Sunday, September 30, 2018
Book Review: 'Saints of Camarillo: Inside California's Infamous State Hospital' by Dovie Ruth
“Training at Camarillo State Hospital as a psychology intern is not going to be easy’”
Author Dovie Ruth earned a Bachelors degree in psychology with a minor in design and illustration and a Masters degree in special education. Professionally, she has worked as a social worker, an administrator of residential care homes for the developmentally disabled, and as a special education teacher. She is the author of a professional manual in special education that is often quoted in the dissertations of doctoral students. manual in special education that is often quoted in the dissertations of doctoral students. SAINTS OF CAMARILLO is her first novel.
Dovie is both a diarist and a journalist and the manner in which she shares the inside stories of Camarillo State Hospital utilizes those talents along with her gift for storytelling and elegant prose. She offers a Prologue that provides important factual history of her chosen house of interest – ‘Camarillo State Hospital was infamous long before I ever showed up. In fact, the institution was so well known throughout California that the mere mention of the word Camarillo was sure to raise a few eyebrows in the room. On such occasions, Mama always rolled her eyes to the west, which was the general direction of the asylum from our home in California’s Central Valley. Her expression made some folks believe that she was privy to everything that went on behind the institution’s locked doors. But the truth was that Mama didn’t know squat. It would be a decade or so before she ever set foot on the hospital grounds. Perhaps Mama just liked the way the word Camarillo rolled off her tongue like the trill of a solitary night bird’s call. The melody was vibrant and colorful, yet reminiscent of the days when Mexican land grants parsed much of California into vast ranchos. Juan Camarillo first arrived on California’s central coast from Mexico in 1834 and eventually purchased Rancho Calleguas, one of the last remaining Mexican land grants. In time, the nearly ten thousand acres would become known as the Camarillo Ranch, and later, the city of Camarillo. Almost exactly one century later, plans were in the works to build one of the largest mental hospitals in the world just three miles outside the city limits. In 1932, the State of California purchased 1,760 acres of the Lewis Ranch. The spread was south of Camarillo on the eastern reaches of the Oxnard Plain, which was ironically named Pleasant Valley. To the south, the Santa Monica Mountains rose steeply from the valley floor and blocked any view that might be had of the Pacific Ocean. Not far from shore, the Channel Islands lolled in the surf. By 1957, Camarillo State Hospital would house over seven thousand patients and employ seven hundred staff members. The balmy weather of the coastal valley made it a therapeutic retreat for those who suffered from mental illness or tuberculosis. The hospital’s address was 1878 South Lewis Road. The winding entrance road followed a long, meandering path as it skirted fields of citrus, broccoli, lima beans, and sugar beets on one side. The Santa Monica Mountains guarded the other. After a little less than a mile, the lane turned before it reached Round Mountain, which bore an undeniable resemblance to a naked breast. The colossal Mission Revival style hospital was tucked snugly against the mouth of a wide and crooked canyon like a toad that was too large to be devoured by a writhing snake. The wide tail of the serpentine gorge was flanked on both sides by rocky folds of earth that were too steep and rugged to be called foothills. Sagebrush, wild anise, and prickly cactus dotted the crusty mountain sides. Only an occasional coyote, rabbit or rattler called the treacherous terrain home. Camarillo State Hospital was also my home for two years.’
And so we enter Camarillo an as Dovie succinctly states in her synopsis the content of this novel is as follows:’ “Aspiring therapists, counselors, and mental health professionals must first submit to their own analysis, regardless of the demons that are sure to be uncovered. Saints of Camarillo explores the hearts and souls of those who served at one of the largest, most progressive, but notorious mental asylums in the world. A veiled memoir as told through the eyes of a psychology intern at Camarillo State Hospital in the 1970s.’
Solid in writing, engrossing in subject matter, SAINTS OF CAMARILLO becomes an instant classic.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.