washingtonpost.com
Video diaries reveal life for those committed to St. Elizabeths

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 9:05 PM

People at St. Elizabeths aren't often asked what they think about life in the District's public psychiatric hospital.

So when a local actress and producer Joy Haynes came calling last year, with the idea of helping a handful of patients tell their stories on camera, it didn't take long for the hospital to find a few people eager to be heard.

Haynes, who counts at least a dozen short films among her credits, was thrilled. She couldn't wait to meet the men who had agreed to participate in her video diary project.

Then she did.

And as she learned who the patients were and what had brought them to St. Elizabeths, Haynes was stricken with flashes of doubt.

One of the men had killed his wife. Another had raped and killed a young Senate aide. Collectively, the five patients had spent more than 150 years at St. Elizabeths, each committed after serious and, in some cases, heinous crimes for which they had been found not guilty by reason of insanity.

"It was, to be perfectly frank, pretty emotional," said Haynes, who is 37 and practices immigration law alongside her artistic endeavors. "I questioned myself, as far as what I was doing and exactly who I was giving voice to."

But she said she thought about why she wanted to do the project. For her, the diaries were about helping the men by allowing them to share their reflections about St. Elizabeths beyond the hospital's campus in Southeast Washington.

"I wasn't there to pass judgment," she said. "I was there to create the story that they wanted to tell."

So the filming went on and continued for weeks under the direction of Haynes and co-director Ellie Walton. Bit by bit, the men learned to record themselves and the worlds they inhabit, and to craft the footage into a series of introspective narratives.

On Saturday night, the 57-minute film, "Saint Elizabeths Hospital: Voices From Within," will premiere in front of nearly 250 people, including the five subjects of the film - Lewis Ecker II, 68; Ronald Embry, 53; Kevin McCain, 54; Calvin Neal, 57; and James Snyder, believed to be 79.

Interest in the film has been picking up and every seat in the hospital's auditorium is already taken for Saturday's premiere, which Haynes hopes will be the first of many screenings.

Shot over four months or so at St. E's, "Voices" offers glimpses of the old St. Elizabeths, which opened in 1855, and vivid images of the new St. Elizabeths , which opened last year.

In the film, each diarist has a segment to himself, to talk about the St. Elizabeths he has known.

Snyder, the longest-confined of the five men, shows himself kissing his rosary, composing poetry and walking on a treadmill. He talks about "knowing that I am somebody and that the years that I have spent here have not been wasted."

Ecker introduces the old John Howard building, where until last year he and others with criminal pasts were housed. "The treatment was rough," he says. "It was hard, and most times, it was anti-mental health."

A note's power

A year ago, Haynes could scarcely have imagined a premiere like the one that will unfold Saturday night.

A D.C. native and a graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, she had never been to St. Elizabeths and didn't know much about it. A public television documentary about an arts workshop for St. Elizabeths patients changed that. After watching the program, Haynes decided to buy a piece of patient artwork.

So she called the hospital's community outreach director, Maureen Jais-Mick, and visited St. Elizabeths for the first time. At the hospital, she took a liking to an abstract painting by a patient named Herbert Settles. After buying the 19-by-25-inch watercolor piece for $50, she wrote the artist a thank you.

So proud was Settles of the note, he carried it everywhere, to the point that it was soon in tatters. When, he would ask Jais-Mick, would Haynes be back to buy another of his paintings?

When Haynes learned how much he cherished the note, she was stunned. "That," she recalled, "was sort of the epiphany for me."

The arts, she realized, could be therapeutic for the patients, and film could be her entry into the effort. Soon, she and Jais-Mick were talking about the video diary project and how it could work.

By the end of August, Haynes, who lives in Adams Morgan, had raised about $6,000 in backing. It would pay for the cameras that the patients would use to capture their existence and help cover the other costs of the otherwise volunteer project.

Looking past crimes

In 2010, the hospital moved into a new $161 million building years in the making. It was there that Haynes would meet the five men and begin her reckoning with what had led each to St. Elizabeths.

Embry, who had received diagnoses of schizoaffective disorder and substance abuse, had killed his wife. Snyder, whose diagnoses are antisocial personality disorder and alcohol abuse, had killed as well. Neal, with diagnoses of delusional disorder and substance abuse, had assaulted someone, and McCain, who has schizophrenia and alcohol dependence, had been accused of sex crimes.

The most notorious of them, though, was almost certainly Ecker, who had been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1967 slaying of Judith Robeson. A 24-year-old aide to then-Sen. Frank Carlson (R-Kan.), Robeson was raped, beaten and strangled.

Ecker was arrested days later. A diagnosed sexual sadist, he would, in his many years at St. Elizabeths, be caught more than once with sexually sadistic materials.

"It is a horrible, horrible crime," Haynes said when asked about Ecker's past. "There's no changing that."

Haynes uses the project to look beyond the patients' volent acts and focus on what the men have done since coming to St. Elizabeths. Ecker, for instance, was an elected neighborhood advisory commissioner in the 1990s in Ward 8, where St. Elizabeths is.

Sitting in the hospital auditorium where "Voices" will be screened Saturday night, each man expressed his own reasons for wanting to make a video diary.

Embry wants to send a message to young people about the perils of neglecting medication and therapy. "I killed my wife," he said. "I had stopped taking my medications."

Neal wants the chance to catch the world up on his life. "I think a little public view can help me, let my friends know what I've been doing for the past 25 years."

Snyder sees an opportunity to amplify all the writing he has done over the years for hospital publications. "People would get to see me, the person they've been reading about."

McCain wants the world to know that he's ready to leave St. Elizabeths. "You stay in a hospital to get well and go home."

And Ecker just wants someone to listen and to understand that the person he once was is not the person he is.

"I kind of bare my soul in the movie, and I just hope at least one person in the audience appreciates it."

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

cauvinh@washpost.com

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