COLD STORAGE tells in brutal blacks, blues, and institutional grays the horror of the Farview Hospital for the Criminally Insane in the hills of Wayne Country, Pa., where patients were condemned to therapy worse than life. With white-knuckled intensity Wendell Rawls confronts the nightmarish facts: sadistic "care," beatings, druggings, and homosexual rapes that often end in murder, psychological counseling that rarely extends beyond "You're just as crazy as a shithouse rat."
Farview is no hospital; instead it's a cruel hell of a prison. Those the courts commit to Farview Hospital for treatment must face the twisted brutality of guards who work persistently to break patients down, their object always to reduce them to pathetic, easy-to-manage shells, weak, rattling bags of bones, soft, flabby masses of obedient matter. An the care always amounted to total fear and control. One of the guards explains that "Fear kept them in line...Keep them looking over their shoulder for that boot and they don't think of much mischief. That was treatment."
Here guards and administrators steal money and food from patients, allowing some patients to run their own corrupt businesses, while beating others incessantly. They stage human cockfights for amusement and blackmail their patient-slaves into cruel homosexual and sadistic acts. Perversely pushing and taunting their victims to the limit of their endurance, the guards would wait till their victims lashed out, only to be "kicked and stomped" to jellied unconsciousness or pumped full of a zombie's dosage of Thorazine or Mellaril. Medication to keep them out of the way, out of sight and out of mind; under control.
....They were simply laboring under the effects of massive doses of Thorazine...The guards liked it better for them to crawl under a bench or lie on a bench rather than to have them stiffleggedly joggling around the ward, tongues protruding from drooling mouths. The ones under the benches were out from under foot and did not bump into other patients and cause disturbances. They did not talk, so they were not difficult to understand. They were out...As soon as a man started causing trouble, the guards started giving medication.
They always found how much it required to drive a troublemaker to the floor.
These conditions persisted from at least the fifties until the summer of 1976 when Rawls and another reporter, Acel Moore, published a series of articles about Farview in the Philadelphia Inquirer based on extensive interviews with patients, former patients, relatives of murdered patients, guards, former guards, doctors, social workers, and bureaucrats connected with the hospital. The shocking articles led to major investigations, several indictments of guards for murder and many others for other crimes, the dismissal of doctors, a general cleanup of Farview, and a 1977 Pulitzer Prize for Rawls and Moore. Cold Storage is the record of this research and reporting.
The problem with the book is that it reaches the hell of its truth from two conflicting angles; journalistically, it's far from credible. Cold Storage is both expose and novel. Rawls' technique, though coldly efficient at conveying the haunting horror of Farview hospital, from time to time is hard to believe. Could Rawls possible document what he has written? Where does he get sources for the continuous, highly detailed and realistic telling of the words and deepest thoughts of his characters; patients, former patients, dead patients, guards and doctors in the wards during the mid-seventies?
In his prologue Rawls explains:
I have recreated some scenes and have written about people's thoughts and feelings. The scenes are based on factual accounts of what actually occured, and the thoughts and feelings were expressed or described by former guards, patients, and relations of murdered patients...For me this was necessary in order to take the reader behind the brick walls and barred windows and into the minds of those who lived and died inside Farview.
But this seems a little shaky, considering the story moves in long streams of consciousness recounted by various characters minute detail. How does he propose to document everything he says, or even some of what he says, in a book that resides almost entirely within the minds of its characters? And how does he learn of the thoughts and images spinning in the brain of a character whose mind we share as he dies in total isolation?
Nevertheless, the-book-as-novel is convincing. The story moves through the grim and grotesque too quickly to think much about credibility. The narrative is powerfully direct, painfully simple, and only rarely heavy-handed. With steely-eyed, unflinching confidence Rawls sets it out with little moralizing and less existentialism--and it burns. There is a macabre concentration on the horror, the strange, spell-binding discovery of some of the inhumane dark places of our humanity. Cold Storage is a grim, intensely-created thing, focusing with iron nerves on subjects we don't want to know about.
As the book unfolds we begin to see that Farview is no isolated, bizarre aberration, but a very symptomatic reminder of society's ability to be casually jaded and normally self-centered and perpetuate the terrible excesses of Farview. The brutality of guards to patients is, Rawls implies, only the central, most immediate and intense expression of the dehumanization of relations that casts a shadow over the achievements of the modern world. The callousness of boots and straps and syringes extends into our normal world, in concentric circles of insensitivity, to the administrators, the local citizens, the politicians, and the press who ignored the whispers of truth about Farview.
Though many steps were taken to correct the horrors of Farview, it was not shut down. A few patients still remain there, though most were transferred out, and despite damning court evidence, most of the prosecutor's cases were dropped after widespread public pressure to let the hospital continue its normal operation.
Sickened, disbelieving, yet still we cannot shake a vague guilt, in the back of our minds behind the liberality and self-righteousness, a suspicion that in some way we are implicated.
...he saw that some patients were regularly, constantly abused, while others seemed to be left virtually alone, almost ignored. He saw that some men had everything, even their most insignificant possessions, stolen from them while others were stealing at will and getting away with it. While some had no cigarettes or candy, others had plenty of both to sell, trade, or give away. Yancey decided that although life inside the hospital was meaner, more frightening, more brutal, and more dangerous, otherwise it was just like life outside.
Rawls' book becomes a hallucination of modern life's ills distorted by the horror of Fairview into a warning against casual, daily insensitivity. For we see how easy it is for people, and for the "system," to become desensitized, to leave places in life like Farview hidden and forgotten.
In this way Cold Storage brushes aside "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," rushing to the center of our minds and burning there a reminder of our capacity for evil and neglect. We see that we have the capacity to put people in cold storage--out of sight and out of mind.