“My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origamied into houses and clothes.”
—Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
Behind one of the facilities owned by the South Carolina Department of Mental Health in Columbia lies a graveyard surrounded by a chain link fence. Unlike most cemeteries, with their arrays of geometric stones projecting from the ground as testaments of loss and love, this one holds only rows of flat rectangular granite, each stone about the size of a small mailbox. Here lie hundreds of the hospital’s dead, arranged chronologically and dating back for more than a century, the earliest ones engraved with only a number. After having found the graveyard’s location online, I drove there believing that I would not be able to go beyond the fence. “Not open to the public,” one site had said. But I found the gate unlocked, and seeing no one nearby to grant or forbid entry, I went inside, thinking that I could always ask forgiveness in lieu of permission.
Runners of centipede grass encroached on the markers nearest the gate; these stones were stained by dirt and dotted with moss and lichen, so I knew they marked the cemetery’s oldest inhabitants. I walked across the grass, scanning the rows until I found, at some point in the twentieth century, the stones had been engraved with the deceased patient’s name and date of death. I found the one I had been looking for, Rosalee Pittman, 1998, near the far left corner.
I met my great-aunt Rosalee only a few times. I remember visiting her once at the state hospital on Bull Street with my mother and my grandmother when I was about ten years old. Rosalee lived there with her middle-aged son, James, which I thought was nice for the two of them.
Most of the adult conversation of that day remains in my memory only as grey background noise, but the visual and tactile sensations remain vivid. On that May afternoon, the temperature neared ninety, and gnats assaulted my eyes and nose. In the humid air, my hair grew frizzier and stickier to the touch, and I sweated into my jeans. “Think about something else,” my mother said. But I couldn’t. I flapped my hands in front of my face, exciting the gnats, and I repeatedly fingered my hair, making it messier. I was curious about this new place, but I also longed to be home watching I Dream of Genie reruns. They’d brought me along to this family open house because they thought I was too young to stay home alone.
Rosalee and James both had faded ginger hair and wore glasses, and Rosalee’s jaws sank in as if she had no teeth. Her voice seemed muffled, and she moved as if her Nursemates shoes were weighted with iron soles. She was my grandmother’s sister, about ten years younger. Her family had her committed a few years after her husband died, in the 1950s, when she was in her mid-thirties. On the day of my visit, she must have been about sixty. As a child, I didn’t know why she had been sent to the asylum. She just seemed old, quiet, and, I assumed, crazy. Now I wonder how much a woman had to drink, how many men she had to bed, how violently and frequently she had to swear before a mental institution seemed the answer.
Whatever her disorder, I don’t believe it was caused by grief at her husband’s death, despite the fact that the commitment followed on the heels of his demise. He was fifteen years her senior, and she had married him when she was about eighteen, probably because she was pregnant. I have a cracked black and white photo from the 1930s or 40s of Rosalee standing next to this man in a grassy field. They both stare at the camera, suppressing smiles, and Rosalee’s hand is draped casually on his shoulder. Instead of husband and wife, they look like a gangly, teenage girl posing next to her grown up brother who is visiting for a holiday.
On Sundays before they married, this 33-year-old man walked Rosalee to Sandy Level Baptist Church where both families worshiped irregularly; sometimes they took a circuitous route, and sometimes they didn’t make it there at all, foregoing the sermon for the aching, stealthy pleasure of a blanket laid on pine needles beyond the low cemetery wall. They would have two children, James—who eventually lived with Rosalee at the State Hospital—and a daughter, Joyce, born about two years later.
Before her husband’s illness, he and Rosalee spent their leisure hours drinking cheap whiskey and fighting loudly enough for their relatives next door to hear. On the surface they fought over casual daily slights—she told him he needed to wash, he said she used to be pretty—but deeper down they scourged their own weaknesses, pinned like fabric onto tailor’s dummies in the shapes of spouse and children.
Evenings, he swayed on the cluttered, twilit front porch profanely menacing his son, daughter, and their undernourished dog. I imagine they all learned to hide until they could decide from the tone of his rants if they’d be safer out of sight or braving his fury now so he wouldn’t come out and find them.
In 1952, after a lengthy illness, he died of malignant hypertension and uremia, the result of long-term intemperance and lack of medical care, according to the death certificate. Rosalee, only about 30 then, still pretty in a coarse way, was at once too young and too dissipated to be a decent widow.
