Thursday, March 4, 2010

What is the Titicut Follies/Memoir Project, Anyway?

Since I talk about this now and then, and most people have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, I thought I’d ‘splain it. A little. For anyone who is interested.

First, it helps if you know something about the film Titicut Follies (1967), directed by Sam Wiseman. It’s much easier for you to click on the link, read a little about it, then come back here. Go on. I’ll wait.

You’re back already? Good. Well, my uncle was in that film. Pretty much anyone who has ever seen the film remembers him: He is the tall, thin, Russian dude. Vladimir. He is on the left in that photo, the psychiatrist is on the right.

Vladimir wages a sort-of quest in the film, to get the psychiatrist (and the committee) to send him back to Walpole, the prison from whence he came. In fact, in almost any discussion of Titticut Follies, especially on the Interwebs, people have stuff to say about him. Pretty much all of them are wrong in their suppositions. They assume that because Bridgewater housed notorious sexual predators (like the Boston Strangler), Vladmir must have been one too. They assume that he was mentally ill when he went there, or he wouldn't have landed there.

But he was originally sent for 30 days observation. Over what might have been nothing more than him bitching about the coffee. Or might very well have been the onset of mental illness. We'll never really know. And it's academic, anyway. The drugs they pumped into him and the things that happened to him there make it a minor point.

Anyway, people being wrong on the Internet isn't how I conceived this project. I started working on it long before the Internet, long before cell phones, long before I was a grown-up. Probably when I was about 12 years old.

I know, that sounds absurd. All I can say is: Where Vore (nickname for Vladimir) was, and what he had done to end up there, and how long he would be there, and on and on. . . All of it was a big mystery to me as a child. It was The Family Secret. It practically had barbed-wire fences and guard dogs around it. And anyone who knows me knows that is how you get my attention. It was the reason I read and re-read Harriet the Spy, I think, because I wanted spy skills so I could figure out the mystery of Vore.

Thirty-some years later, I'm still working on it. There are about half-a-dozen moving parts to this story, including:

• The crime that landed Vore in prison in the first place. Three young men, a gun, a liquor store. He was 17 years old.

• The criminal case and his legal representation. He was sentenced to life in prison. My grandparents were war refugees, had been in this country about five years. No money, no language skills. And they were Russians. Khrushchev was just at that moment banging his shoe on the table at the UN. It complicated things.

• Walpole to Bridgewater. How Vore went from prison to a Hospital for the Criminally Insane. And what happened to him there and efforts to get him back out of the rabbit hole.

Titicut Follies. The movie itself. And the court case. Vore remained involved in the court case, which made repeat performances at the Massachusetts Supreme Court, well into the 1980s. He always testified in support of its unbanning. He was interviewed by media, etc. His famous quote: "Bridgewater was like a concentration camp." He was thrilled when Wiseman finally won.

• The family. Vore had three siblings, including my mother, and two parents. All of this affected each of them, though in profoundly different ways.

• Vore's life, after. He was released in 1973 and lived peaceably and independently. He had a job and a girlfriend. He and I became great friends in the 1980s and ‘90s, especially when I was in grad school. We shared an interest in things Russian. And he was the eldest, he remembered the most about Russia and WWII and the 5 years in the DP camp in Germany. And he didn't mind talking about any of it. He had a great memory: I phoned him once, from a small town in Russia where I was doing genealogical research, and he called up a thirty-year old memory of an address! He was a kind, sweet, intelligent man, and one of the cheerleaders of my life. He died in 1996.

The research could go on forever, probably. Court records, hospital records. This involves tangling with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Which I do, on and off, as I have the time, money, and energy. (The public mental health lawyers in Massachusetts are swamped, btw. Again. Another half-dozen inmates have died at Bridgewater within the last two years or so.) And then there are newspapers and institutional histories. Russian, war, Germany stuff. Film stuff. Titicut is like The Federalist Papers, for film studies types. Interpretation goes on forever.

So, what did I find out today that makes me wonder if I can actually finish this project? Two bits:

I already knew, of course, that the ethics and practices of many of the medical professionals at Bridgewater were questionable. It can be hard to suss that out, actually, what is the state of medical thinking at the time, and what is plain bad medicine, even for the time.

And I already knew that many of the medical staff at Bridgewater were foreigners. You can catch that in the film. (Though you might fail to note the fact that Vore’s doctor was a Pole. The importance of that might be lost on you, but it wasn’t lost on Vore and the psychiatrist, I assure you.)

What I didn’t know, however, is that many of those doctors were NOT YET FULLY LICENSED in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. So put the two together: Licensing tests not taken and passed. And many were emigres, coming out of the mess that was Europe in the 1940s and 50s. How accurate do you think the documentation and background checks were? I always assumed the doctors weren’t the best and the brightest. But the sources I saw today suggest that Bridgewater was lax in the extreme when it came to credentials. And it never occurred to me until today that some of them might not have really been doctors at all.

And I already sort-of knew that Vore had tried to negotiate over his consent to be in the film, that he tried to trade it for release back to the prison population. And I thought I'd read somewhere that when that was denied, he asked for deportation. To Russia. But that was confirmed for me today, in his own words. And I wonder: Just how desperate does a man have to be to request that? He was no dummy, he didn't have any illusions about the Soviet Union. His own father had had plenty of trouble, for the crime of being of "rich" peasant. His own grandfather had died in the Ukranian famine. Forget the chances of his request being granted, and consider what he was requesting. If they'd have sent him back, he'd have been very unlikely to survive in Russia. He might have ended up in Siberia, with a little luck. And he would have known that. But he apparently thought his chances were better there.

I know. It’s history. It was a long time ago. But he was my uncle. He was utterly alone in that world. And nobody could help him.


  1. Fascinating. Thank you for sharing.

  2. It is an amazing story, and I'm really wanting to hear more about it. Soon. Not that I'm in a rush, mind you. As you know, I have an interest in the history of the treatment of mental illness. So I'll be hanging around, discreetly, just waiting to hear more.

    Or not discreetly. Hard to tell with me.

  3. Hello,
    I came upon the story of your uncle while I was watching "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." It's late here on the west coast when I came across this story, and I am doubtful I will find sleep approaching soon as your uncles' story is weighing heavy on my mind. I would be very interested in learning more about your story and hope that you will continue to publish on your blog.

    Thank You

    1. Hi Charlotte. Thanks so much for the comment. I can barely watch Cuckoo's Nest, it just breaks my heart. If you haven't seen Titicut Follies, I do recommend it. (Though to be warned, I think it's much tougher to take than Cuckoo's Nest, even if you don't know any of the people in it.) I try to remember to be grateful to Wiseman for what he did in making the documentary (that piece got some social workers in MA on my uncle's side, and they helped him), when I watch it, and it helps me a lot.

  4. I am a former inmate of MCI BRIGHWATER.The prison across the street from the state hospital.I have many demons to deal with.I hope your uncle sleeps with the angels

    1. Thank you for the comment, Tommy. I can only imagine what you struggle with. And I do believe that if there is a better place up there, my uncle is there.

  5. I am a former inmate of MCI BRIGHWATER.The prison across the street from the state hospital.I have many demons to deal with.I hope your uncle sleeps with the angels

  6. Out of curiosity, why do you call him "Sam" Wiseman?


Please be honest! Let me know what you think. I don't want to devote a bunch of time to a dud!