The following is an excerpt from The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought To You By Pop Culture by longtime A.V. Club Head Writer Nathan Rabin. In each chapter of The Big Rewind, Rabin uses a book, song, movie, album, or television show as a springboard to discuss a period in his life. Published by Scribner, The Big Rewind hits stores today.
¡El Pollo Loco, él es el hombre!
Cold Chillin’ at the Nuthouse
In a world of convenient fictions and reassuring lies, we’re irrevocably drawn to art that tells the truth. Girl, Interrupted—Susanna Kaysen’s haunting memoir of her stint in McLeans Hospital, a famous psychiatric institution that housed Ray Charles, James Taylor, and Sylvia Plath—bears powerful witness to the way mental hospitals have become dispiriting holding pens for nonconformists.
Reading Girl, Interrupted the first time around, I felt like Kaysen was telling my story through her own. That’s what great art does: it makes the personal universal. Rereading Girl, Interrupted on a long, sleepless seventeen-hour train ride to D.C. to visit my sister for Thanksgiving, I was struck by how unexpectedly funny Girl, Interrupted is. I guess you have to have a sense of humor in a mental hospital, or you’ll fucking go crazy.
I was similarly struck by its rambling, discursive structure. In lieu of a strong central narrative, Girl, Interrupted offers vivid fragments, evocative snippets of time and place and atmosphere, fleeting remembrances retrieved a split second before they vanished into the ether, lost forever.
There is a delicate minimalism to Kaysen’s memoir that’s quietly heartbreaking. Unlike a certain jackass, she didn’t feel the need to water down the experience with cheap wisecracks. No, she delivers her timeless truths straight. Kaysen’s delicate black comedy emerges organically from documenting the upside-down absurdity of mental-hospital life with spare, deadpan wryness, from the intricate dance of comedy and tragedy, not from anything as coarse as jokes.
My long, strange trip to the locked ward of a much less reputable mental hospital I will call Meadow Lane began the night I broodingly washed down a packet full of caffeine pills with a pitcher of icy grape Kool-Aid. I didn’t want to kill myself, necessarily, but I wanted my life to do a whiplash-inducing 180, and I felt like anywhere my suicide attempt led had to qualify as an improvement over the free-floating despair of my dad’s garden apartment.
Instead of releasing me from my mortal coil, the caffeine pills made me vomit for hours. At around 2:30 in the morning, I impulsively decided to shave my head, but just as impulsively decided to quit halfway through.
I knew enough about caffeine to realize that my chances of successfully committing suicide via a caffeine overdose were nonexistent, but my heartbeat was racing so fast and I was throwing up so violently that I feared for my life.
At 4 in the morning, I started watching a 1986 sex comedy called Stewardess School on HBO. I remember thinking about halfway through, “Dear Lord, please don’t let me die of choking on my own vomit while watching Stewardess School.” I couldn’t imagine a less dignified death. I silently vowed that if God let me live, I’d never attempt suicide, or watch Stewardess School, ever again.
Besides, I couldn’t die halfway through Stewardess School. I had to know how it ended. Would Happy Days alum Donny Most and his madcap band of wacky funsters triumph? Or would the forces of repression win out? I had a life-affirming need to know.
A month or two later, I found myself sitting opposite my sad-eyed father while a professorial psychiatrist named Dr. Fassbender earnestly asked me questions about my life: Was it true that I’d tried to kill myself? Would I benefit from some time away to work through my issues? It was past 8 o’clock on a weeknight, but I still had no idea what was about to transpire. No matter how bad things get, you never wake up thinking, “Man, I bet today’s the day I’m finally going to be dragged kicking and screaming into a mental hospital.”
However, my life had reached such a nadir that I would sometimes daydream about the perfect mental hospital. In my fantasy world, the mental hospital would be a rustic place of relaxation and reflection, full of immaculately tended gardens and rolling hills. It’d be an oasis of calm and tranquility away from the madness of the outside world, a place where classical music wafted peacefully in the background, where contented patients whiled away the hours playing croquet, painting, practicing tai chi, or sculpting, when not achieving a hard-won sense of inner peace and contentment with the help of kindly, deeply empathetic round-the-clock psychiatrists.
Who knows, once there, maybe I’d fall in love for the first time, make friendships that would last a lifetime, or find myself. You know, all that hackneyed coming-of-age shit. And the television would be something out of my wildest dreams: fifty inches at least! It’d be the perfect place to heal wounded psyches and tormented minds.
My fantasy mental hospital was a cross between an Ivy League campus and a pricey day spa, only with straitjackets and padded rooms and a wider selection of psychotropic drugs. How desperately sad do you have to be to fantasize about the perfect mental hospital? Sad enough to imagine that any change in locale would represent a step up, even one most people would consider a nadir.
But my fantasy mental hospital seemed a universe away that night as my father stared at me glumly, his brow furrowed, a permanent frown on his face as Dr. Fassbender continued his gentle but persistent questioning.
I responded with the caustic sarcasm that had become my default mode of communication. At the end of the session, two burly, stone-faced security guards grabbed me and carried me off to the locked ward. Tears and snot ran down my face as I screamed obscenities at a father who once symbolized everything humane and kind about the world. When I was young, my father was my sun: the warm, life-giving center around which all good things revolved. My father and Dr. Fassbender drifted further and further from my field of vision until they disappeared entirely, leaving me more alone than I’d ever been before.
I was brusquely told to shower and given paper slippers and a fluorescent orange jumpsuit several sizes too big to wear by staffers whose identities all bled together into one big ball of sour authority. A staff member then led me to my room and introduced me to my new roommate, a boyishly handsome, corn-fed fourteen-year-old from Peoria named Brian, who earnestly asked me why I was there.
“They think I want to kill myself. I didn’t before, but now they’ve really given me a reason to want to end my miserable fucking existence,” I responded bitterly as I wiped the remaining tears from my face, which was red and raw from crying.
Brian then politely excused himself, slipped into the hallway, and told an attendant that his new roommate had just threatened to kill himself. Moments later, the staffer shone a flashlight in my face and coolly ordered,
“Grab your mattress. You’re on suicide watch tonight.”
I was led to an oppressively lit hallway in front of the staff office where I put my flimsy mattress on the floor and started crying all over again. A woman sitting at a desk in the office across the hallway glared at me and hissed, “Crying isn’t going to get you anywhere,” as if I imagined that all I had to do was fake a few tears and I’d immediately be transferred to the penthouse suite at the Ritz.
This may have been a personal abyss for me, but for the employees of Meadow Lane, it was just another day at work. Sobbing teenagers in orange jumpsuits sleeping on mattresses in the hallway were nothing new. Prolonged exposure to the numbing realities of mental hospital life stripped away any remaining vestiges of empathy.
Some folks collect stamps, others the bashed-in skulls of student nurses. I collect bitter ironies. So I had to savor the moment when the woman staring daggers at me bitterly groused to a coworker, “I just don’t see why everyone thinks The Simpsons is so great. What’s so funny about a father strangling his son every week? I can’t see why anyone thinks child abuse is something to laugh about.”
Here she was conveying bottomless concern for an imaginary cartoon boy who brought joy to millions, while betraying nothing but contempt for the squirming bundle of humanity sobbing softly six feet away. When I interviewed Simpsons creator Matt Groening fifteen years later, I briefly considered mentioning to him just how much his show meant to me during that dark night. Then I dismissed it as the WORST OPENING CONVERSATIONAL GAMBIT EVER.
To keep myself occupied, I started plotting revenge against Brian for ratting me out. I’d seen enough prison movies to know that snitches constitute the lowest form of life, lower even than Young Republicans and baby-seal clubbers. Snitching violated the G-code. It violated the code of the streets. It somehow even violated Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. There were no two ways about it: if I was going to survive inside Meadow Lane, I’d have to get my hands on a shiv and enact speedy revenge on Brian the next morning in the yard.