She and her children moved from the country to a small rented house in Columbia, where she found work as a laundromat attendant. Her children had long since learned to entertain themselves, and at home she craved company as much as she craved alcohol. Rosalee wanted to drink, but she did not want to drink alone, and every drop she swallowed tasted like more. She would have liked to be respectable, but she lacked moderation and impulse control. Most of all, though, Rosalee lacked the ability to sit with herself, to face all the fragments of memory and feeling that teemed within her, and to shoulder that weight.
Of course, people would talk about a woman like this. Men she knew would tell their friends, who would then come calling, smiling, offering liquor and company. They’d come to the door, hats in hand, at Saturday’s dusk. Sometime she accompanied a man to a ramshackle bar, but more often than not they drank in porch chairs or at the kitchen table.
At the end of the night, sometimes the man followed her to bed. Neighbors whispered, and the shame Rosalee should have felt besieged her family, especially her brothers who couldn’t keep their sister in line. Because they believed that most women were vulnerable to sexual transgression if not properly controlled, a loose woman always implied a weak man. And then there were the children to think about.
Bob, Rosalee’s oldest brother and a cop, tried to bully her into acting right if she didn’t have enough pride to do it herself.
“You’re a sot and a slut!
“You got no business carrying on like this!
“You won’t be satisfied ‘til you’re dead or in jail, and you’re dragging those children right along with you!
“You’re a mother and you need to act like it!”
Through many of these harangues, Rosalee sat on the worn-out sofa, resting her head in her hand; her reddish hair, slightly dirty and disheveled, framed her head like a burning halo.
“What do mothers act like, Bob?” she asked tiredly.
“Like our mother did. They stay home and they take care of their children, take care of the house.” Rosalee was the fifth of her parents’ six children, born when her mother was almost forty. Her father died when Rosalee was 15, leaving the mother to finish raising the youngest ones alone.
“My children are big enough to take care of themselves, and this house ain’t mine, anyway.”
Sometimes, I’ve been told, Rosalee cried bitter tears of shame, hating herself for her behavior. Other times she swore at Bob and hurled an ashtray or picture frame. On these occasions, Bob slammed the door behind him, hurling back over his shoulder the prediction that he’d lock her up himself one day.
James, a teenager by this time, was almost never home. He seldom went to school, sometimes worked odd jobs and slept at friends’ or relatives’ houses or out of doors. When Rosalee’s belly rounded with another baby, father unknown, Bob arranged for twelve-year-old Joyce to enter foster care. I don’t know what sort of family she ended up with or why he didn’t take the girl into his own home. He may have feared that Joyce, given her upbringing, would negatively influence his own son, just a year or two older; he may have wanted to avoid the complications of having two opposite sex teenagers in his house, even though they were cousins; or he may have simply thought adding another child was too much expense and trouble.
Alone, sometimes Rosalee cried when the liquor wore off and her life seemed an empty cycle of work at the laundromat, four dingy walls, and loneliness. She cradled her cracked picture frames and missed her children. She loved them, but her mental illness, her attempts at self-medication through drinking, and the resulting alcoholism made her unable to consistently show it.
I believe that Rosalee must have suffered from something like bipolar disorder. Although I don’t know exactly what that’s like, I’ve struggled with depression all my life and used to try to drink away anxiety and despair. Although it took away my pain for brief periods of time, it left me submerged in shame, regret and even deeper melancholy. These feelings amplified when I considered the lasting pain I may have inflicted on my vulnerable children, who may one day be forced to exorcise demons I planted in them. Nothing like the anti-depressants that I rely on now was available to Rosalee, and I often think that there but for the grace of God and modern medicine go I.
In late 1953, a year or two before the asylum, Rosalee and the baby moved in with her sister and brother-in-law and their two grown children, one of whom became my father. The three-bedroom house was too small for all of them, and Rosalee could not give up her nightlife. Her sister, my grandmother, was a moral woman and, like Bob, she worried about the approval of others. And she still had an unmarried daughter to consider. Her lectures were quieter than Bob’s, buttressed by unanswerable questions rather than accusations.
“Aren’t you ashamed?
“When are you going to settle down and start acting right?
“Do you think God is pleased with the way you’ve been carrying on?”
In response, Rosalee sometimes bowed her head and asked forgiveness, and at other times, she cursed, tipped over the dark wooden coffee table, and slammed the door as she left.
