George Held: Night Falls at Nightingale’s

Dear Paul,

I miss you so much but they won’t let me receive letters here unless they read them first so I guess you might have written but got censored. I’ve asked Jill to play go-between for us since she’s the only one I trust and she puts on her bland nice little girl act when she visits. Otherwise only my brother has visited (once) and Daddy (twice).  But he puts on a cheerfulness that he never had to fake before. I know it’s because that bitch my stepmother Caroline has made him promise not to see me. She’s the one who put me here of course in the sanitarium. Nightingale’s. They don’t call it Nightingale Sanatorium or Nightingale Booby Hatch of course just Nightingale’s. Maybe you can write one of your poems about it, sort of an anti-Keats poem. I know how much you love the ode and one of my best memories is of you reading it to me under the big oak at the high school. I wish you could come and read it to me again but Caroline put you on the list of banned visitors as you might have found out if you’ve tried to visit. You can give Jill a letter and she’ll try to slip it to me the next time she comes whenever that might be. And just do me the favor of telling me if I sound as screwed up as Caroline made me out to be. She just can’t stand it that Daddy still loves me and I remind him of my mother so of course she put me away so she could celebrate their second anniversary without me around. She hated the way I refused to join the toast at the first one. So she decided to find a way to get rid of me and convinced my shrink to sign the papers that put me here. Sure I acted out I’m not going to let that bitch take Daddy over completely. Now the only way I can feel anything and write you about my feelings is if I keep the tranquilizer pill under my tongue and pretend to swallow it and then I pretend to go to sleep but I use that little pocket light you gave me last spring when I turned 18 to write under the covers. I made a little hole in the mattress where I can store the pills when I don’t need them to get to sleep. I remember how much you love squirrels and how we used to watch them for practically an hour while they stored nuts and acorns in tree holes even though usually I can’t sit still for five minutes. So I’m your little squirrel among all the nuts here. I won’t get too personal in case this letter is intercepted but you can imagine how much I miss doing certain things with you—like reading Keats—ha! ha! Please do write me Paul. your ever loving Dessa


Dear Dessa,

Thank you so much for sending me a letter through Jill. She’ll be our go-between, as you say, though she told me even she, your best friend, can only visit you once a month. I know they’re strict at Nightingale’s because when I tried to see you, they said I wasn’t on the list and wouldn’t let me past the front gate.

Remember when Pete’s parents arranged for him to spend the summer there so he wouldn’t have to go to jail for shop-lifting? It was pretty funny when Smitty and I talked to him through the fence and he said, “What am I doing in here with all these nuts?” and then laughed like a loon.

I guess it’s not funny for you, though. None of us can figure out how your step-mom got you committed. Did she get Guy to give the place a big donation? The last I’d heard, you were at Emma Willard last spring waiting to hear from Cazenovia and Skidmore. We’d talked about it during spring break—if you got in to either of those schools and I got into Hamilton, we’d be able to see each other on weekends. Then, just after I got the green light from Hamilton and tried to call you at E.W., the secretary told me you’d withdrawn. To where, I asked, and she said she wasn’t “at liberty” to say more. Jill didn’t even know where you were for a couple of weeks, until her mother heard the gossip at the country club. Then we knew you weren’t “at liberty” anymore, you were in Nightingales’s after a so-called nervous breakdown. Even if that’s what you had—and I believe you that Caroline didn’t want you around this summer so she could have Guy to herself—they could have let you come home for treatment so you could hang out with your friends—and make out with me. We could go out into the sound in your Lightning the way we used to when we were still seeing each other regularly. You never liked the term “going steady,” didn’t want to abandon Guy after your mom died.. I guess he didn’t think he was abandoning you when he caved in to Caroline’s desire to commit you.

