Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, N.C.
View of Central Building, Highland Hospital, a psychiatric hospital founded in 1904 in Asheville, N.C.
My name is Evalina Toussaint, a romantic name, is it not? A courtesan’s name—which, under the circumstances, was fitting, though not—never!—for me, myself, a slight ratty sort of child with flyaway hair and enormous pale eyes that made everyone uncomfortable. Yet I was always my mother’s child, through and through. My mother’s beloved child, her only child, her helpful “little right hand,” as she called me.
My mother, Louise Toussaint, was beautiful, and kind, and I loved her with all my heart. My childhood was spent in our tiny apartment upstairs over the Bijou on the rue Dauphine, in New Orleans’ French Quarter. I remember the shimmering curtains that swelled in the breeze and billowed to pools on the floor, and the enormous mahogany and red velvet divan, which floated like a boat above the old Persian rug. I could see myself, that funny little girl perched upon this great ship, in the huge gilt mirror that covered the wall across from it.
My first actual memory is of holding myself up in my bed by the fancy grillework at the open window, looking out at the flashing red neon lights across the way: GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS. I fell asleep every evening in their rosy glow, to the shouts and laughter of the streets below, and even in the deepest night, to the rich, round notes of saxophone or trumpet floating out on the air and the clip clop clop of a horse down the cobbled stones and sometimes, a woman’s high-pitched laughter. Often I woke to find that Mamma had dropped into bed with me, still fully dressed and exhausted when she came in towards dawn to kiss me goodnight.
On Sundays I was dressed in white organdie and given a dime for the beggar before we walked the little streets through the Quarter and crossed the cobbled square to the grand cathedral. Everyone we passed knew Mamma and tipped their hats or bowed or said hello, greetings which she returned as graciously as a queen. I gave my dime to the legless man on the wide stone steps at the corner of Pirates Alley just before we entered the cavernous chill of St. Louis where I loved the candles burning in their shrines along the sides, the continual chant and murmur of the prayers, the smell of incense burning and the constant movement throughout—the shuffle of feet, the rise and fall as people knelt to pray and rise again to sing, the high, thin sacred songs. I loved the statues of the saints, which often looked like my mother, for she had a ripeness and a paleness and a stillness about her, though she was puffier and softer, like the cotton candy sold outside in Jackson Square or one of the angels floating high overhead in the dome.
Mamma was an angel, filled with love, always laughing in those early days in the apartment on the rue Dauphine. No wonder everyone loved her, not only me. Flowers and billets-doux were always arriving, brought up the tiny back stair by the hunchback Georges from the Bijou, for no one was to know where we lived. Georges’ wife Anna stayed with me at night until I fell asleep, and I went to school to the nuns in the daytime. I loved that, too.
After school I did my homework and played downstairs in the Bijou bar while Mamma slept; often I helped take care of the other, smaller children. It was here that I first learned to play the piano from Mojo, a negro boy not much older than myself who would later become famous. I sat on a stool beside him and did exactly what he did, in octaves, and soon I was playing by ear. This amused even Joey, who was the boss of everything, and Anna and Georges and all those others who were so kind to me.
Gentlemen never came to our apartment when I was present, though once I found a hundred dollar bill in the sugar bowl as I was carefully fixing Mamma her customary cup of tea in the late afternoon, and another time, I found a gentleman’s diamond stud on the carpet. It was only the two of us, Mamma and myself, and our cats Fleur and Madame.
So it went until, as she put it, “Arthur Graves fell in love with us”—and she with him.
Suddenly there were carriage rides and pleasure boat trips and new dresses for me and diamonds and shoes for Mamma, who was so happy then that she gave off light like the sun. I am not exaggerating. She glowed during the courtship of Arthur Graves. I liked him, too. Though he was a rich and powerful man, a cotton broker with a grand house in the Garden District and offices that took up an entire building on the river, he seemed truly kind, bending down from his great height to ask me how the nuns were and what I had done in school that day. He brought me a pink glass necklace and a tiny leather book named Poems for Children which included “Jabberwocky,” my favorite.
