Book Review: THE NUT HUT (Kathleen Taylor)

In late January 1971, eighteen-year-old Becky Decker reported for her first day of work at Byerley State Hospital and School, a state-run institution spoken of mostly in whispers. She hoped to make friends, and to make a difference in her very first job. What she found during that week was a world of heartbreak and hope in a universe that no longer exists.  

I loved reading THE NUT HUT. Kathleen Taylor has perfectly captured a time and place. Besides being a most readable coming-of-age story, it offers insights into how such a place could exist, how it worked, how the patients and caregivers might feel, and how to cope with a first job that could easily be relentlessly depressing. It's a compelling and important story, told with grace and humor.

 The beginning:
What I remember best was the noise.

Even more than the smell, which was an eye-watering combination of antiseptic and bleach mixed with every possible body odor that seeped into each crack and crevice of the institution, including the few places where residents weren’t allowed.

Even more than the sights, which were a shock for one unprepared to process the even-handed indifference of the gene pool. Missing eyes, missing teeth, bent and mangled limbs, misshapen bodies of every age and description, or eerier yet, bodies that looked normal but that housed minds that would never develop.

No, even more than the sights, the smells, and the twin terror and exhilaration of being eighteen and on my own, in a real job, I remember the ever-present noise, the background music of the end of my adolescence.

Byerley ceilings were impossibly high, built in the days when materials were cheap and labor cheaper. The floors were cold, hard marble and the walls were cement block. Wide open staircases funneled echoes from above and below into wards that were as big and roomy as gymnasiums.

Even in the middle of the night, when everyone, or almost everyone, was asleep, it was never quiet. Someone was always snoring, or moaning, or crying, or repeating mindless phrases softly in the dark.

There were sly and squishy night sounds, some you had to strain to hear, and once you did, you tried just as hard not to. The phone rang, supervisors made rounds, attendants talked and laughed to each other quietly, but not quietly enough. The studious ones who pored over college texts or read paperback mysteries against the rules made noise too, flipping pages in the immense darkness, padding softly on bed checks, writing in day books.

During the daytime, with laundry deliveries, stunned and wide-eyed tour groups marching in and out, doctors and nurses and teachers and aides and repairmen and, of course, all of the residents awake and in motion, the noise rebounded, intensified by the structure of institution itself.

No matter where you were, no matter the time of day, it was never quiet.

That's what I remember most when I get to thinking about that first week in my very first job: the constant, mind-numbing noise that rattled in my ears for eight straight hours, and rattled in my brain the other sixteen.

(Full disclosure: I helped edit the manuscript. When it was published this week, I also bought a finished version to read again.  I enjoyed it that much.)

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