 I’ll never forget the first time you took me out in the Lightning. I’d never been to the shore club before. I remember how we took the keel out of your cabana and put it in the boat after we’d hauled it off the sand into the water. I’d never been sailing before, and you had to tell me to sit in the bow while you pushed us out to waist-high water, then climbed aboard and sat at the tiller and took the guy lines for the sail. It caught a puff of breeze and you guided us through the boat traffic near shore out into the middle of the sound. I was in awe of you more than ever as you took us on a ride, me sitting like a lump of clay, watching how coolly you controlled the boat. The sky was bright blue with a few high clouds, just the sort of day I knew I’d be in for a serious sunburn, even with a layer of Coppertone on my skin. You’re so lucky you get nut-brown from the sun, though you still put zinc oxide on your nose to prevent peeling. The contrast with your dark Ban-rays, your honey-blonde hair blowing in the breeze, your white bikini—it all made you look pretty glamorous. I felt really lucky being out in a boat with you, especially because my folks can’t afford a boat, much less to join any kind of private club.

When the wind shut down and becalmed us, you said not to worry and opened a Coke and lit a cigarette for us to share. Then you said you were going to take advantage of the calm and sunbathe, and you lay down with your head in my lap and your arms slung over my legs like an armchair. I’d already pulled on my t-shirt to try to keep the sun off my back and I thought maybe the outline of your arms would make a white pattern on my reddening thighs. After you’d finished the Coke and tossed the ciggy butt overboard, you told me to climb over you and take the tiller and keep the boat stable, especially if the wake of a motor boat rocked us. Then you rolled over on your stomach and untied your top so, you said, you wouldn’t get a white line from it. I’d never seen your body exposed that much and I had to force myself to keep an eye out for motor boats. When you rolled over to sun your front, your top stayed beneath you. I wasn’t sure if you were trusting me or testing me. You hadn’t yet let me touch your breasts—hard as I’d tried—but what an eyeful you gave me. You seemed to smile at the bulge in my trunks and I was excited. Then that speedboat with the prep-school guys in it shaved us too close, capsized the Lightning, and pitched you topless into the water. After we’d righted the boat and climbed back aboard, you borrowed my t-shirt to cover yourself as you used a fresh breeze to take us back to shore. But not before a friend of your parents had observed your bare top and when he reported it to them, maybe that’s when Caroline got the idea that you weren’t just wild but, you know, something else.

Anyhow, I’d better sign off now. Jill is coming by later to pick up this letter and bring it to you on her next visit. We’re lucky to have a friend like her. It’s too bad she dumped Smitty, but she wants to be free to meet new guys at college. She shouldn’t have much trouble doing that.

All my love,



Dear Dessa,

I hope you won’t be too pissed off at me, but I went to see your dad last Saturday. I had to overcome a lot of internal resistance to do it, and I’m not sure how big a mistake it might have been. First, I knew you might be unhappy if I saw him, and then I was afraid it might get back to your step-mom, but I asked him—probably begged him—not to tell her. Actually, she’s probably done her worst by you already, but why stir up that viper’s nest in her heart?

Anyhow, I went over to your house around 11 in the morning, when I knew Caroline would be playing tennis and then having lunch at the club. I figured your dad would be puttering around in the garden, and he was. He’s probably the only guy in America who wears an ascot when he gardens. As we used to joke, “What a Guy!”

He was weeding his beloved nicotianas and telling me about how they were named by some Frenchman named Nicot about 400 years ago and how they combine beauty and medicinal qualities. As usual, he told me they keep him rooted to his Virginia heritage on his family’s tobacco plantation. He’s wearing his great summer tan, which makes his face look extra handsome with that full head of steel-gray hair. He and Randolph Scott must share some genes. No wonder females find Guy so appealing. I hope I look that good when I’m in my fifties.

We hadn’t been talking long when he said, “I suppose you want to talk about Dessa,” and then, get this, he said he was surprised it took me so long to show up. He lit a Tarryton with his silver Ronson and leaned on his hoe handle like a model in a ciggy-butt ad. I wanted to blurt out, “Why did you let Caroline commit Dessa to Nightingale’s?” but instead I sort of circled around the subject, saying how bad I felt that you were going to have to postpone college and how much I missed seeing you. And he said, “Uh-huh,” “Uh-huh,” “Uh-huh,” to everything, and then I said that maybe you were cured and could be released for time served and he said not to think of it as a prison sentence but as a fallow season that would bring forth a better crop in time. He drawled that you were “deeply disturbed” but the staff at Nightingale’s was “very skillful” and “very professional” and “very caring” and assured him that you were “making progress toward recovery.” Well, I hope that last part is true—about them believing you’re recovering, though from what I’m not sure. Guy seems to believe that Nightingale’s is a good place and you’re being treated properly, or at least he wants to believe that.

