I originally published this on the LA Times.
The history of California is fraught with unsaid tragedies. The raven, glamorous mythology of Old Hollywood is enticing, but it overshadows the consequences and perils of such a fame-oriented society.
In Montrose, deep in the La Crescenta Valley, there is a place where Hollywood’s “mad” women used to go.
Rockhaven Sanitarium was founded in 1926. This was a period of Los Angeles madness at its peak: stardom, celebrity, wealth, extravagance, Hollywood, glamour, all right before the Depression catapulted this flamboyant way of life into beloved memory. But Hollywood had the very tangible power and disease to unhinge women.
“Hysteria” is a phrase that has evolved over time, but it originated in Victorian England as a means of describing– as well as invalidating, punishing, and repressing– women who could think and feel without apology.
Hollywood stirred up its own kind of “hysteria,” and many starlets suffered from mental disorders, particularly anxiety and depression. Women went to Rockhaven to recover and rest, not to be shackled, abused or committed involuntarily.
Rockhaven Sanitarium is still indeed, a quiet haven in the California landscape: dry, dusty fountains and pathways littered with tangles of dehydrated weeds, wildflowers pale and lovely, swaying tenuously in the afternoon breeze, tired trees beautiful in their age and faded hues. There is peace in Rockhaven, and you can feel it as soon as you enter through the rusted, intricate gates.
The place is saturated in an unexpected, daydream silence– a few curious visitors walking amongst the sunshine paths, easels propped against walls, people painting the gentle silence of this scenery onto canvas.
The rooms tell stories of women and their lives, through old photographs, rosaries, a scarf or ribbon here and there. There are some women in a small office in the front of the building. They run the sanitarium now– it’s a historical site, but a hidden and under-acknowledged one.
The vast legacy of this place– its importance, its history– goes mostly unknown. Rockhaven was a small revolution of its own, a defiant sanctuary.
Women and the psychiatric field have always had a difficult relationship. For years, uniquely female conditions were classified as mental disorders worthy of being institutionalized: menopause, being a lesbian, “hysteria,” and even, as Sezin Koehler puts it in her piece about Rockhaven, “deviating from traditional norms of femininity.” So Agnes Richards founded Rockhaven Sanitarium as an alternative to the ubiquitous, inhumane horrors and injustices of most sanitariums or “mental asylums” in the country.
At Rockhaven, women were treated as people, kindly and compassionately, utilizing contemporary, gentler means of therapy. Women were not denied autonomy. To proceed with particularly strong treatments such as electroshock therapy, consent was mandatory– which was not a norm at other institutions. The sheer tranquility of the environment that they lived in at Rockhaven acted almost as a form of treatment itself.
Rockhaven is not well-known, and its preservation has constantly been compromised by developers wishing to build everything from condominiums to a mini-mall. The Friends of Rockhaven manage the site and are doing everything in their power to fight for its preservation, but, this severe lack of awareness is no small coincidence.
Crucial pieces of feminist history are often considered irrelevant, taboo, and unworthy of recognition. Rockhaven did not perfect mental health treatment, but it did aid in revolutionizing the industry, and the way in which female patients are treated: as human beings.