Author's Note: Artistic liberties were taken by intertwining fact with fiction to create a relatable story although based on facts from The ACPE History Network’s website presentation of: "The Biography of Anton Theophilus Boisen".
Location: Boston Psychiatric and Westboro State Hospitals
It’s been a while since I’ve seen my friend, Anton. We have been the right hand for the other since we attended Union Seminary together and I am most anxious to sit with my friend after such a lengthy absence. He is in Boston Psychiatric Hospital and all I know for certain is that he has summoned me.
The air is crisp today even though the sun shines brightly. I am anxious to see my friend. I long for a good, long, intellectual delving into a topic or two. The sound of my shoes’ stacked leather heels echo through the empty green-walled corridors. The blinding sunlight floods through the wall of windows lining the hallway leading to the sunroom, at its end, where I am told I will find Anton. I notice how perfectly polished the asbestos tiles of gray are; most likely what is accentuating my every step.
Anton, I find, is sitting in a large wooden chair with equally large wheels. He is dressed in a crisply ironed white cotton sleeping suite and a red plaid woolen robe. His leather slippers seem a bit too large for his withering frame. I am unnerved by what I see.
Fred: Placing a hand gently on his shoulder, Fred announces, “Anton, I am here, my friend.” However, Anton sits, motionless, starring out at the uniformed nurses wheeling patients out onto the gardens below. He does not focus on anything in particular; he is simply starring.
My hand remains on his shoulder. There is not a flicker of recognition. I look for a chair to pull up beside him. I am so longing to tell him everything that has happened since he left the university and how my continued research has gone in his absence. Seated, now, with my back to the window and facing Anton, I speak with enthusiasm, hoping to snap my friend out of his sullenness.
Fred: “I’ve continued on with our research project but it’s nearly impossible to make the impressive headway that you and I make as a team. I will be delighted to have you back ole’ chap!”
Still, nothing. Not a blink, a flicker, a movement of an eye. My determination heightens as does my concern.
Fred: “Professor William Lowe Bryon sends his regards. I spoke with Laird and Bartley earlier this week and told them I was making the trip to Boston. They inquired of you, as well.
I stopped by Morrisette’s for some of your favorites; pralines! Lyna Morrisette made these herself and when I told her these were for Anton Boisen she included an extra one and boxed them herself!”
I leaned forward, my arm outstretched, in an effort to inspire my friend to divert his gaze onto the cheerfully, skillfully, wrapped Morrisette Sweete Shoppe box. But he did not. I had seen Anton sad, certainly. I had seen him angry and morose, ecstatic over a research conundrum solved and pleased beyond measure with a string of smaller successes over the years. However, to see my friend so completely void of all emotion and interest has disarmed me; I have no response. I want to grab hold of his shoulders and shout to him to “snap out of it” but I catch myself and think better of it.
Ours was a life of deeply inspired research, classes in universities and a constant ebb and flow of a student population lingering on every word proceeding from our lips.
Today’s Anton was staring in a deeply disturbing silence. He refuses to speak and I leave the room to search out the physician in charge of his care. He shares that Anton has been diagnosed with “Catatonic Schizophrenia” which he explained at some length. Troubled, and fearing for my dearest friend I wondered if he would ever be able to leave here…to lead a normal life…ever again. My heart was heavy.
I slowly reentered Anton’s room. He remained silent. I am deeply disturbed. Anton is both here and not here. Again, I take my seat. I stay a while longer. Anton’s purpose for summoning my presence will be a mystery for today. I shall return in a few weeks. Perhaps then he will remember. Hopefully, then, he will tell me.
I make several more visits in the coming months. I walk down the same well-lit corridors toward the solarium or sometimes into his room where the white painted metal hospital furniture and the scent of crisp white linens fill my senses only to remind me that my best friend is too ill to speak to me and may never speak again.
Always, I bring messages from home, little tokens from acquaintances and always- cheerful dialogue in hopes that today will be different from all our previous visits. I do not cling to illusions of grandeur but I do refuse to give up on Anton. He deserves my devotion. His brilliant mind is a rare and precious gift and there is much to be learned from him. On his birthday, October 28th, I visit Anton with the same agenda in mind.