Mr. Graves was not present, however, on the day the big truck came with the men who packed up all our things while Mamma stood down on the sidewalk looking suddenly small and hugging the girls and Anna and Georges and me, and then we got into the waiting taxi which took us to our very own house out in Metairie, near the canal. It was a long hot ride in the taxi. By the end of it, I felt that we had indeed come to a different country. The yellow-painted frame house had a nice little grassy yard enclosed by a flowering hedge and a picket fence. A sidewalk ran down the shaded street past other, similar houses. It was quiet, so quiet, and the spaces between the houses seemed huge to me. The sky seemed huge, too, hugely blue and distant. I felt loose in the world, no longer cradled by the close Quarter. Our beautiful things from the apartment were carried inside the yellow house, where they looked tatty and odd and out of place. Pictures of people we didn’t know, with fat faces, hung on the walls.
Mamma and I spent that entire first afternoon trying to find our orange cat, Madame, who had run out the door of the yellow house as the men carried the divan inside. We scoured the leafy streets, but we never saw Madame again. At dusk, people came out to sit in their little yards, and finally Mr. Arthur Graves arrived in his long black car, bringing Matilda Bloom, who would take care of us and the new baby.
This was the first I had heard of the new baby.
Mamma ran out the little stone walk to greet them at the gate. “Oh Arthur,” she said, clinging to him, “this is just perfect!” Then she burst into tears, as all the neighbors looked on with interest.
“Come on, honey,” Matilda said, putting her heavy arm around my shoulders. “Now you must show Matilda everything.”
I came to love Matilda, who loved me, I believe, though she did not love Mamma after a time. After Michael was born, so small and blue, he could not breathe properly. Mamma wept all the time and quarreled with Mr. Graves.
Mamma took the baby from doctor to doctor to doctor. She wore a dark blue suit, and a little round hat, and did not look or act anything at all like herself. I considered Michael to be my own little doll and spent as much time as possible holding him. I was as good as Matilda at swabbing the mucus from his nose. As time passed, he did grow, a bit. He smiled and sat up, but his breathing was horrible, the breathing of an old man. His eyes were pale but bright blue, opaque, like robins’ eggs. I adored him. But Mamma was weepy, and spent her time playing solitaire or visiting with her girlfriends who came out bringing cigarettes and gin and scandal sheets, trying to make her smile. Then there was an argument with Mr. Graves, and the girls did not come any more. Mr. Graves sent Mamma, Anna, and Michael away on a train to Birmingham, Alabama, to see a famous specialist, who could do nothing. I missed them terribly. I was so happy when at last they came back, and once again Michael’s breathing filled our tiny house.
Mamma wept or stared into space or played solitaire while Matilda bustled around taking care of us all. “You gots to buck up now,” she told Mamma. “You gots to put on your pretty face for him now,” which Mamma could not do. Mr. Graves came to visit less often, though Joey, from the Bijou, began to appear frequently, bringing Mamma the opium which she required by then, and I knew it, and said nothing, and neither did Matilda. “Honey, honey,” Matilda said to me, walking me to school where, as always, I did extremely well.
Then one day I came home to find that Michael was gone, just gone, along with his cradle and all his tiny clothes.
Next I remember standing by myself in the vast cemetery to watch a man place his little blue coffin in a concrete tomb above the ground in that veritable city of the dead, beneath a steady drizzle. Mr. Graves and Matilda were holding Mamma up, one on either side of her; she wore the suit she had worn to Birmingham. They half-carried her back to the car. I stopped to pluck a white flower from a wreath on one of the adjoining graves, then kissed it and put it down on the rounded top of Michael’s small tomb. I turned back to see with alarm that Mr. Graves’ black car was already pulling out, its red back lights visible in the rain. They had forgotten me. I had to run after the car, and pound on the door to be admitted.
For me, the gray drizzle of that terrible morning was to continue without letup, darkening and obscuring what was to follow, as if it all took place behind one of those filmy curtains which used to billow in our windows on the rue Dauphine. Mr. Graves did not come to our house again. Joey came and went. Matilda moved out. Mamma lay upon the divan in a listless state, eating opium. I went to the nuns as before, but now there were bad people in and out of our house, people we had not known before, and when I came home from school, I had to do everything, even wash Mamma off sometimes, and clean up certain messes. I never told the nuns any of this.
