Mab and I traveled to Milledgeville in June 2011 to discuss plans for a possible exhibit. Upon entrance to the hospital I found myself surrounded by death and decay; Central State had been closed for the most part since 2010 but many of the buildings had been abandoned for years. Vines covered a number of the structures and some had missing roofs.
I visited the grounds of Central State Hospital several times over the course of designing the installation but nothing impacted me more than the cemeteries. Hundreds of metal markers greet visitors at the grave site entrance of the main cemetery, Cedar Lane. According to Alan Judd of the AJC: “For decades, patients at the state psychiatric hospital in Milledgeville were buried on the facility’s grounds, their graves marked only by a small metal stake. Groundskeepers tossed as many as 10,000 stakes into the woods in the 1960s, leaving the graves forever unmarked. In recent years, patient advocates have placed several hundred recovered markers in a memorial at the hospital’s Cedar Lane Cemetery.”
The metal markers at Cedar Lane reminded me of Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. But this graveyard was different because it held the remains of over 25,000 differently enabled persons. As I walked down Cedar Lane, every now and then I would see a headstone but for the most part, just trees and sunken earth, evidence that someone had been buried there. Cedar Lane Cemetery, along with the African American cemetery, is one of (if not) the largest burial ground for differently enabled persons in the world.
We have no evidence that Mary Roberts was buried at Cedar Lane Cemetery and not much is known about many of the 25,000 who rest there, but I knew that I had to create an installation that would remember and honor all of them. After reading the intake documents from the file of Mary Roberts, I knew that she would be my vehicle and I used her voice and my memory to channel her spirit.
Excerpt from intake examination:
Why were you sent to this place?
What had you been doing to make them think you were crazy?
I was at home praying.
Were you very much excited at that time?
Yes sir. I would pray, shout and sing and then sometimes I would cry.
What do you think of yourself as compared with other people?
I don’t think I am better.
Do you think you are a Missionary?
Do you think you are especially appointed by God?
How long have you felt that way?
A long time.
Do you think that God has especially appointed you to preach for him?
In what way did he reveal that thought to you?
I can’t exactly tell.
Have you any property?
Do you think you are rich?
No sir, I know I aint rich.
Do you think you can do anything better than anybody else?
Has anything strange happened to you?
No sir, not much.