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Residents at St. Elizabeths take a gander at liberty on Independence Day.
From the promontory in front of St. Elizabeths Hospital, the Fourth of July celebration down on the Mall is only a couple of miles away. But it might as well be in a distant Emerald City. You can’t get there from here—at least not if you live here. And for 88 of the several hundred people who are gathered on this hill for America’s 224th birthday, this is still a place to call home.
In the fading orange haze of a muggy summer’s day, the world down there in America’s front yard is lit up in broad panoramic detail. The show begins when the sun drops behind the hills across the river, like a coin in a slot. Then, in the partial darkness of a fingernail moon, the playland below explodes into the tantalizing color of bursting rockets: Crackle. Thud. Pow!
Freedom. It’s out there—across the Anacostia, across the fence. Or maybe it exists here and there in the inner spaces of the broken minds that keep this audience captive. “They’ve got my body locked up, but they don’t have my mind,” says Lewis Ecker, who was stashed away here 33 years ago after committing a sadistic sexual homicide.
The president of the hospital’s Consumer Rights Council, Ecker is the main reason that these 88 patients are celebrating July Fourth under the stars on this grassy hill. Although “the Point,” as they call it, is within reach of mental patients with certain grounds privileges, it’s a rare treat to share this space with staff and family members
in the communal atmosphere of a fireworks show.
Ecker, 58, did a stint as an elected Ward 8 advisory neighborhood commissioner since arriving at St. Elizabeths. Going out to meetings, he had a taste of liberty.
He also knows his duties and responsibilities as a patient. Trying to cut into a piece of watermelon at the picnic, he turns down a forbidden utensil. “No,” he tells one of the patient advocates who offers him a 10-inch kitchen blade. “I want a plastic knife.”
There are no plastic knives. So Ecker, with his burly, tattooed forearms, sits at a picnic bench and digs in with a plastic fork instead.
The Point has long been a special place to bring guests. Visitors can gaze out on the world from the shade of the century-old oak trees that dot this sprawling 145-year-old campus in Southeast. Mayor Anthony A. Williams calls this his favorite vantage point to show off the city. Developers are eyeing the whole campus for redevelopment. And, as far back as some long-term staff and residents can remember, it’s been a place to celebrate Independence Day with outsiders. “It’s a valuable piece of turf,” Ecker says.
But three years ago, some visitors started taking Independence Day a little bit too much to heart. “There were people everywhere,” Ecker recalls. “They were parking in the ballfields. There were problems with crowd control, and inevitably, a few people disappeared, or ‘eloped,’ as we put it.”
So the July Fourth tradition at St. Elizabeths was canceled, and it could have become just another bit of lost Washington lore, like the Senators and the wax museum. Like so many other things that have fallen into disrepair at St. Elizabeths in this age of deinstitutionalization—the boarded-up Center Building and the decaying theater—the Point itself was in danger of being lost to the hospital’s 600 or so remaining patients.
Two months ago, Ecker wrote a letter to Elizabeth Jones, the hospital’s superintendent, asking her to open up the Point again to patients, staff, and their families for the Fourth of July. Jones agreed.
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“It’s an important opportunity for clients to move toward recovery in the context of a celebration,” Jones says. “For people to be involved in social events is very important. Besides, it’s a spectacular place to be.”
The first buses start pulling up shortly after 7:30 p.m., ferrying a few patients—but mostly staff members and their families. They’ve come from the hospital’s East Campus, across Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, cruising down a long driveway through the largely abandoned West Campus overlooking the Anacostia River and most of D.C.
Fireworks are already shooting up into the sky from the Barry Farms housing project next door. Children run through the fields, grown-ups lay blankets on the grass, and geriatric patients shuffle over to sit on wooden park benches. “This looks like it could be a Kenny G concert,” says a young female visitor in a halter top.
Some of the male patients set out to examine two raccoons—one apparently dead—that are found in a nearby trash dumpster. Two female patients start singing the national anthem in call-and-response style: “Oh say, can you see,” says one. “By the dawn’s early light,” says the other. Then, joining together, they break out into uproarious laughter.
A check for celebrity resident John Hinckley proves fruitless. A security official says he’s not out at the Point. There’s just a normal air of excitement about the fireworks. The calm is broken only by the arrival of a police car with flashing blue lights; the officers confiscate a visitor’s video camera. Taking pictures of St. Elizabeths patients is strictly against the rules. There will be no family keepsakes from this occasion.
The fireworks show has been advertised as one of the biggest in D.C. history, and the people at St. E’s expect the best view in town. Sure, it’s not the USS Enterprise in New York Harbor, where the president is watching the Big Apple’s festivities. But it’s an invitation-only party nonetheless, with heavy security at the gate.
It’s also a perfect evening. Almost too perfect. There’s no wind to disperse the clouds of gunpowder suspended above the Mall. Within minutes, the fireworks are obscured by dark smoke, like lightning on a cloudy night. “It makes you think of the whole irony of independence and dependence,” says patient advocate Laura Van Tosh, looking on from the picnic table with the watermelons. “Just like the haze over the fireworks, you can’t quite see independence from here, but you know it’s there.”
The notion of freedom up here on this hill is indeed bittersweet. Standing together—whether to lobby the D.C. Commission on Mental Health or simply to watch fireworks—is always something of a political statement for the few remaining residents of St. Elizabeths. There are those, like Ecker, who are aching to get out. Then there are those, also like Ecker, who want to preserve the hospital in perpetuity as a sanctuary for the mentally ill. The current trend toward deinstitutionalization? “It’s a major case of horse hockey,” he says.
In the face of development plans that could put a corporate campus or private housing on this land, deinstitutionalization—seemingly a humanitarian notion—starts to feel like eviction. And that, in part, is why patient advocates from the D.C. Mental Health Consumers League are so much in evidence at this Fourth of July celebration. They’re all but asserting squatters’ rights over this view.
“This is the most spiritual place in this hospital,” says Consumer League President Jesse Price, who has spent a total of two years, on and off, in the confines of St. Elizabeths, dealing with bouts of manic depression. Today, he’s dispensing watermelon to the picnickers. “This is where you come to bond with people. I used to come here myself and look at the city. The view lifts your spirits. That’s what it’s all about.”
Mingling with visitors from an outside world that patients rarely see also seems to have a therapeutic effect. “There’s a normalcy to having other people and children running around,” says Nancy Lee Head, program director for the D.C. office of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. She’s sharing watermelon with Ecker.
Ecker, for his part, is waiting for his friend Angie (“my favorite lady on the outside,” he says). He disappears into the crowd to find her. But when the fireworks are over, he’s back on the bus, heading back to the John Howard Pavilion, the hospital’s wing for the criminally insane.
A hospital check at the end of the night indicates that everyone’s come home; nobody’s run away. “Everybody just had a good time,” says Security Chief J.W. Lanum. And, in contrast to the festivities down on the Mall, nobody’s torn off his clothes and gone streaking through the crowd. This Fourth of July party ends like so many others across the city: with a line of cars leaving the grounds, forming up into a regular old traffic jam. CP