And he also said the EST had helped. How come you never mentioned shock treatment in your letters? He said that they’re working on some kind of injection of insulin to replace electro-shock. I guess whatever works is good, but I told him about how our tenth-grade science class had visited Sing-Sing and when the assistant warden showed us a model of the chair and showed slides of how they shave a guy’s body and wet the spots where they attach the electrodes and fit the metal cap on the head, you nearly passed out and I had to hold you up and help you outside (so we missed seeing—Smitty told me—how the model sizzles and sparks and steam comes off it), and then you cried on my shoulder all the way back to Edgedale High on the bus. “Hold me,” you said, and I remember how your body shook.

Yes, I could smell you on the letter and it excited me, but don’t you think Jill might have smelled it too? We don’t want to do anything that would make her feel weird about helping us out. And pretty soon she and I are going off to college, so how will we communicate then? Even though Vassar isn’t too far away from Nightingale’s, Jill’s going to be busy adjusting to college life and cracking the books. This might be the last letter she can be our go-between for. I hope something I said to Guy will make him decide to help you.

Lots of love,



Dear Paul,

I really don’t care if you saw Guy. I wish he’d see me. I’ve got to tell him how bad things are going in here. It’s a daily battle with Miss H—she’s so mean and ugly and I told her so and we had a big fight I mean kicking and scratching, a couple of alley cats and the attendants ran in and put me in a straightjacket and tied me to the bed I mean Paul can you imagine what that’s like to be completely tied up and down I mean they just let you pee in your undies as part of the punishment these guys must have worked at Dachau and now they’ve taken away my yard privileges so I have to watch the squirrels thru the lounge windows and I’m making this short because they keep checking up on me all night long. I can’t live like this anymore—you’ve got to get me out of here. I thought I’d try to climb the fence in the middle of the night but don’t have a chance now with all the surveillance and now there’s rumors of a lobotomy. My God I’ve got to find a way out of all this and I know I will. Stick by me no matter what Paul you’re the only one for me



Dear Dessa,

Your last letter has me worried. I’m worried about the ratty treatment you’re getting there and about the effect it’s having on you. You know I’ll stick by you but I hope it won’t be long before you’re back outside. I don’t even want to think about a lobotomy. Don’t they have to get Guy’s permission before they do anything like that? If only I wasn’t here at Hamilton, I’d go see him again and explain the situation—better than I apparently did last time.

It’s amazing how fast the summer went. I worked as a sub at the post office every day I could to save up for buying some new clothes and a few items for my dorm room. The college provides a bed and a desk and a dresser, but you have to bring things like lamps and a radio, which my parents brought up with me and my clothes. My room is on the ground floor next to the door into the dorm, so there’s a lot of noise as guys go in or out of the building, even after midnight when they’ve been out drinking.

I feel a little guilty being away upstate while you’re down in Nightingale’s. I wish you had a chance to go through the same things I am, getting settled in a new environment, meeting new people, some of them from other states (even Idaho!) and other countries (Japan!), and being introduced to a lot of new ideas. I’ve been reading Light in August, by William Faulkner, which is a lot more complicated than anything we read in high school, even his story “A Rose for Emily,” and you remember how creepy that was. And we’re even reading The Communist Manifesto in political science. Can you imagine how upset that would make Otto Schwarzkopf and his Committee of Eight, considering that they removed books like Cry, the Beloved Country and Native Son from the school library? Still, it’s pretty inspiring when Marx and Engels write that workers have nothing to lose but their chains. I guess the Committee wants to eliminate that sort of inspiration.

