It’s a pleasure to welcome Helen Macie Osterman, author of the new novel “Notes in a Mirror.”
The year is 1950. The place is Hillside State Mental Hospital, a dark brooding place, located outside of Chicago. At the time, the treatment of the mentally ill is archaic, consisting of hydrotherapy, electroshock and Insulin coma therapies, and, in the extreme, pre-frontal lobotomy. Tranquilizers and anti-psychotic drugs have not yet appeared.
In this atmosphere of hopelessness and despair come student nurses from nearby hospitals for their three-month psychiatric rotation. Mary Lou Hammond and Kate Stephens are two of these young girls.
Malcolm: During your 45-year nursing career, you wrote articles for medical journals. What tempted you into turning to fiction?
Helen: I was always a dreamer. As a child I made up stories in my head. They were always adventurous, including jungle settings, the wild west, and, of course, Buck Rogers.
When my children were young, I wrote children’s stories for them. So, it was easy to gravitate to adult fiction.
Malcolm: Are the ambiance, descriptions and nurses’ training at the fictional institution in “Notes in a Mirror” fairly close to what you experienced in your training at the former Chicago State Mental Hospital?
Helen: Absolutely! The place was as I described it, bleak and frightening. The wards were cold and dreary, and the people were hopeless.
Malcolm: Your main character, Mary Lou, had an unpleasant upbringing with a mother who appears smothering and overly strict. If you were taking your best friend to meet Mary Lou, how would you describe her? What kind of person is she?
Helen: Mary Lou is a somewhat like myself as a young girl. Although I had a very loving family, my mother was over protective. I was afraid of everything, mostly of dying and going to hell. I was also born left handed and was forced to learn to write with mt right hand. I am able to write mirror-image with my left. That’s what gave me the idea.
Malcolm: Mary Lou’s friend Kate is an outgoing person who loves making fun of everything and generally taking a lighthearted approach to life. Mary Lou and Kate are such opposites; as you were writing “Notes in a Mirror,” did you have fun thinking of situations where they would interact?
Helen: Kate is very much like one of my classmates, named Katie. She was always in some sort of trouble, so it was easy to mimic her.
Malcolm: “Notes in a Mirror” contains frightening events. How does it differ in tone and plot from your two Emma Winberry mysteries “The Accidental Sleuth” (2007) and “The Stranger in the Opera House” (2009)
Helen: My cozy mystery series is not based on any of my experiences. It come directly from my mind. I love my characters, Emma Winberry, and her significant other, Nate Sandler. They have become part of my life. It’s fun dreaming of situations for Emma to get in trouble.
Malcolm: Did you find “Notes in a Mirror” difficult to write due to your own memories of the conditions and manner of patient care you saw at the hospital?
Helen: Actually I wrote the first draft twenty years ago and put it in a drawer. But it kept calling to me. It was not difficult to write but therapeutic to get those words on paper. I’ll never forget that experience.
Malcolm: In the early 1970s, I was a manager of one of the group homes at the Waukegan Developmental Center that was part of Illinois’ new wave of treatment for the developmentally disabled. Did your nursing career ever take you to any of the newer facilities?
Helen: I was there in 1950. The place closed in the mid-seventies. So I had no experience with any transfers. I never had an desire to work with the mentally ill.
Malcolm: I expect you saw a lot of changes in settings and treatments during your career. Did you write “Notes in a Mirror” because the setting was so perfect for a good mystery, or was it more to show how archaic the treatment of the mentally ill was in our recent history?
Helen: I wrote it because I experienced it and felt it should be told. It was very much like The Snake Pit, published in the 1940s and later made into a movie.
Malcolm: As I read your book, I couldn’t help but think of an expose reporter Nellie Bly wrote about Blackwell’s Island asylum in 1887 called “Ten Days in a Mad House.” She faked being mentally ill in order to get inside. After her experience, she, wrote: “It’s easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.” While, the 1950s era Hillside State Mental Hospital in your novel isn’t as archaic as the institution Bly visited 63 years earlier, your protagonist Mary Lou could hardly force herself to stay for her training. Did your three month rotation seem like an eternity to you?
Helen: Yes it did. Someone was always threatening to go home. But we were senior students and it was out last rotation before graduation. The nice part about it was that we got to go home every weekend, if we lived in the area.
Malcolm: When Mary Lou begins dreaming about a former patient who claimed to have died at Hillside in 1911, she’s looking almost as far back in history as the “Mad House” Nellie Bly wrote about. These dreams—and the notes that show up in the mirror—lead your protagonist as well as the reader into a terrifying chain of events. How were you able to put yourself in the shoes of a character with paranormal sensitivities who was looking back to conditions worse than what she was seeing during her training?
Helen: Imagination can lead a person anywhere. I just followed the ideas that came to me.
Malcolm: Other than a great story, what else do you hope your readers discover while reading “Notes in a Mirror”?
Helen: I hope that anyone reading the book will appreciate how far the medical profession has come in treating the mentally ill. It is no longer a stigma. Mental illness is a disease like any other, and most of the patients, with the proper treatment, can lead normal lives. However, these state hospitals served a purpose. They house the people who are now living on the street because they fail to take their medications. Some are in jail when they should be hospitalized.
Malcolm: Thank you for your visit, Helen. Best of luck with “Notes in a Mirror.
In today’s Writer’s Notebook, First Look: ‘A View Inside Glacier National Park,’ the park’s new centennial book of stories.
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