The Storm at the Door
Frederick Merrill is smart, witty, and loves to talk, but he’s also plagued by dark moods and the temptations of alcohol and women. After years of soaring high then plunging low, he leaves a party wearing nothing but a raincoat, and proceeds to flash drivers along the rural New Hampshire roadway. When confronted with this latest outrageous behavior, his wife, Katharine, decides to have him committed to the Mayflower Home in Belmont, Massachusetts.
The story is based on the author’s grandparents, who had a loving but unstable relationship; while today Frederick might be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, in the early 1960s the medical community’s response was not as well-informed, and Frederick did indeed end up in McLean Hospital, fictionalized as Mayflower for the novel. His time there was one of great change for the facility, as it transformed from a quiet, restful sanctuary for the mentally ill, with individual cottages and even some cows, to a more “modern” hospital with dormitories and the increased use of drugs and therapies such as electroconvulsive shock treatment to keep the patients catatonic and manageable.
Ultimately, Block and his mirror-image protagonist are searching to find out the truth behind what happened to Frederick during his time at Mayflower. He’s also searching for his grandmother’s version of the truth, much of the evidence of which she destroyed years after Frederick’s death. Readers will see that while many of the patients at Mayflower, including poet Robert Lowell, do need treatment for various mental illnesses, those who run the hospital are often in need of it themselves. Through these flawed characters, both real and fictionalized, readers get a glimpse of the American mental health system in the 1960s, and the profound effects a wife’s decision can have on a family for generations.