Then, without saying goodbye, Rosalee ran off one day with a man she barely knew, leaving her infant son behind. No one knew where she’d gone; Bob, even with his police connections, couldn’t track her down.
After months passed and it seemed that Rosalee would not be coming back, my grandmother and grandfather knew they couldn’t keep the child. They were poor and getting old. Bob made calls, and soon the boy was adopted by a good family in Orangeburg. I never met him, but my father must have kept up with Rosalee’s youngest. He called him many years later to tell him of his mother’s death.
About a year after she’d disappeared, Rosalee returned to Columbia alone. She was furious when she discovered the child was gone. I don’t know if she ever saw him again. Alcoholism had made her temper more volatile, and she unleashed it on my grandmother, breaking her furniture and china figurines, vomiting obscenities and accusations.
No one knew how to control her. So, at the family’s request, a judge ruled that Rosalee was unfit to care for herself and committed her to the state asylum.
James joined her at the State Hospital some years later when it became evident that he was slow to learn and hard to manage. He was simple and, although he meant no harm, he had a bad temper like Rosalee. After some minor legal trouble and inability to keep a job, Bob thought the state hospital would be the easiest way to keep him safe and fed. My grandmother visited them regularly, and sometimes one or both of them stayed at her house for a weekend.
After Rosalee’s commitment, Joyce stayed in contact with her mother’s relatives and fared better than her older brother. When I was a small girl, probably years before my state hospital visit, twenty-something-year-old Joyce lived for several months at my grandparents’ house, sleeping on the single bed in the spare room like a nun in a convent cell, while she studied cosmetology at Midlands Technical Community College. My family often visited for Sunday dinner, and I saw her there. I didn’t know about her mother’s history at the time, and I liked her look: tall and pretty, capable and sweet, with chestnut hair curled around her head, makeup on her lips and eyes. She didn’t talk much to me because I was a small, quiet child, but I was fascinated with this seemingly isolated, beautiful young woman. Certainly not a child like me, but not old like my parents, she was a closer version of what I hoped to be.
Then, one Sunday when we visited, Joyce was gone. My grandfather said she had left early that morning on the train for home. My child’s brain had assumed that this was home for Joyce now, but it adjusted quickly to the news that it was not. Did she go all by herself, I wondered?
“And do you know, when she left she was carrying a suitcase and wearing leather boots that were this high,” my grandfather said, holding his hand beside my knee cap.
I marveled at the idea, connecting his words with the train ride, with leaving alone, with this not being home. She was from another town in South Carolina, but I didn’t know exactly where or with whom she lived.
I don’t recall ever seeing Joyce and her mother together, and I don’t know if Rosalee was proud of her daughter. But that day I had the sense that Joyce had accomplished some feat, and that her journey was taking her into a new life. I pictured her standing on a train platform preparing to board in her tall boots, beautiful, sturdy, purposeful, and free.
* * *
On the day we visited Rosalee at the hospital, we all sat outside on folding chairs in the acres-wide sandy yard between the main hospital building, a cutting-edge facility in the 1820s, and the 12-foot brick perimeter wall. Several other smaller buildings stood to the far left and the far right of the main building. A few old pin oaks and some sparse centipede grass grew on the grounds, and we had to place our chairs carefully to avoid anthills.
My mother, who wanted everyone to feel comfortable, to pretend it wasn’t awkward, said, “Looks like they’re going to have some music over there,” as three men set up stands and brass instruments about 50 yards away. “It turned out to be a hot day, but at least we didn’t get rain.” Her small-talk was a nervous habit, but this visit was emotionally low-stakes for her. Rosalee was only her relation by marriage.
Grandmother filled Rosalee and James in on the recent events of other family members’ lives—someone’s operation, someone starting school, someone having a baby—and the older women talked about memories from childhood.
Rosalee wore a thin, faded blue house dress that buttoned up the front and flat white shoes. Her breasts and stomach sagged, and she looked a lot like my grandmother, except perhaps older (she wasn’t) and frailer. I don’t recall her speaking much, not at all to me, although I imagine she must have said hello. The only way to reconcile my memory of the woman I saw then with my impression of the woman Rosalee had been long ago is to factor in the flattening effects of heavy mood-altering medications and hard time. In her youth and early adulthood, Rosalee must have been vibrant, attractive, and intense. This Rosalee was vacant, muted, and spent.
