Review: “Commitment Criteria”, Volumes I & II By Kirsten Anderberg

Run away. Run away, run away, run away.

If you are on Amazon‘s website hovering over the “Buy” button, don’t do it. I rarely completely pan a book, much less two, but in this case, it’s deserved.

First, let’s look at the title of each of these: “Commitment Criteria”. The presumption is that you will be given an insight into what led these women to be committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital. But that’s only true in a handful of cases. Most of these stories reference CSMH, but only in passing. Perhaps the women or young ladies spent some time there, but often times it was prior to the crime or incident they were involved in. Or perhaps the mention to CSMH is brief as part of a greater story.

Now, let’s look at the rest of the title: “A Look Inside One of America’s Most Infamous Mental Institutions”. Awesome! We get a clue as to what actually happened to these ladies while they were in CSMH. Uh, no. Very few of them actually give any details about the lives of these women while they were actually patients. A scant few mention women who were assaulted or killed while there, but even those are merely paragraph references. An actual look at day-to-day life or anything of any depth? Nope. Not here.

While we’re talking about the stories themselves, let’s analyze them, shall we? The first book contains 23 stories, which in a book about 126 pages long should average almost six pages per story, allowing plenty of detail, right? True… on average. Unfortunately, the first book is hogged by the story of Elizabeth Ann
“Ma” Duncan, who hired a couple of guys to kill her daughter-in-law. And when I say hogged, I mean hogged. This story takes up a full 50% of the book, leaving about 60 pages for the remaining 22 stories. It would be excellent coverage of Duncan’s stay in Camarillo, if that’s what this epic detailed, but it didn’t. Most of it is coverage of Duncan’s, as well as those of the men she hired, trials and execution. Very few references to CSMH, other than in passing, and certainly no details about the stay itself.

Unfortunately, I bought both books at the same time, so I felt compelled to read the second one, hoping any constructive feedback from the first volume could help the author produce a better second volume.

No such luck.

The second volume is essentially a continuation of the content of the first, although the formatting seemed to be better. But at least it was longer (173 pages) with more stories (30). On the plus side, there wasn’t a single story dominating half of the book. However, one story accounted for almost 25% of the book and another accounted for almost 33%. And, oh yeah, the story of four women is encompassed in a single paragraph, with no names mentioned, in reporting their escape from CSMH.

As for the lengthy stories in the second volume, one was about actress Dorothy Comingore, who found fame starring in “Citizen Kane“. While Comingore did spend some time in CSMH, the vast majority of the entry in Anderberg’s book reads as a professional biography of the actress, not her time in the institution.

The worst story in this book was unfortunately the longest: Mary Alice Meza. In 1948, she was raped by Caryl Chessman, and as a result she was committed to and spent the rest of of her life in various institutions. While this would have been a perfect opportunity to delve into the life of Mary Alice Meza post-commitment, the entry for her instead details the trial, conviction, incarceration, and eventual execution of Chessman. Heck, it even mentions the books he wrote while in prison, including a picture of the cover of one, noting it’s still available on Amazon.

The author, with advanced degrees in History and Archiving, does do an outstanding job of documenting her sources, which under normal circumstances would be a tremendous resource for the reader to acquire for future reading. However, almost all of the sources cited are from the archives of the L.A. Times. While that may have been an outstanding primary source, it shouldn’t have been the almost exclusive source.

One thing I can commend the author on without equivocation is her photography. The shots she provides of the CMSH site, which is now occupied by California State University, Channel Islands, are very well posed and poignant. I hope that eventually her writing will reach that level and she will we be well-received in both areas.

Rating: 1 star (out of 5)

Review: “Keeper Of The Keys” By Nadine Scolla

I was actually led to this book, which was published in 1976, by some research I was doing on Camarillo State Hospital in California. While the time period I’m researching is the middle of the twentieth century, and these events take place in the mid-seventies, I couldn’t pass it up.

Why? Well, first, I worked in healthcare (albeit in the information systems department) for 15 years, so healthcare is very much a part of me. Many loved ones are also involved in healthcare, I love watching shows like “E.R.”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, and heck, even “Scrubs”… Well, you get the idea.

Second, since junior high, mental health has always been fascinating to me. Many people who know me would say it’s because it’s like looking in a mirror, but what do they know. I really believe if I hadn’t gotten into computers and martial arts, I would have studied abnormal psychology. It’s all so fascinating.

Finally, I despise folks who take advantage of others, and that’s exactly what this book set out to expose, specifically at Camarillo State Hospital.

During the time frame I’m researching, mental healthcare was nothing like it is today, especially in the understanding of what is and isn’t a mental illness. Not to mention that many physically or developmentally disabled people were put in institutions, where today societal mainstreaming is much more common.

By the time this book was necessary, running mental institutions had become a business. Since the hospital was paid per patient, they would do anything they could to get and keep patients in their care. That, combined with overcrowding and employees with little or no training, led to a snowball effect of patient maltreatment. But who would do anything about it? The people doing the work often times weren’t qualified for the position, but they were paid well, so why rock the boat? Administrators certainly didn’t want to kill the golden goose. Unfortunately, those employees who did care, like Scolla and others she identifies in the book, could be blackballed with negative employee reviews in their records, so they were afraid to make waves for fear it could ruin their careers.

Enter Nadine Scolla, fresh from nursing school, where she was apparently taught very well the right way to treat patients and their families. During nursing school she kept a diary, and naturally she continued to keep it as she excitedly joined her profession of choice at Camarillo State Hospital.

She is shocked early on by what she sees as what passes for patient care: Ignoring patients experiencing seizures. Pulling gold fillings from a new patient’s teeth. Rape and physical abuse of patients. Adjusting or denying medication without doctors’ orders. And the list goes on.

Scolla finally cannot stand by anymore and, knowing that reporting problems to authorities won’t do any good since it will just be glossed over by those in power, takes other steps. She contacts a publisher about the issue, offering her diary as evidence. Therein lies the genesis of this book, the publication of which led to a grand jury investigation of CSH, a reformation of mental institution practices in California and, ultimately, the closing of CSH itself as its patient count declined over the next 15 years.

I really enjoyed this book, in many ways. It might appear that Scolla might have sanitized some of her entries, but I believe that was just her being a professional, a lady, and a woman of faith. But what she outlines in the book is detailed and to the point. It’s a fascinating look into not just this particular mental institution, but the standards of nursing at the time, when all nurses wore white, etc.

I definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in the mental healthcare during the seventies, nursing, or just a memoir by a young lady who risked her career by going against the grain.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)