On January 20, 1937, I came home from school to find that Mamma had slit her wrists with the silver penknife, which she had used to open billets-doux. Blood was everywhere, soaking her legs and the pretty afghan. It had a certain smell. I will never forget it. I put down my books and took off my coat and climbed up beside her on the great divan and curled into her back the way we used to sleep sometimes, two girls together, and made believe that we were on a ship indeed, sailing down the narrow streets of the Quarter out into the great Mississippi River and far, far away.
What happened next is the strangest and most implausible chapter of my life.
I had been placed at the Catholic orphanage on the rue Ursulines but had spent only a few days there when Mr. Graves arrived in his long, black car. Apparently he had undergone some sort of religious conversion accompanied by grand remorse and a change of heart. He had come for me; he would take me now. He would give me every advantage: an education, a home, a family.
“What family?” asked the nuns.
“Why, his, of course.”
His? I had never met any of his family, not one. In fact, he had never mentioned them. I remembered the pink mansion with the high wall around it which took up an entire block of the Garden District. It even had a name: “Bellefleur.” Mamma and I had ridden past it once in a carriage, just to look. I did not want to go there.
Nevertheless I found myself inside that mansion within an hour’s time, meeting Mrs. Graves, a tall, thin woman drawn tight as the string of a bow, and a row of children, three round-eyed boys and a girl who looked like her mother. Two more boys were already away at college. This was to be my new family They glared at me, and dispersed.
The house itself was ancient, its vast public rooms on the scale of a government building, filled with sculpture and tapestries and silver. Marble columns stood everywhere. I was shown to a fancy little blue bedroom on the third floor, with a puffy bed filled with embroidered pillows and a curvy painted desk in the corner—all my life, I had wanted my own desk. I had dreamed of it. Immediately I lay down upon the pretty bed and fell into a profound sleep, which lasted until dinnertime, when the Graves’ daughter, Alicia, was sent to bring me down.
“How old are you?” I asked as we walked down the three-story spiral staircase, “and where do you go to school?”
“You don’t need to know,” Alicia said, rounding the first great turn at the landing.
“I beg your pardon.” I stopped and looked down at her.
“We don’t have to get to know each other,” she explained. “My father has had a nervous breakdown, that’s all. Everyone says so. He has made some rash decisions, and you are one of them. You won’t last.”
“I see,” I said, though I doubt she heard me, disappearing down the stairs.
I was unable to eat a single bite at that immense table, though I was served many choices of wonderful food which I pushed around on my plate with the heavy silverware. I answered the questions asked me, mostly questions about school, and recited “The Spider and the Fly” in its entirety. Mrs. Graves rolled her eyes again, at this, while Miss Ella, the maiden aunt seated to my right, patted my hand kindly. She wore a ring on every fleshy finger, and lived there, too. After dinner we all went into the music room where I played the “Maple Leaf Rag” on the grand piano.
Later, rice pudding was brought to my room, but I could not eat that either. I ate scarcely a bite the entire time I stayed in that house. I am still not quite sure why this was so, though Dr. Carroll and I were to have many interesting discussions about this phenomenon once I reached Highland Hospital. As I was already a child with no fat to spare, my condition soon became serious. I grew light-headed and very tired, then weak and confused.
Once I awoke to see Mamma sitting in the wing chair by the window of my little blue room, holding my baby brother Michael on her knees. “Oh Mamma,” I said in a rush, “I am such a bad girl, I didn’t help you, it is all my fault.” The minute I said this, I knew it was true, and I believe it absolutely, to this day. I should have told somebody, anybody—the nuns, the police, anybody who would have come and taken Mamma out of that house and put her into a hospital. I could have saved her life and did not. Mamma looked up at me and smiled, in the old way, before she and Michael began to fade. “Don’t go! Don’t go!” I guess I was screaming, for people ran into the room.
“She’s got to eat.” I remember Mrs. Graves saying at one point. “She can’t do this to us.” Force-feeding was tried, disastrously, by a physician who came to the house, with a male assistant to help him. After they left, I burned my arm with matches I stole from the pantry.
Before I knew it, they were packing up my few belongings into a small leather suitcase provided by Miss Ella, who was to accompany me on the train to Memphis, where I would be met by a trained nurse who would take me on to Highland Hospital, in Asheville, North Carolina. I remembered that the Graves owned a summer home somewhere in North Carolina; perhaps this was how they had known about Highland.
