Kings Park: Stories from an American Mental Institution, a deeply moving and disturbing new documentary film from director Lucy Winer, will be screened this Monday night at International House, 3701 Chestnut St., in West Philadelphia. If you’ve got plans cancel them. Go see this incredible account of the history of Long Island’s Kings Park State Hospital, once one of the nation’s largest mental institutions housing up to 9,000 patients. It starts at 7 p.m. (free, no tickets required; doors open at 6:30 p.m.), and will be followed by a panel discussion, including the director and several mental health experts.
This is a heartrending film, centered upon the experiences of the director herself, who, after several failed suicide attempts as a troubled teen in the late 1960s, spent 2½ years in mental institutions, including six months at Kings Park. Today, Winer is a successful documentary filmmaker, and the film, she told me, is a more than 10-year labor of love, “started as a personal venture to try to sort out a chapter in my life I had locked away.” But what started as a project about personal healing also became a film about getting the public “to know what kind of crisis we have in mental health care and how we got here.”
The film’s most powerful moments come as Winer and other former patients, nurses, attendants, doctors and family members recount their relationship to Kings Park and its impact on their lives. For the many thousands whose lives intersected with the facility, these memories offer a glimpse into the terror and desolation that was life in a state institution. In one of the most intense moments of the film, Winer recounts one of her first days at Kings Park, when she enters the day room in the violent women’s ward, seeing drugged women, many sleeping or sprawled out on the floor. She begins to cry. But quickly another patient on the ward quietly comes up to her and tells her not to cry. “Do not cry,” she said, “they’ll hurt you.” Vulnerability was not a good option at Kings Park, where patients could be abused in myriad ways for the slightest infraction.
Kings Park is divided into three parts: “Going Back” follows the director as she revisits this very painful chapter in her life and returns to Kings Park State Hospital for the first time since her release. “The Story of the Hospital,” during which Winer meets those whose lives intersected with Kings Park as they seek to make meaning out of their experience there. And, finally, “After the Hospital,” tells the tragic story of deinstitutionalization in the 1980s and 1990s as state mental hospitals like Kings Park – including Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry in 1990 – shut down and sent many patients, including some who had been housed for decades, back into society, often with little or no preparation and/or assistance.