Education Unit, Fountain House
A 63-year old organization, Fountain House has a rich archive. For several months, I’ve been organizing and cataloguing these old documents and photographs in a database. I want to share a letter that predates even our formal beginnings as the W.A.N.A.Society. It's from a former Rockland State patient whose idea it was to create the W.A.N.A Society in the first place.
First, let me offer you some context.
Dr. Hiram Johnson was a psychiatrist who worked at Rockland State Hospital in 1942 and was interested in self-help models of treatment. He was invested in connecting patients to one another to cultivate friendships between people who had similar problems, could understand each other, and could form a support network after leaving the hospital.
Elizabeth Kerr Schermerhorn was a woman of privilege who became interested in psychology and studied with Carl Jung. She had her own theories about treating mental illness, and in 1942 she took a job at Rockland State Hospital as a Psychiatric Aide. She held a strong belief that there could be an integration of people with mental illness with people in so-called “normal society.”
I don’t know exactly how the work of Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Schermerhorn was sparked, but it really is the furthest back that you can trace the roots of the group we call the origins of Fountain House. Out of their efforts came something very, very simple that would lead to something very, very big.
This simple something was known plainly as “Self Help.” It was a small group of Dr. Johnson’s patients that started meeting in 1943 at Rockland State. It was inspired by the principle that motives, processes and needs basic to human beings outside of the hospital, also pertain to people inside the hospital. There aren’t many descriptions of this group, but one describes ten or so patients meeting in the hospital for activities like reading, singing, painting and discussions. Another recounts that Dr. Johnson sometimes gave lectures and that the group tried to put together a magazine.
Unfortunately, because of illness, Mrs. Schermerhorn had to leave her position at Rockland State in the summer of 1943, but many patients stayed in contact with her. This is where Michael Obolensky’s letter comes in. Michael Obolensky was a patient of Dr. Johnson’s at Rockland State and was also one of the first members of the group "Self Help.” On November 11th, 1943, he wrote to Mrs. Schermerhorn.
In the beginning of the letter he mentions “Self Help" and states that the group had helped him, and he knew it had helped others, regardless of fights they had often gotten into. He writes about his desire to be psycho-analyzed and says that he would be endlessly grateful if it could be arranged because he feels that, if someone got at the root of his illness, he would no longer have to return to Rockland “for which,” he writes, “believe me I have not the slightest desire.”
He tells Mrs. Schermerhorn about his life after getting out of the hospital; he returned to work at the same laboratory where he had worked before he was hospitalized. He made $30 a week working for 40 hours, and he rented a small room for $3.75 a week. He also mentions his family.
At one point in the letter he says that he wishes to have a heart to heart; he particularly wants to talk to her about his idea to organize a new group outside the hospital based on “Self Help.” He describes this association of former grads of Rockland as an annex of the society for improving conditions within hospitals of mental hygiene.
I find this letter to be important, because it goes back as far as you can in terms of Fountain House’s origins - a group of people gathering together as a community. Being a community is obviously one of the main threads that hold Fountain House together today. The other thing I like about going back to this letter is seeing how the original hospital group, combined with Michael's idea of establishing a group outside the doors of Rockland State, led to the W.A.N.A Society. Although W.A.N.A. ended up having a very different purpose than what Michael originally proposed, I think it was just as important and may have been what he really wanted in the first place.
I think Michael may have been held down by the fear of recurrence of his illness and, as a result, wasn’t daring to dream big enough. I do think that Michael sincerely cared about improving conditions in hospitals, but he also makes it clear that, in a perfect world, he would rather not be hospitalized in the first place, and I’m sure he wishes the same for his peers. The W.A.N.A. Society, eventually Fountain House, was that source that helped to keep people out of hospitals. In fact, later studies that I’ve read in the archives demonstrate that the clubhouse model not only lowered the number, but also the length, of hospital stays.
Michael, like most of us here at Fountain House, was trying to move on with his life after being released from the hospital. He was trying to live independently, work, and maintain ties with family and friends - things that those of us who struggle with mental illness are still doing today. However, unlike those of us in the present day who are lucky enough to have a place like Fountain House to go to, he had nowhere to turn. Michael was so desperate to find this place that he led the way, along with others, to create it from the ground up.