At the station, several of the Graves’ servants helped us onto the train, which reminded me of a giant stallion, stamping and snorting on the track. I was filled with excitement, never having been on a train before. Wrapped in a shawl, I settled into a seat by the window of our private compartment. The engine roared, the whistle blew, and we were underway.
A porter came through the car to take our tickets and then another man came through with a tray of food.
Suddenly I was ravenous. “Please, ma’am,” I said to Miss Ella, for of course I had no money. “Please ma’am, a muffaletta.”
“What?” Her eyebrows shot up as she dashed out after the man, coming back with two of the big sandwiches, which we ate with delight right there in our compartment, each bite bringing me back to the tastes and smells and sounds of the Quarter. How I enjoyed that muffaletta! Later the curtain of our compartment was pulled shut; we slept.
In Memphis, Miss Ella hugged me and gave me over to Mrs. Hodges, the large Scottish nurse who stood waiting on the platform, wearing a plaid cape. “Come right along, then,” she said, grabbing my bag. “We’ve just enough time to make it!”
We flew down the platform through the large grand echoing station and then down another platform to board another steaming, clamorous train. I slept a great deal during the rest of the journey. Mrs. Hodges kept a watchful eye upon me while knitting constantly, some mammoth thing large enough to fit a giant.
“For my husband,” she announced. “He’s a big one!” We changed trains in the middle of the night.
It was cold in Asheville that early morning of our arrival, yet the air was sparkling, sharp and clean, shot through with sunshine and smelling of pine. Asheville was a city at the bottom of a blue bowl of mountains. Some of them were truly enormous, their tops obscured by clouds. We got into a waiting car which bore us through the bustling downtown past large buildings and spacious parks, up a wide fancy street named Montford Avenue. We passed many big square houses with well-kept yards. It was a style unfamiliar to me. A uniformed maid was out sweeping a spotless sidewalk.
“Who lives here?” I asked.
Mrs. Hodges said succinctly, “Rich people.”
“Do they live here all the time or just in the summer?” I asked, thinking of Mrs. Graves. I was sure she was the one who had sent me on this long journey.
“Depends.” She tied off a knot of yarn. “There’s many comes up in the summer, for the climate, don’t you know, and others comes for the society, and still yet others that comes for their health. Oh, we are famous for it.” She amplified in answer to my glance. “They come here for the tuberculosis, for the vapors, the rheumatism, the aches and pains, and the alcohol, don’t you know. Why there’s more clinics than you can shake a stick at, it’s a regular industry.”
Suddenly it hit me: I was going to a mental institution. Highland Hospital was a mental institution. I would be a mental patient. Would they lock me up? Would they put me in a cage? I remembered the wild-haired people high up behind the bars in the old Public Health Hospital on State Street in New Orleans. I was terrified.
As if she could read my mind, Mrs. Hodges patted my hand. “Now, now,” she said. “You’ll be fine here. We’re a bit different.”
“What do you mean, different?” I asked as we went through a handsome stone gate and passed the modest sign which read simply, “Highland Hospital.”
“Like a family,” she said. “You’ll see.”
I rolled the window down and hung my head out to breathe in the piney, crystal-cold air and get a better view of the beautiful grounds, which looked more like a park than anything else. The gentle slope gave way to a wild ravine on the right-hand side. A grassy hill to the left was topped by a cluster of buildings that resembled a resort, such as I had seen only in pictures. Though winter had scarcely released her grip upon these high mountains, here and there a blooming tree — redbud, dogwood — was already to be seen. Stone walls accentuated the landscape, but there were no fences, no locked gates. Driving slowly along the paved road up the slope, we encountered several groups of vigorous-looking people; most of them waved at me, and I waved back.
“Our Dr. C believes in exercise,” Mrs. Hodges said. “He gets them walking, all of them, five miles a day. This is the cornerstone of his philosophy.”
“But what if they don’t want to walk?” I asked. I had never seen anyone walk for pleasure, or even exercise, myself. I had thought walking was for poor people.
“Oh, they change their tune soon enough!” She laughed heartily.