If I were to attain any respect in this hellhole, I’d need to deliver swift vengeance. But first I needed a nickname, one to match the tough new persona I’d have to adopt instantly if I were to make it inside the belly of the beast. “Crazy Nate” had a nice ring to it, but it hit too close to home.
No, I needed something more exotic, more menacing, more inappropriately, even offensively, ethnic.
Drawing upon the six or seven words of Spanish I knew, I came up with the nickname that would transform me from Nathan Rabin the crybaby neurotic Jew into the swaggering badass I desperately hoped to become: El Pollo Loco. The Crazy Chicken. Granted, it didn’t make much sense. But I was certain my new nickname would strike fear in the heart of the punk bitch who cavalierly ratted me out to the pigs. Only later did I learn that “El Pollo Loco” is also the name of a chain of modestly priced Mexican restaurants. Quite possibly a chain of modestly priced Mexican restaurants that strike fear into the hearts of snitches everywhere.
With my tears finally subsiding, I perfected my plan for revenge. Obviously I’d need to find something to turn into a crude shiv or shank. Easier said than done. With the pigs watching me, I’d have a devil of a time locating a toothbrush, pencil, pen, or something similar I could sharpen into a deadly weapon. Fuck! Oh well. Since my plans for revenge were unlikely to ever evolve beyond escapist fantasy, I decided that for the purposes of my daydreaming, I’d somehow magically happen upon a screwdriver. Maybe an incongruously violent sprite, malevolent elf, or ex-con fairy godmother with a bone to pick with humanity would magically appear out of nowhere with the perfect shank, coated in a cloud of pixie dust.
Then I’d wait until we were all out in the yard. Granted, I had no idea if the mental hospital even had anything resembling a prison yard, but again, this was my fantasy, and I wasn’t about to let reality ruin it. We’d all be out in the yard, maybe lifting weights or doing push-ups, and I’d slowly, silently sneak up on Brian like a panther or ninja or panther that’s also a ninja and, with a single devastating motion, slash the back of his neck with my crude makeshift shiv. As pinkish blood spurted across my face, I’d start yelling, “That’s what you get for fucking with El Pollo Loco, ese!”
As Brian fell helplessly to the ground into a pool of his slowly accumulating blood, he’d utter a meek, helpless, “Dios mio! I never should have ratted out El Pollo Loco. Él es el hombre!”
Él es el hombre indeed, motherfucker. But it’d be too late. I’d smear his snitch blood all over my face like tribal war paint and stand over his limp, bleeding body deliriously yelling, “El Pollo Loco, El Pollo Loco!” That way, when Brian entered the gates of hell and they asked him who sent him there, he would reply, “El Pollo Loco.” And the gatekeeper of Hades would reverently reply, “El Pollo Loco. Él es el hombre.” That’s right, motherfucker. I am the man. El Pollo Loco is the man.
Exhausted from all the crying, kicking, and imaginary bloodshed, I fell asleep that night softly muttering, “El Pollo Loco, El Pollo Loco.” I’m sure the glowering Simpsons-hater on duty that night thought I was nuts, but I didn’t give a mad-ass fuck. I was sleeping on the floor of a nuthouse. There was nothing more they could do to me.
Or so I thought. For on my first full day in the joint, I made a mind-boggling discovery: the ward had no television. This blew my mind. I was devastated. If I were in a movie, the camera would have repetitively zoomed in and pulled back accompanied by shrieking violins that could only begin to suggest the utter sense of dislocation and nerve-jangling terror I was experiencing.
This couldn’t be happening, I tried to tell myself. In movies, people in psychiatric institutions were always staring glassy-eyed at television sets in a Thorazine haze. Along with mumbling to yourself while lurching zombielike in circles and screaming at fellow patients to stop stealing your thoughts, it seemed to be the most popular leisure-time activity among the crazy-person set.
