If you’ve been following these blog posts, then you understand already that I don’t write my books in some preordained sequential fashion. I don’t outline a plot; I don’t consult the trends; I don’t go with the fashions. I write about what will not let me sleep, and over time, and through countless drafts, the separate aspects of my obsessions knit themselves into a story.
One of the things that was keeping me awake at night while I was working on this book was the stories I kept reading about urban explorers—those fascinating souls who explore abandoned buildings, often illegally, and create entire underworlds within them. For many years, a northeast Philadelphia asylum known to many as Byberry was a favorite haunting ground for these folks. This gigantic structure had been left to rot after being shut down in the 1990s, and the urban explorers (or “cavers” as they are sometimes known) had taken over—held rave parties there, ridden their motorcycles through connective tunnels, dug through the patient records and film reels and all the wild and disturbing “stuff” that had been so haphazardly left behind.
I was fascinated by this (and, truth be told, a little afraid). I kept studying web sites and archival footage, reading about Byberry both in its heyday and in its awful middle years and during its ignoble end. I would talk to people who had known people who had gone there. Talk to those who lived in the Byberry neighborhood (to which the so-called “Byberrians” would often escape). Read fragments from Byberry newsletters or social servant types. And wonder, What would it have been like to be committed against one’s will in an institution like Byberry?
An early version of this novel (the adult version) contained a social history of this place. To make You Are My Only work, I took most of that out. But I share with you here a fragment from some early writing that captures the Byberry that obsessed me:
They closed the asylum for good in 1990. They closed it because of what it had been, because of the names that had described it. Medieval pesthouse. Snake pit. Fire trap. Concentration camp. Sophie had heard them all. She had seen the photographs in the daily papers, had read the stories. About the boy in leather constraints—strapped, never not strapped, to a chair. About the old man frozen to death beneath the beech tree in winter. About the drowning of patients—successive, awful—in the river and the creek. About the drifters caught in the bald, blind spot of the too-wide boulevard into which they’d crossed, having wandered free of the place that was paid to protect them. There were instructions on asylum recreation, signs that read, Smoking Times: Two every two hours, one after every meal. There were reports: They lean through windows. There was proof, over and again, of the mildly unsettled being rendered irretrievably insane by virtue of maltreatment.
Cracks in the roofs, the glass, the tiles. Azalea bushes yanked out by their roots. Rolling hills gone to the wild tuft of weeds. Through the neighborhoods the dwindled patients had wandered. Into backyard barbecues they had walked. There was one, a romantic, who’d slipped the noose in spring and trundled through the streets, stripping tulips of their petals. She returned to the asylum with her cotton pockets full, singing the one song she remembered. There was just one song.
Everyone had stories. Everyone understood. The patients never disappeared. They vapored up, like ghosts. If you waited, passive, you could see them infiltrating. If you did nothing but fear you’d be subsumed. There was no one to call; there was nothing for it; there were no fences, no gates that could thwart, preclude, avert them. You were either the hunted or the hunter. Victim or assailant. Those who lived alone or with doubt, alone or with guilt, alone and self-recriminating were keenly vulnerable. They only had themselves with which to fight the figments.
Beth is hosting a scavenger hunt in preparation for her latest release which I loved so much. I hope you join. You can leave your thoughts here and I am sure Beth will read them.
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