The creepiest thing here is that there are only men, except for a few secretaries in the various offices around campus. The guys are so horny just to see a woman that the faculty members keep their wives off campus except for formal events, like the convocation at the start of the school year. The students don’t shave or bathe as often as they would if girls were in their classes, and a few of the professors are probably raunchier than they would be in a co-ed school. Take our biology prof, Mr. Hargrove, who’s a former Marine. He was using a plastic model to teach us about a woman’s reproductive anatomy, and as he approached the vagina he rolled up his sleeve and flourished his middle finger as though he was going to finger her. That got the biggest laugh I’ve heard up here so far. Maybe the mixer with the girls from Wells this Saturday will take the edge off these guys.

I don’t want to make it sound like college is all fun, because I do have a job waiting tables in the dining hall for lunch and dinner, and we have a lot of homework and writing assignments. I only got a “B” on my first English essay, and that was a shock for someone who always aced his papers in high school. But that’s one of the differences between high school and college, and the prof told me he thought I’d be able to bring up my grade by the end of the term. I’ll have to work on that.

I guess you’ve heard enough of my new life up here. I think about you and wish I could do something to help—it’s kind of frustrating to be so far away. You know, we haven’t seen each other now for half a year. Maybe you’ll be home by Thanksgiving, when I’ll be back in Edgedale for a few days. Maybe that’s what we should hope for. Remember old Alexander Pope and “hope springs eternal in the human breast.”




Dear Paul,

I am sorry I was unable to deliver your last letter and am returning it in this envelope. I went home for a weekend and had a very brief visit with Dessa, and I am sorry to tell you she’s in pretty bad shape. Her hair was so stringy and dirty that it practically looked black, and she’s not keeping her body much cleaner, or maybe it was her clothing that smelled so bad, and it was stained too. She was jumpy one minute and morose the next. Our visit was held in the lounge with her nurse, a Miss Haendler, standing nearby the whole time so I couldn’t give Dessa the letter. But I did tell her you had written and send love. Seeing our once-joyous Dessa in such a sorry condition makes me very sad. She is really lucky to have a guy like you.

You may write me at my Vassar address if you’d like. It’s such a thrill to be studying where Mary McCarthy, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Muriel Rukeyser (for two years) and so many other brilliant women went before me. I hope you’re as happy at Hamilton as I am here.

Let’s get together for a drink during Christmas break. If Dessa is still in Nightingale’s, and I fear she will be, we can at least drink a toast to her.

Your friend,



Dear Paul,

I hope this letter finds you well and succeeding in your studies at Hamilton. That is a fine college, somewhat the northern equivalent of Washington and Lee, where I attended college. (I met Dessa’s mother at a mixer at Sweet Briar.) But I digress.

Now that the funeral and some time for grieving are behind us, I want to tell you how deeply sorry I am about our tragic loss. You were very kind to Dessa, and I now appreciate more than ever the time you took to visit me that day in my garden. I had a suspicion that you must have had some way of contacting her in Nightingale’s, and Jill has now written me from Vassar and revealed her role as your “go-between,” as she calls it. Furthermore, she wrote that your letters meant a great deal to Dessa. I am sure that you believed you were doing the right thing, though some might question whether such correspondence was altogether consonant with her therapeutic regime at Nightingale’s.

Just for the record, Dessa’s passing has officially been ruled as due to an overdose of barbiturates, though how she obtained enough to quell herself is still under investigation. If anyone has information about this, it would, of course, be his moral obligation to come forward to help everyone concerned put an end to this matter. The same would be true for information about any intimation that Dessa had contemplated suicide.

The director at Nightingale’s assures me that my daughter was well treated and was on her way to recovery. She was, as we know, deeply disturbed, and perhaps she was deeply unhappy in a way that could not be altered, at least in the short term.

Patience, Paul, we must all have patience to live through the rough patches of life and to put it all in historical perspective. This is perhaps easier for me as a Virginian than for your and Dessa’s generation in the North. On the spectrum between patience and impulsiveness, I think you would agree that Dessa’s behavior fell rather close to the latter end. And yet we loved her nonetheless, for her loyalty, her bravery, and her warm heart.

Thank you again for your concern, and best wishes for an unclouded future.


Guy Lee Dearborn

For more on George Held, please see our Authors page.


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