He is there, in his room, silently sitting at an empty metal writing table. His hands are clasped and resting on its cold surface. There are no books, no paper, no envelopes, writing pens or blotters. There is nothing. Why is he sitting there, I wonder? I’ve never found him there before.
Fred: “Hello, ole’ chap! It’s good to see you up, sitting at your desk! Would you like for me to provide you with some writing utensils and supplies?”
The silences are always awkward for me and I’ve learned to press on.
Fred: “I happened to see Alice Batchelder at the library this week and she sends her regards. She seemed most concerned for you…”
My voice trailed off as I realized Anton, for the first time, had averted his stare and was now looking at me, full on. Had I said something wrong? Had I offended?
Fred: “My friend, please talk to me. Tell me what troubles you, so.” I said, leaning in to him.
After a long pause, Anton tries to explain but I am confused. He is not himself. His voice has a dry, parched, tone. I wonder if this is the very first time he has spoken in months. His speech is slow and cautious. He has a childlike innocence, his eyes are moist and I sense that I, inadvertently through mentioning the very name of Alice, have hit a disquieting nerve.
Anton: “They… quote the Holy Scriptures to me. They…tell me…that it is not God’s will that…Alice…accepts my proposal of marriage…or…that my father live a long and …healthy life.”
Fred, “Who, my friend, who?”
Tears fill Anton’s eyes to overflowing as his pent-up grief spills down from his eyes, trickling down his cheeks and dropping onto his robe. I reach for my handkerchief but do not want to interrupt him. My heart is beating wildly and my ears are ringing.
Anton stands, running his hands through his hair and wiping the tears from his face he begins to pace slowly alongside his bed as I watch intently. He lifts his hand through the air, saying,
Anton: “With just a wave of their hand, the physicians dismiss the most important elements of my life. They wish for me to believe that I am, simply, consumed by a most profound and unmistakable madness. I am not to be understood!”
He has ceased to be tearful and has worked his way over to the metal desk where upon he leans toward me and with every bit the determination I once revered, he looked at me, full on and said,
Anton: “I must make them see that the… the… things that allow me to be… understood…to be validated…are the things that will help me to heal. Nothing more. Nothing less.”
I studied his face. I knew that he had made a discovery of a sort but I wasn’t at all sure what he meant. I had every confidence, however, that he would reveal his discovery to me and I knew that we would shed light on this together. Anton’s maternal family was among the founders of Indiana University. His brilliance was inherited, for certain.
My elation, however, was not in the thrill of a new project with Anton but, rather, I realized I had my best friend back, again.
I realized, as well, that Anton was fully aware of one surety; if there existed a human being on the face of the earth who would make a full- fledged attempt to truly understand him, it would be I, his most devoted friend and colleague.
And, so it was, the coming years were spent in our pouring through existing research materials, studying Anton’s experiences in both Boston Psychiatric and Westboro State Hospitals and reading endless Seminary and psychiatric texts in an effort to understand how both Psychiatrists and Pastoral leaders were taught to minister to the sick and the emotionally impaired.
It became increasingly clear to Anton that while each had their useful qualities, neither the Psychiatrist or the Pastor had the training to give him all of what he truly needed; understanding through a person who truly “listened to his pain” so that he could begin to finally heal. The missing puzzle piece that kept him locked up in his catatonic misery for so many years was his frustration over the elements in his life that brought him tremendous pain.
I am so honored to have assisted my best friend, Anton Boisen, as he created a program where learning occurred not through the reading of endless books and materials but rather through the study of the “living human document” and to focus attention upon those who are grappling with the issues of spiritual life and death. He chronicled his discovery in 1944.
Through Anton’s brilliant leadership and research he founded the Clinical Pastoral Education program and worked tirelessly in this field until his passing on October 2nd, 1965. Throughout his 88 years, his contributions to the wellness of generations the world over will continue for ages to come. The existence of the Clinical Chaplain grew exponentially in the 40 years following the institution of his C.P.E. program for which his pioneering efforts were directly responsible. His entire life was dedicated to the study of the living human document and I was deeply honored to have been a part of his remarkable journey.
Peggy Hardinge, a second unit CPE Intern at Meritus Medical Center, Hagerstown, Maryland that is directed by David Baker, Ph.D. She is active in community theatre with over 50 plays to her credit. In addition, Peggy works as the First Surgical Assistant in the Meritus Medical Center Operating Room.