During my adolescence, television was so much more than just a way to fill twelve to sixteen hours out of every day. Television made me laugh. It showed me a wide variety of consumer products that would make me irresistible to beautiful women and provide me with a deep, permanent sense of spiritual satisfaction. On certain channels, specifically those owned by Pat Robertson, it preached to me about the evils of fornication, homosinuality, and Hollywood liberalism. It showed me exotic faraway places, like Beverly Hills 90210. Most important, if I was very, very good or very, very lucky, it would sometimes show me the boobs of nubile young actresses.
In the mid-nineties, there was an exquisitely dark television show called Profit about a charming, murderous sociopath who grew up inside a cardboard box with only a television set to keep him company. Finally, an antihero I could relate to! The idiot box may not have transformed me into a cold-blooded killer, but it did a bang-up job corrupting my values and warping my soul.
Oh how I loved my glorious, glorious television set! It was my lover, my friend, my guru, my financial adviser, my everything. And now it appeared I was stuck in the sole television-free mental hospital in the known universe.
Deprived of access to all media, my fantasies assumed a strangely Steven Seagal–shaped form. My daydreams began to revolve around seeing Marked For Death the day I left the hospital. I don’t entirely understand why. I’d liked Seagal’s previous exercise in Eastern-philosophy-rooted gratuitous violence, Hard To Kill, just fine, but I wasn’t a Steven Seagal fan by any stretch of the imagination. Maybe I just fixated on Marked For Death because in a grim, joyless ward where anything remotely fun was considered an unwanted distraction and consequently verboten (hence the absence of a TV) I couldn’t think of anything less wholesome than watching a ponytailed martial artist beat the holy living fuck out of crudely stereotyped minority heavies.
Every night before I drifted off into a fitful, unhappy sleep, I’d replay in my mind’s cinema what it would be like to see Marked For Death. I lingered fetishistically over every aspect of the experience, from sitting down in a plush seat to tasting the appealingly abrasive texture of freshly popped buttered popcorn rubbing up against my taste buds, to be washed down with ice-cold cherry cola.
I felt lost without my electronic best friend. I imagined that my television set would somehow sense my absence and embark on an Incredible Journey-like exodus to Meadow Lane, hitching rides, hopping El trains, and dragging itself arduously across the concrete until it was finally reunited with its beloved owner. When the staff saw what lengths my television set had gone through to be with me, they’d be sure to back down and let my cathode-ray soul mate stay with me, right?
It was not to be. To make matters worse, my mental hospital archnemesis was a staff worker who bore an uncanny resemblance to Chris Elliott, the star of one of those glorious, glorious television shows I wouldn’t be watching anytime soon. Chris Elliott’s evil doppelgänger introduced me to my peers, glum-looking teens from little shit towns throughout Illinois dressed in baggy jeans and outsized sweaters. The dress code at Meadow Lane was purposefully asexual. Girls weren’t allowed to wear anything that might remind hormone-addled boys that they possessed breasts or hips or asses. Touching was forbidden. A sexless thrift-store aesthetic reigned, as dowdy and depressing as the cold gray corridors and bare walls.
“So, Nathan, do you want to introduce yourself and tell everybody why you’re here?” Chris Elliott’s evil doppelgänger implored testily.
“Well,” I began, “I guess because I told my dad yesterday that I was sick, so instead of taking me to the real hospital he took me here. I had a bullshit conversation with a psychiatrist who apparently couldn’t tell that I was being fucking sarcastic the whole goddamned time and then he had me dragged kicking and screaming into this horrible fucking place and now I guess I’m fucking stuck here God fucking knows how long.”
This, dear reader, was not considered the appropriate answer. The desired response, I can say now with the benefit of hindsight, did not involve even a single use of the word “fuck,” let alone a whole string of them.
“OK, now do you want to stop lying to yourself and the group and tell them why you’re really here, or do you want to spend some time in the time-out room?” Chris Elliott’s evil doppelgänger asked with palpable irritation.
I once again delivered the wrong answer. “I guess I better spend some fucking time in the time-out room ’cause that’s the only fucking answer you’re going to get from me in this lifetime,” I hissed. Next stop: the rubber room.