I found this vaguely ominous and determined never to walk, myself. We passed a solitary hiker, then a pair, then another group. “Can they just go anywhere like that?” I asked. “Anywhere they want? What if they run away?”
“Oh, they’ll come back, like as not,” was the mysterious reply. “Besides, those are staff members you’re looking at there, almost half of them.”
Though I hung my head out the window, staring rudely, I could not tell the difference.
“Exercise, diet, and keeping busy—hat’s the ticket!” boomed Mrs. Hodges from inside the car. We were passing a huge and very unusual building on our left which featured turrets and towers and even a crenellated battlement, as in Jane Eyre. “That there is Homewood, the residence of Dr. and Mrs. Carroll themselves,” she announced.
“It looks like a castle,” I said.
“No, no, you’ll see—it’s also for music, and dances and games, and arts and crafts. You’ll have your classes there, too. They keep the children quite busy—you’ll see.”
I was relieved to learn that there would be school, for I loved it so.
“But where are the children?” I asked. “I don’t see any other children.”
“In the schoolroom, I daresay,” Mrs. Hodges said cheerfully. “Dr. C always takes on a few, if he is interested in the case.”
“Is he interested in my case, then?” I asked.
“Well, he must be, wouldn’t you think? Or you wouldn’t be here, now would you?”
I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to think, having no say in anything. But both these ideas —that anyone might be interested in me, and that I was a “case”—astonished me. And Highland Hospital seemed a strange place indeed, an opinion borne out by the sight. On the steep slope to our left, several men were climbing up and down a rugged hill again and again, with looks of forced determination upon their faces, while two others sat on a stone bench watching. One of these made notes on a pad of paper.
“Oh now, that’s a famous exercise devised by Dr. C, who sets a different goal for each one, higher and higher,” said Mrs. Hodges.
“But why do they do it?” I asked, for they were getting nowhere—over and over.
“Dr. C calls this an exercise in reality, to prepare them for their return to everyday life.”
This seemed silly to me, but I sensed that I had better hold my tongue.
Now we approached the grassy, open top of the mountain with its impressive buildings surrounded by gardens and shrubbery.
“That’s Highland Hall,” Mrs. Hodges said, indicating a huge Georgian colonial with many verandas. “Offices on the first floor, patients’ rooms upstairs. Next is Central Building, that’s where the women patients live, and the assembly hall, and more offices and treatment rooms, and, of course, the kitchen and the dining hall. The dining hall’s quite lovely—you’ll see. Oak Lodge over there, that’s for the men.”
She pointed out other, smaller structures as we came to a rolling stop before Highland Hall, where a tall, well-dressed man stood under the portico, shading his eyes to watch our arrival.
Instinctively I knew that this must be Dr. Carroll. He walked forward to open my door in a courtly manner while our driver came around to assist Mrs. Hodges.
“So,” Dr. Carroll said gravely. “Evalina. Welcome to Highland Hospital. You have had a long journey.”
“I am not crazy,” I said. “I am not a case.”
“No,” he said gravely. “But you have been through a lot. You are much too thin, and troubled, and very sad. I believe we can help you. We shall give you a place to grow up a bit, and keep you safe. Soon you will feel better,” he promised.
“I doubt it,” I said.
“Well, we shall see. Let us try.” Dr. Carroll had a nice smile though he was a homely, awkward man, with jug ears and a big nose and gold-rimmed glasses. He held out a hand, which was surprisingly hard. It was more like a workingman’s hand than a doctor’s. He must participate in these physical programs himself, I thought. He held my hand a long time, patting it as if it were a small wild animal. This was oddly calming. “Wait a bit, Margaret,” he said to Mrs. Hodges.
“My wife would like to welcome you, too,” he said to me. “Come in.” He opened the ornate door and led me through the wide entrance hall with its stained glass windows to the panelled drawing room on the right where a beautiful blonde-haired woman sat in a cozy chair by the fireplace, reading a book.
She looked up and smiled. “Evalina.” She rose gracefully, closing the book. She was very tall. “It is such a pleasure to have you here. I, too, am a pianist.” In fact, a gleaming spinet piano stood in the corner of that room.
