AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 29, Number 1, 2020


Hotel California: Pharmacology Triumphs over Discipline

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The title “Hotel California” is taken from the Eagles’ song released by Asylum Records in 1977. Over the years there have been many interpretations of the title and lyrics. In my painting, I’ve chosen to connect Hotel California to the Camarillo State Mental Hospital. The lyrics co-written by Don Felder, Glenn Frey and Don Henley describe the symptoms of mental illness and its results “And still those voices are calling from far away, wake you up in the middle of the night…” and “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” 

People displaying the pathology in the lyrics were removed from society and often hospitalized against their will. They became prisoners at Camarillo and other similar destinations. The mentally ill lack the necessary internal controls and discipline to function in society. They disturb the public’s homeostasis. Normal restraints fail in this population. Incarceration in facilities like Camarillo is an attempt to restore order.

In the late eighteenth century, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham described Panopticon, as a “new method of obtaining power of mind over mind.” He designed a circular prison which enabled keepers to have limitless surveillance. Not rooms with a view but rooms — and prisoners — that were viewed 24/7.

Michel Foucault, the twentieth century French social theorist, further refined the concept to explain obedience within the confines of modern society with its tendency to observe and police behavior. Being continually scrutinized causes people to modulate their behavior to fit the prevailing standard. Invisible rules promote self-discipline provided the capacity to understand societal boundaries exists. But how can this unseen Panopticon be applied to individuals lacking the awareness to decode the limits? Some mentally ill have impaired reasoning mechanisms; they cannot self-regulate and fall outside the walls of the Panopticon. They are unable to cope with society’s restrictive gaze. Those who cannot conform are sidelined by society and physically removed.  

Parked in a desolate hallway, the lone empty stretcher in my painting represents the relocation of the mentally ill to the “Hotel California.” Dangling straps signify the physical restraint needed to isolate those who misunderstand society’s constraints. The concavity of the stretcher’s surface evokes the anxious and confused confinement of the patient. The stretcher is dirty and rusted from the bodily discharge of those transported away from society. It stands as a somber reminder that mental patients must adjust their thinking in order to return to society. Mind-altering measures portend a trip to another chamber or possibly the operating theater. Protocols, some cruelly invasive, were devised to rewire rational thinking in these patients. The patients are prisoners not only of my “Hotel,” depicted in limited palette, but also of their illness. Their opportunities become monochrome once they are admitted to the ward or return to the world.    

In the 1970s, mind- altering drugs replaced cloth belts with chemical compounds. Pharmacology replaced the Hotel California. Chemistry allows the patient to appreciate their inner Panopticon or at least to blunt behavior enough to re-enter the remote perimeter of society. The decaying stretcher and the worn discolored ties are now vestiges of devices and methods abandoned in favor of medicine. Pharmacological control shuttered many institutions. The subtle low value lavender color, out of place on the grimy back wall, hints at the power of these drugs to produce an artificial neurochemistry. The verse of the song, “We are all just prisoners here of our own device,” still holds sway. 

Many celebrities, including jazz great Charlie Parker, spent time in Camarillo. Even they were not immune to the abuses inflicted on mental patients. In 1997, the hospital was closed by Governor Pete Wilson. Eventually Camarillo became part of the California State University system. It was transformed from a facility of compelled discipline to an institution of chosen discipline. Pharmacology evolved from drugs that were imposed upon the mentally ill to regain control to drugs that were voluntarily taken to lose control. At campus on any given day a visitor would be greeted by the “warm smell of colitas rising up through the air.”

Oil on Linen après David Maisel’s Library of Dust


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Mandy Saggu | July 16, 2019 at 6:53 am

Beautifully written

Martha | July 21, 2019 at 5:07 pm

Now this is a good fight. Maybe with national health!

Marlene | March 21, 2020 at 7:52 pm

Well that was just fascinating! I sent it to my sister, Dr Juliann Hanback, PhD Psychology. She is also an artist. She created an amazing fresco mural in her bathroom.