a career in psychiatry could be yours



I am waiting in a phone queue, shuffling my virtual feet.

The mild mannered muzak swells & struts with a kind of fatuous pomposity.

Sounds like some best forgotten minor piece of Bach playing,

the ‘passive-aggressive tempered clavichord’ or some such shit. The sort of Chamber-pot music with soothing strings that’s scientifically determined to suppress rage in listeners and lower the blood pressure of rats.

They should probably pipe it out to the prisons, I thought, before quickly recollecting

the whole Clockwork Orange business and its less than successful application

of Dr Pavlov‘s theories, and, for awhile, daydreaming about ‘Little Alex’s

less salubrious scenes diverts me briefly.

Sadly awareness soon drifts back to Bach

and the ‘soothing’ mogadon muzak.

Swells of highly compressed, computer generated strings

ring and distort in the headphones.

I wonder what Bach would make of this treatment of his work; Homogenised, processed, digitalised, formatted, compressed & converted and sent down a wire

to snap, crackle and pop in a tinny, tiny rendition through a quarter inch speaker.

Poor Bastard.

As for me most classical muzak has been ruined by association anyway.

Too many tampon and toilet paper adds on TV

that wanted an aura

of dignified yet comforting smoothness to adhere to their product.

Alas, as ‘Little Alex’ discovered, collateral conditioning is also a possibility

Which puts me in recollection of this time I was in Psychology Class,

back when I was studying to be a psych. nurse

at Wolston Park Psychiatric Hospital.

Ah Wolston Park. Dead letter office of the human soul.

They’ve broken the establishment up now, but at the time I worked there

it was the largest mental institution in the southern hemisphere,

with around 1400 inmates and nearly a thousand staff.

Oh the tales I could tell..


But on this occasion I was in class and our lecturer in psychology

(a lovely lass with the look of the seventies intellectual to her. Long straight brown hair. Big round glasses, skinny. Probably listened to folk music.),

was speaking about ‘conditioned behaviour’

and the famous case study

of ‘Little Albert’, an experiment from the B.F. Skinner school

of twisted psychological mistreatment..

‘Little Albert’ was a two year old brat that scientists exposed at strategic intervals to a harmless white lab rat. Whenever the door slid open and the kid could see the rat,

the researchers simultaneously set off a loud, disturbing sound, a siren or an explosion or some such thing, that would frighten ‘Little Albert’ and make him cry.

The goal of this minor piece of laboratory sadism

was for Little Al to learn to associate rats with a distressing stimulus,

so that eventually he would cry and show fear whenever he saw a rat, even without the original stimulus ie., the noise.

Thus the researchers hoped to demonstrate the process of ‘Learned Aversion’

and by doing so get fabulous funding and a big write up in the scientific press.

And it came to pass, my teacher told us, that the researchers were successful

and ‘Little Albert’ did learn to fear rats,

apparently for the rest of his life.


Ah, a happy ending. Science triumphs over all.


So, were there any questions, asked my lecturer?

I had a question. A thought bothered me.

What about the rat,” I asked?

The rat?”

Yes, the rat. Did the rat learn to associate ‘Little Albert’ with the noise?

Did the rat thereafter demonstrate fear when exposed to children?”

There was a pause.

er.. I don’t think anyones asked that question before,” she confessed,

and suddenly decided to dismiss the class early for the day.


I knew then that my career in psychiatric care would be a short one.

My point of view was too relativistic for the industry.


And so it proved to be.

You have to understand that there was a real ‘us and them’ attitude

towards the patients amongst many of the staff.

It manifested as contempt, as though the patients were there

only through their own weakness, but its real basis was fear.

That old unreasoning fear of insanity. That it might be catching.

That it could happen to you. The ‘sane’ must always be on guard

against it and maintain the line. Beware of weirdo’s.

The big ring of keys we wore on our belts was the badge of our sanity,

the symbol of our superiority.

As a general rule, most of the staff at the time were not well educated,

and were poorly trained. Some were kind. Some were not.

You see, Wolston Park was situated next to a working class satellite town.

The two big employers for this ghetto were the cement works and the mental hospital, and hence a tribe of 3 generations of aides and nurses had evolved there. The smarter ones trained as nurses but it was always hard to staff a mental hospital

and as a result grade 8 qualifications could get you in as a nursing aid.

Having a family member on the staff could get you in if all else failed.

The in-house training for aides was largely a joke. Mopping floors mainly.

The nursing training wasn’t much better, but you could always transfer

to a real hospital and finish your training there.

Many of the Charge Nurses, who really controlled the place,

had been there since World War II, before the advent of the modern mind-controlling psychiatric drugs, back when new staff were issued with boots and a billy club.

Some of the patients had been there since then too.

By many of these older staff I was considered to be too soft on the patients, too sympathetic. In the old days they would have incited a tame lackey amongst the patients to stage an attack on me, to toughen me up or drive me out,

& rewarded the lackey later for doing so, but since ‘the Inquiry

they had been forced to reluctantly abandon many of the old ways.

But still they muttered I spent too much time with the patients.

And why not, they were less aggro than many of the staff.

Indeed, a couple even became friends, like old Mr Moore,

who reckoned he was Ned Kelly’s nephew.

He probably was. A grizzled, old long-bearded bushie he certainly looked the part.


The grossly retarded and chronic schizophrenics, used to years of neglect, starved for attention,

would become besotted with me and follow me around as I did my rounds.

One took to calling out my name, over and over, for hours on end

whenever I took my days off. Needless to say this did not endear me

to others on the staff, who had to endure his endless plaintive hooting..

So when it was said that I had been seen socialising with a female ex-patient,

well, they really thought I had crossed the line. Did I care? I’d had a gutful of the whole show by that stage and was already planning my exit from the place where Dead Roads meet..

But further reminiscences of the psychiatric wards will have to be put on hold,

For now a human voice suddenly appears amidst

the rapidly evaporating sugar strings,

like an angel amongst the parting clouds,

and lo it speaks softly, saying unto me,

My name is Janelle, how may I help you.”

 Here endeth the meditation.


( The Reverend Hellfire is an ordained minister of the Church of Spiritual Humanists, and a practising performance poet)


Those curious about the tail of Little Albert might be interested in checking out;



~ by reverendhellfire on April 4, 2010.


  1. Nothing to say but everything to think…

    Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: