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Project 17

Review

Project 17

Derik is an underachiever with a reputation for breaking hearts. High school is almost over, and he wants to achieve something before being roped into his family's business after graduation. Deciding to make a film about the abandoned mental institution on the hill, he assembles a group of classmates to join him on an overnight stay. Liza is an overachiever looking to beef up her resume. Mimi is an odd girl who only wears black. Chet is the class clown. Greta and Tony are theater geeks.

Not knowing what to expect of the hospital, or each other, the characters get sucked into a mystery involving one of the former inmates and the number 17. Their night in the hospital becomes a sort of spooky scavenger hunt as they piece together the fragments of a shattered life that ended at the hospital years ago. Trying to assuage the spirits of the place while facing down their own demons, these six teens will emerge from their night at the hospital changed forever.

Danvers State Hospital, where the book is set, is a real place located in Danvers, MA. Built in 1878, the hospital was operational for over 100 years until its closure in 1992. Since then, most of the hospital structures have been torn down to make way for residential redevelopment. The unusual architecture of the building, a central structure with wings radiating out on each side "like the wings of a bat," was built according to the plans of psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbridge. The staggered wings, a diagram of which Laurie Faria Stolarz includes in her book, were intended to give patients access to light and air. The design was meant to be curative, but like many of the other treatments practiced at Danvers State Hospital --- including the trans-orbital lobotomy --- it has become widely regarded as a monstrosity.

Stolarz has clearly mined what little information is available on Danvers State, including websites and films. PROJECT 17 owes a great deal to Brad Anderson's horror movie Session 9, which was filmed in the ruins of the hospital shortly before its demolition. It's strange to think that one of the more complete visual records of the place is Anderson's film, which is an atmospheric horror movie about an asbestos removal team crumbling beneath the pressures of the environment and their own psyches.

In addition to including her own atmospherics of an abandoned hospital (curiously well furnished with lots of files and personal effects lying around in a horrific violation of today's medical privacy laws), Stolarz touches on the history of the place and some of its more unthinkable practices. She discusses a form of hydrotherapy in which patients were restrained to hours of sitting in tubs of cold water, and covers the aforementioned trans-orbital lobotomy in which a thin, sharp instrument was inserted through the tear duct to sever the connections between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain. Used as a treatment for the more disturbed or agitated patients, the resulting personality and behavioral changes have come to be considered intentional and criminal brain damage.

PROJECT 17 fits into the victim's genre of mental institution narratives, best known through books like ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, THE BELL JAR and GIRL, INTERRUPTED. The main “victim” in the book is Christine, a 17-year-old foster child who has been sent to Danvers for an unspecified mental illness. The classmates piece together her story with the help of a journal they discover in an old mattress and with the clues she left behind. It is notable that Christine is a female and a foster child. Disempowered, unwanted people were the most likely to be checked into institutions at the first sign of behavioral disorders. Later, one of the characters reveals that her own grandmother was warehoused at Danvers for her severe alcoholism.

Although mental institutions have come to be viewed as sadistic prisons in which many innocent people have been caught and experimented upon, the institutional system emerged as a result of the work of the great social reformer Dorothea Dix. Horrified by the treatment of the insane, who were often housed in prisons or basements, beaten and starved, Dix wrote about their plight and petitioned Congress to consider new methods of care and treatment. Much of the 19th and 20th century treatments of the mentally ill is the result of her work.

Since then, amazing progress has been made in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. While there are still operational institutions, a lot of the disorders that would've once landed people in institutions are now treated with medicines, much gentler and more effective than the sedatives once used to control patients. But the pervasive horror and fascination with mental institutions and the care and treatment of the mentally ill stem from the fact that we still know so little about the human mind. What treatments used today will seem as barbaric and criminal as the trans-orbital lobotomy? Which of us, given a different time or situation, would have been locked behind the institution doors?

PROJECT 17 touches on all these issues, but it is primarily a spooky read narrated in the voices of each of the different characters. It blends the supernatural adventure of Stolarz’s BLUE IS FOR NIGHTMARES COLLECTION with the poignant realism of BLEED. It is of particular interest to anyone interested in Danvers State Hospital or the history of mental institutions in the United States.

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Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on October 18, 2011

Project 17
by Laurie Faria Stolarz

  • Publication Date: December 18, 2007
  • Genres: Adventure
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion Book CH
  • ISBN-10: 0786838566
  • ISBN-13: 9780786838561