10. 29. 2013. 12:39

You can also become a mental patient

Péter Hajnóczy: Reports from the Pits

Péter Hajnóczy's recently discovered book follows the stories of ordinary people who got caught up in the net of the corrupt mental institutions of socialist Hungary where there was no one to protect the patients and from where there was no escape.

Where tyranny exists, that tyranny exists also outside of politics. Because in such a world everything is politics. All scandals are political scandals. There is no better proof for this than Péter Hajnóczy’s Solitary Confinement, written in the 1970s. After publishing it in the journal Valóság the author transformed the work into a more detailed sociographical non-fiction book. But it was not allowed to be published, and the manuscript was kept hidden until now, for thirty-odd years. Discovered in 2010 in a forgotten paper box, it is now published under the title Reports from the Pits.

In the Soviet bloc psychiatry and mental hospitals were often used for various political reasons, yet Solitary Confinement tells a different kind of horror story. It shows that in a world which lacked the minimum guarantees of the rule of law, not only the practice of ideological persecution, but a whole array of other injustices and harassments could go unnoticed and unpunished. Tyranny violently marked the private lives of politically insignificant citizens too.

The text follows the stories of a few ordinary people who got caught up in the net of the corrupt mental institutions of socialist Hungary. There’s the story of a lady with no diagnosed mental illness who asked to be placed temporarily into a nursing home, and ended up being locked away in a mental institution indefinitely. Her home was confiscated so as to leave her no way back. It is only thanks to some fortunate coincidences and daring individuals that she managed to get out. Then there’s the story of another man who spent twelve years in the psychiatric ward although no doctor ever declared him mentally ill. And another story of a patient with a Jewish background, interned for kleptomania. For long years inside the institution, he was constantly beaten up by the other patients because of his kleptomania and because he was Jewish. The employees of the institute did nothing to help him, so he ended up beaten to death.

Through the presentation of these case studies, Hajnóczy manages to reveal the crookedness of the entire system, from the small parts to the whole. In the incredibly overpopulated hospitals of Hungary there was no room for all the mental patients who needed proper care. So approximately fifteen thousand internees were sent off to underequipped, unprofessional, and prisonlike institutions located in remote regions. These “homes” were not subjected to any external supervision, and were not visited by legal representatives or social workers. There was no one to protect the mentally ill or the alcoholics living there, and there was no escape for those who were interned either by mistake or due to someone’s wicked stratagem. The presence of doctors was sparse and minimal; in reality, the institutions were run by untrained “middle cadres” who despotically commandeered the medical staff. The institute in Szentgotthárd was directed by a dilettante who behaved like a chief doctor, “visiting” the patients and prescribing medicine, but described epileptics as “people who are always angry and hate everyone.” With the help of some “innocent” medical documents, practically anyone could get rid of unwanted relatives by dumping them into one of these institutions. Mortality rates in these “homes” were quite high, and no one had the intention of remedying this situation, since there were lots of people waiting for a place.

There was hardly any hope for the manuscript of Hajnóczy’s investigative study to be published, but then―surprisingly―Valóság decided to publish it in 1975. Though the conclusions were censored, the publication created a major scandal. There was a trial against the author and the journal, but also an ethical scrutiny and further investigation of the institutions in question, resulting in the implementation of some superficial measures. Yet, in the end, no one was prosecuted or reprehended, and there were no essential changes in the system: the lack of civil rights and individual security remained the same. For this was the inherent connection between this apparently apolitical issue and the political system at large: the inability of the individual to assert their rights against the arbitrariness of a tyrannical regime. Everyone was aware of this, but nobody spoke about it. The subversive and revolutionary effects of this investigation were later built into Hajnóczy’s unique prose. In the following years, the authorities did everything in their power to minimalize and marginalize the issue.

Ultimately, the author expanded the study into a non-fiction book by presenting the prelude to and the consequences of his investigation. Magvető publishing house bought the manuscript in 1980, but had no intention of publishing it―or showing it to anyone―and the text was buried, so to say. Hajnóczy died in 1981, at the age of 38, and his widow fought for years to recuperate the manuscript. But even after she succeeded, it lay hidden for almost thirty years, until it was discovered in a cardboard box in 2010. Now we can finally have the chance to know the complete story, and try to understand how it was possible and, in the same time, impossible to carry out this investigation which stabbed right to the heart of the dictatorial regime. Tamás Nagy did a great job editing the manuscript, adding the highly informative footnotes and writing the introduction.

This review was originally published in Hungarian in Népszabadság Online.

Hajnóczy Péter: Jelentések a süllyesztőből
Budapest: Magvető, 2013

Sándor Révész

Translated by: Szabolcs László

Tags: Péter Hajnóczy