contemplation.

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