“Allow me to introduce my wife, the world-renowned concert pianist Grace Potter Carroll,” he said with a smile.
“You exaggerate, my dear.” She smiled at him, and winked at me. “But I am a piano teacher as well, and I am hoping that we may work together, you and I, after a bit, when you are settled. Would you like that? “
“No,” I said, for I did not deserve this good fortune, which seemed to me like a dream come true. I deserved punishment, disaster, death. “Anyway,” I said, “I thought this was a mental institution.”
“It is,” Mrs. Carroll said. “It is also our home.”
At that moment I realized that I had no home at all, no place to go back to in New Orleans or anywhere else in the world. Would I have to live in this fancy mental institution, forever?
“I am not crazy!” I screamed at Mrs. Carroll, my loud angry words immediately absorbed into the drawing room‘s thick rug and soft furniture.
“Why are you here, then?” Dr. Carroll asked with interest, while his wife continued to smile as if my behavior were completely normal.
“Because I killed my mother,” I said.
At this, Mrs. Carroll knelt suddenly, unexpectedly, before me, taking my chin firmly in her fingers. “I’m sure that is not true,” she said. “Now, can you read music?”
“No,” I said.
“Ah,” she said, standing back up. “We have a starting point.”
Mrs. Hodges sat waiting for me on a bench in the entrance hall, my suitcase at her feet.
“Quite the pet, aren’t you?” she said acidly after Dr. Carroll shook my hand and turned to leave. She put away her knitting and stood up.
“Am I?” I felt dazed, and dizzy again.
“Now, now, pay no attention to me,” she said. “It’s high time you had some care, if I am any judge, so come along, this way. Let’s go ‘round back, where your dormitory is.”
The sun seemed too strong for me suddenly, the grass too green, the blooming forsythia too bright. Yet I followed obediently, or tried to. People streamed down the hill behind Highland Hall toward a wooded area where I could barely see a rustic building set deep in the forest, and then a long sunny stretch of bare ground.
“Brushwood.” Mrs. Hodges jerked her thumb in that gesture I had grown accustomed to. “This is where they do all the gardening, hours of it, every day, all year round, mind you. You’ll see. That there’s the greenhouse, back in there. Oh, Mr. C is nuts about it, digging in the earth, mind you.”
Now I could tell that there was, indeed, something wrong with many of these people. Several spoke to themselves as they came up the path, while others hung their heads, looking neither left nor right. Harsh words of an argument came from behind a boxwood hedge. We reached the end of it in time to see an athletic-looking man, whom I took to be a staff member, walk away from a woman seated on a boulder. She was smoking a cigarette and swinging her foot disgustedly against the rock. Oddly—for it was still winter—she wore black tights and ballet slippers.
At that time, Mrs. Fitzgerald was quite mad. She had been a patient at Highland Hospital for almost a year. Mr. Fitzgerald moved her there in desperation from Sheppard-Pratt in Baltimore, following stays at other clinics. My first view of her is as clear to me today as it was then—etched in my brain as if by acid. It is that stare, that darkening stare of such intensity, of hatred, even, while a silly, little smile bearing no relation to it plays about her mouth. The combination of these two expressions is terrifying. She begins to speak rapidly under her breath, but those dark eyes do not change or waver, bearing down upon me.
Somehow the phrase “avenging angel” comes into my mind, though she is a very dark angel, indeed. I am filled with fear. I feel as if I have been found out somehow, as if I am being judged. Somehow, even in her madness, I feel that she recognizes me. That she knows me. I cannot explain this.
Now I realize that this was all nonsense, her behavior surfacing from that deep turbulent well of psychosis where no meaning resides. But at the time, I could not move, transfixed by her ferocious gaze and weakened, I suppose, by hunger. I had a vivid, intense impression of bright flowers and blue sky, sunlight and piney air, before my own vision grew dark as hers and I fell to the ground, insensible.
About the author
Lee Smith is the author of 15 works of fiction including Oral History, Fair and Tender Ladies, and her recent On Agate Hill. Her novel The Last Girls was a 2002 New York Times bestseller as well as winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. A retired professor of English at North Carolina State University, she has received many awards including the North Carolina Award for Literature and an Academy Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her forthcoming collection of new and selected stories, Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, will be published in March 2010.