It was a locked room with padded walls and a video camera in the corner to make sure patients didn’t, in a fit of superhuman rage, rip out their spinal cord, then use it to slash their wrists. Meadow Lane imagined that its inhabitants were the MacGyvers of suicide, able to fashion ingenious homemade instruments of permanent self-negation out of plastic sporks, Popsicle sticks, or blunt lead pencils. So anything that could conceivably be used as a weapon was forbidden. The Shiv Fairy would not be paying El Pollo Loco a visit after all.
The rubber room, alas, is nowhere near as exciting or dramatic as the Porter Wagoner song of the same name makes it out to be. Mostly it’s just boring. The day before, I was a free man. Now I was in the rubber room of the mental hospital. It all seemed vaguely unreal.
I was eventually let out of the rubber room, but my behavior did not improve. Instead of the earnest display of humility and guilt the staff was looking for, I answered every question with vitriolic sarcasm. Everything was “motherfucker” this and “bullshit cocksucking piece of shit” that. Early in the afternoon, one of my new colleagues marveled, “You know, I’ve been in a lot of different mental hospitals, and you’re the angriest person I’ve ever met in any of them.”
Wow: angriest man on the mental hospital circuit. Now, there was something to stick on a résumé. Of course I was angry. I was in a mental hospital. How did they expect me to react? That first day, I shuttled back and forth between the day room and the rubber room like a Ping-Pong ball in play. I steadfastly refused to give the staff the answers they wanted. I zealously clung to my sarcasm like a psychological security blanket. My rage was at once the source of my power and my powerlessness.
I exploded with anger toward my fellow prisoners for not being angrier. “You’re teenagers, for chrissakes! Anger is your sacred birthright!” I wanted to scream at them. I wanted to instill in my fellow prisoners that it was their solemn fucking responsibility to be angry at everyone and everything in this godforsaken place, this fluorescent-lit mausoleum where resistance and hope and individuality died horrible deaths. I wanted to rouse them from their glassy-eyed stupor, to get them to throw some shit, start fights, bum-rush the show, fight the power, do anything, really, anything other than meekly go along with the program. Show me you’re alive, people!
In endless, interminable group therapy sessions, patients were encouraged to confront other patients over transgressions real and imagined. It was drilled into us that we were there because we were broken and diseased and wrong and had proved ourselves unworthy of freedom. We were taught that our salvation lay in renouncing our former selves and our past transgressions and remaking our psyches to fit the hospital’s narrow conception of mental health.
At Meadow Lane stupid teenage shit was elevated to the level of dangerous pathologies. It was the stuff of Bruce Springsteen songs or Meatloaf pop operas: stealing cars and breaking windows and smoking weed and swilling Mad Dog before class and making out in the back seats of beat-up cars.
In other words, my fellow patients were living the dream. Verily, they were gods among men. They were living the lives I desperately longed to live. I envied the sordid glamour of their tawdry teenage transgressions. We were encouraged to judge them unstintingly for their lusty misdemeanors, to implore them to consider the gut-wrenching anguish their poor, suffering, guiltless parents must have experienced every time their beloved progeny cracked open a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon or let a boy touch their boobs. Instead, I wanted these patients to be my mentors, to teach me their sinister secrets, to lead the way to the booze, weed, and sex-saturated good life.
If you’re going to be stuck in this movie, the point is to be Jack Nicholson, not one of the gargoyle-faced character actors stumbling around in a Klonopin haze. I couldn’t let the mental hospital break my spirit. Not just yet.
To read the rest of what Roger Ebert called a “hilarious, sad, truthful and compulsively readable memoir” about the author’s darkly comic journey from the mental hospital to a foster family to a group home for emotionally disturbed adolescents and ultimately The A.V Club, pick up The Big Rewind at Amazon and other fine booksellers. Visit Simon & Schuster’s website for information on Rabin’s book tour, which begins July 9 in Chicago.
Excerpted from The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture, by Nathan Rabin. Copyright © 2009 by Nathan Rabin. Excerpted by permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.