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Documentarian Discusses Legacy Of Troubles At Bridgewater Hospital

Frederick Wiseman, in 2011 (Jonathan Short/AP)

Frederick Wiseman, in 2011 (Jonathan Short/AP)

BOSTON — The $12 million plan to improve Bridgewater State Hospital is just the latest in a series of reform efforts at the hospital.

In the 1967 documentary “Titicut Follies,” Bridgewater became a national symbol of the mistreatment of those with mental illness. The film was so controversial it was banned for more than 20 years.

It was the first movie for filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, and he’s been following many of the controversies at Bridgewater ever since, including recent allegations of patient mistreatment and the 2009 death of Joshua Messier. Messier was 23 years old when he was sent to the hospital after a violent outburst at a private mental health facility. After his death, six guards were disciplined, and the Messier family received $3 million in a settlement.

Wiseman discussed that incident and other topics in his conversation with WBUR’s Morning Edition.

Interview Highlights:

On the surveillance tape of guards restraining Messier minutes before his death:

Frederick Wiseman: It was horrible for anybody to be treated that way. There was absolutely no need to treat the young man that way.

The conceit — if that’s the right word — has always been that the guards at Bridgewater, the staff at Bridgewater, knows how to handle disturbed patients who are potentially violent. And what you see in that video, among other things, is that they haven’t got a clue.

On treatment in 1967:

The behavior of the guards was unacceptable. The incompetence of the psychiatric staff — it was so bad they were comic if it weren’t so serious.

 On his motivation to make the film: 

I knew something about Bridgewater because when I taught law I took students on field trips to Bridgewater. I still remember 52 years ago how horrified I was to see people kept under the conditions they were kept at Bridgewater. So one of my interests in making the movie was to alert people who weren’t familiar or didn’t have the opportunities that I did to visit to Bridgewater to know what it was like.

On what it felt like to be at Bridgewater in 1967:

It was like being on another planet. It’s outside the realm of ordinary experience. You’re a nice, middle class boy. I didn’t have any idea. I had, in an abstract way, but not in a real way, of the degree of degradation that exists. And I’m not solely talking about the treatment of the prisoners. I’m also talking about the crimes that the people had committed — or some of the people had committed. And one can’t lose sight of the fact that some of the inmates at Bridgewater had committed crimes that were beyond imagining for some of us.

On the legacy of problems at Bridgewater: 

I’m no student of all the various cycles that Bridgewater’s been through, but it certainly appears not to have changed. But I think it doesn’t change for a simple reason — perhaps simple reason — and that is the state is not invested in improving the conditions. And I use “invest” in the various senses of the word, both financially and morally.

On why we should feel sympathy:

Well, I suppose we should be interested because learning something about them might help other people from committing similar crimes, and a democratic society has an obligation to all its citizens. It’s that old bromide: You judge the strength of a society by the condition of its prisons — the strength of a democratic society. As a quick cliché it’s not a bad one.

On the one thing that stands out from the film: 

The indifference of the public to mental health and criminal problems. That’s an abstract answer but that’s what stands out most in my mind as a consequence of making the film.

More: 

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