Tom Ryan’s Screw is a report on the time he spent as a guard at Bridgewater State Hospital, an institution that was supposed to be a place where those with mental illness to be housed and receive treatment. Rather than receive the care that the courts or their doctors recommended, however, Ryan asserts that the patients were abused. Screw is an interesting exploration of the institutional culture of a mental hospital in the 1970s.
Let me start off by saying that the book is fairly simply written. Chapters are short. They typically encase one encounter or event. The book is an easy read; perhaps too easy. It feels almost flimsy in its written structure. This shouldn’t be too surprising; the book was published by a company called South End Press. Its stated opinion on copyright, as found on the copyright page of the book, is: “Copyrights are required for book production in the United States. However, in our case, it is a disliked necessity.” I’m sure this was some sort of comment on the state of publishing rights forty years ago, but what comes across today is a lack of attention to detail; they didn’t care enough to make sure the book was formatted correctly and free of errors. Perhaps this isn’t a big deal for fiction books, but if you’re accusing people of having initiated and maintained long-term abuse of patients, you might want to make sure the book has no flaws for the accused to point at and say, “Well, you spelled this wrong, and some of the details don’t make sense. Are you sure you’re right on the rest of what you’re accusing people of?”
Once you get a grasp on and forgive the structure, Ryan gives us small accounts in each chapter. He explains what brought him there — he volunteered first through school, and then decided to go “under cover” as a guard. He then gives us the grisly details. There are not one, but two, men who gouge out their own eyes in response to treatment by guards. Many patients are beaten up. The overall doctor of Bridgewater, even though he never sees the patients, fights to keep them in the hospital. Most of the guards are not decent humans, as is shown over and over again.
I’m perfectly willing and able to understand that an institution can have such an atmosphere that those who are amoral can take over and call the shots. I find it difficult to believe that the entire group of people have no consciences and allow these things to happen, but I do have to remember that people had a hard time thinking that the Nazis were killing an entire group of people. So, yes, possible that a lot of people were doing some horrible things. My problem, though, is with Ryan himself. Before he even puts himself in the position of being a guard, he talks to a professor of his about going into Bridgewater posing as a patient. His professor is not in favor of this, and offers instead that Ryan can work on a survey he’s doing on the inmates, and that he would be an author on the paper that came as a result. Ryan turns this down, which is fine. He was arrogant in his reasoning, however — the study is flawed and he basically thought his professor was an idiot for wanting to do it. This behavior leads me to believe that Ryan wasn’t a quiet observer, but actively baited others in Bridgewater to manipulate them into more aggressive actions.
Screw opened my eyes to how badly we can treat each other when there’s a power differential. I just wish the observer had been able to be impartial.