Michael Collier

An Individual History

This was before the time of lithium and Zoloft


before mood stabilizers and anxiolytics


and almost all the psychotropic drugs, but not before thorazine,


which the suicide O’Laughlin called “handcuffs for the mind.”


It was before, during, and after the time of atomic fallout,


Auschwitz, the Nakba, DDT, and you could take water cures,


find solace in quarantines, participate in shunnings,


or stand at Lourdes among the canes and crutches.


It was when the March of Time kept taking off its boots.


Fridays when families prayed the Living Rosary


to neutralize communists with prayer.


When electroshock was electrocution


and hammers recognized the purpose of a nail.


And so, if you were as crazy as my maternal grandmother was then


you might make the pilgrimage she did through the wards


of state and private institutions,


and make of your own body a nail for pounding, its head


sunk past quagmires, coups d’etat, and disappearances


and in this way find a place in history


among the detained and unparoled, an individual like her,


though hidden by an epoch of lean notation—“Marked


Parkinsonian tremor,” “Chronic paranoid type”—


a time when the animal slowed by its fate


was excited to catch a glimpse of its tail


or feel through her skin the dulled-over joy


when for a moment her hands were still.




“An Individual History” first appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2009.