While the adults talked, I watched people as if they moved inside a television screen. The hospital grounds were fascinatingly unfamiliar, but somehow I felt removed in time and place. Some of the residents had obvious physical or mental disabilities: they sat in wheelchairs with mouths drooping or paced the yard frenetically. Others, like Rosalee and James, just looked sad, or slovenly, or old. I wondered how the staff would know who belonged inside and who belonged outside when it came time to go. Somehow they did. We left that afternoon, but Rosalee and James remained behind the hospital’s brick wall.
* * *
Although I saw her only a few times, Rosalee has always intrigued me. She was our family’s Bertha Mason, the madwoman confined to the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. She defied authority and was punished for it, something I did repeatedly as a teenager, almost as unsubtly as Rosalee. Unlike her, I managed to test the borders between sexual precocity and promiscuity and between experimentation and addiction without going over.
I should say that Rosalee has interested me when I wasn’t completely absorbed with myself. One particularly self-absorbed period occurred during my early twenties, when I was going through my first divorce. I had married at nineteen against everyone’s advice—everyone except my father who urged me to hurry down the aisle before I wound up pregnant.
Then, the summer before my senior year of college, I experienced a crisis, which crystalized strangely around a character on The Tracey Ullman Show, a popular variety show at that time. One of Ullman’s many characters was a frumpy, middle-aged office worker named Kay who lived with her elderly mother. Despite her affability, Kay’s naivete, outdated wardrobe, and awkward social skills made her the frequent butt of jokes. To play this character, Ullman wore long-sleeved blouses with Peter Pan collars buttoned to the neck, and several inches of padding under polyester slacks. In an era of big hair, Kay had a conservative, androgynous bob. In one episode, she vacations at a singles resort, and while others indulge in casual sex, she wins a hat weaving competition and swaps her prize hat for a chaste kiss from a new friend.
Despite my teenage indiscretions, I worried that others saw me as a Kay, and, worse, I feared this was who I was. Shy and married, at twenty-one I felt middle-aged, out of touch, lonely, and pathetic. Irrationally, I blamed my husband and my family for my self-loathing, and I began an insensitive campaign to escape my situation.
Fearing I was fat, like Kay, and also worried about money, I exercised obsessively and starved myself with regimented allowances of food. I convinced my husband he should eat less, too, to save money, and we both became gaunt and miserable. Combatting Kay’s asexuality, I nursed a crush on one of my husband’s friends, and when the friend rejected me, I wept, drunk and hysterical, on our bathroom floor, my head in my husband’s lap as he sat on the edge of the bathtub comforting me. I felt trapped by my marriage. Without understanding it, I still craved another man to accept the burden of me, to be the scaffold that steadied my shaky sense of self.
As I worked to tear my marriage apart, simultaneously tearing my young husband apart to convince myself it was his fault, Rosalee found love. I learned about this chapter of her life only recently, having been too preoccupied to pay attention when it occurred. When she was nearly seventy, she fell in love with a fellow patient, a man about whom I know almost nothing. The hospital staff sympathized with their romance, and when the couple wished to marry, they argued on Rosalee’s behalf to obtain my grandmother’s permission as next of kin, Bob having passed on years earlier. Whatever the reason for his hospitalization, Rosalee’s husband soon got better and was discharged, with Rosalee released to his care.
I imagine her then, experiencing the world like a normal woman for the first time in nearly forty years, with a partner and a home of her own. I hope their late-life love was sweet and comforting. I hope they experienced joy that redeemed years of suffering. All that I know for sure, though, is that their love was brief. Rosalee’s new husband died within a few years of their marriage and, unable to care for herself, Rosalee returned to the custody of South Carolina’s Department of Mental Health, where her son still resided.
Rosalee outlived both her husband and my grandmother by a few years. When she died, my father tried to arrange for her burial next to her first husband at Sandy Level Baptist Church Cemetery, where they used to walk so many years ago, where my grandmother and many other family members are also buried. But a cousin who owned the plot refused to allow it, so she was buried by the state with other unclaimed bodies in the graveyard behind the hospital. Today this cemetery is running out of room, but Rosalee lies placidly in her assigned row, not too far from the eight-foot chain link fence.
Betina Entzminger was born in South Carolina and is now an English Professor in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. "Rosalee's Commitment" is part of a book-length collection tentatively titled The Beak in the Heart: True Tales of Misfit Southern Women. Another essay from this work was published in Switchgrass Review in 2017.