Green Oak Psychiatric Hospital was built in 1842. It was originally intended to be a children’s hospital. However, after it was completed, people thought it looked too much like a prison for sick children to reside there. The gray bricks of the exterior, the small rooms, and the tight, curving hallways made the children restless. Thus, in 1843 it was designated a facility for the clinically insane. From that time until now, it has undergone a series of changes — including having been renamed over a dozen times — but has maintained the same clinical focus: to care for those who have been deemed psychologically unfit for society.
At Green Oak, we have experienced the breadth of human nature far more deeply than any philosopher, theologian, or novelist ever has. And yet, in the almost two centuries since Green Oak first opened, we have never quite met anyone like Dr. Albert Rapelli. His story, like those of most of the patients who inhabit the unadorned white halls of Green Oak, begins in tragedy.
Before his psychotic breakdown, Dr. Rapelli was a tenured professor at Cambridge and a world renowned historian. He specialized in the history of late antiquity; nevertheless, he was well-versed in everything from the Asuka and Nara periods of Japan to the Italian Renaissance. His most famous work was Personhood In Roman Antiquity, which details how the term “person”, originally referring to the masks worn by Roman actors, became attached to the concept as we know it. From this work comes his most famous adage that “a person is a cultural invention with a shorter history than the waterwheel.”
When Dr. Rapelli was forty-six, he took a research sabbatical to the Middle East and North Africa. He took his wife and young son with him. Neither of them was very excited about the trip, because they knew that when Dr. Rapelli was engaged in his historical investigations he became intolerable. Yet out of love for Dr. Rapelli, they agreed to go.
He was as irksome as they expected. There was even one incident in Dubai, after coming to a roadblock in his studies, where Dr. Rapelli removed a large painting of a ghaf tree from a hotel wall and smashed it. He was promptly asked to leave.
As the sabbatical neared its end, Dr. Rapelli and his family traveled to Algiers. It was there that Dr. Rapelli would explore the world famous library, Maktabat Alshakhsiat. Its collection, small but priceless, had been assembled for the regent Oruç Reis around a nucleus of books once owned, supposedly, by the great scholar and traveler Ibn Battuta.
The large wooden doors of its main entrance looked to Dr. Rapelli like an enormous keyhole. Horseshoe arches connected each room to the central library area. A large dome with elaborate geometrical designs allowed light in among the shelves and bookstands. This gentle light gave the library a timeless atmosphere. Nothing could be heard except for the sound of footsteps upon the ceramic tile, the turning of linen paper, and the soft, melodic chime of the huge clock that stood at the western entrance of the building.
Dr. Rapelli’s family, not possessing his historical acuity, found nothing of interest in the library besides the large clock. They were told it was a gift from the German watchmaker Peter Henlein to the privateer Barbarossa. Dr. Rapelli, however, told his family that such a story was deeply suspect to the point of, perhaps, being a complete fabrication. Regardless, they were mesmerized by the beauty of the large clock and how out of place it seemed. Its ambiguous history only added to its allure.
Dr. Rapelli took an armful of books into a library courtyard and began his studies. The books all possessed striking and elaborate designs, as much works of art as historical treasures. He delighted in touching them and staring at the pages, the penmanship, the colorful designs. The central focus of his intellectual labors in Algiers was an untranslated text from the Zayyanid period relating the teachings of Solomon ben Simon Duran. What specifically attracted Dr. Rapelli to this text was not Duran’s writing itself, but excerpts from a lost kabbalistic work by Abraham ben David. These referred, as Dr. Rapelli had hoped, to his glosses on 1 Samuel 28. Delighted by his find, he entered a sort of ecstatic trance. His family became increasingly frustrated with him and were eager to head back to the States as soon as possible.
On his final day in Algiers, Dr. Rapelli told his family he would meet them for dinner at a nearby restaurant. They waited for him at the restaurant for over an hour. At last, his wife and son decided to walk to the library and see what was causing his delay. On their way to the courtyard, they stopped to admire Henlein’s magnificent clock.
Looking up from his books, Dr. Rapelli saw his family waiting for him near the western entrance. He didn’t regret making them wait, because he was finishing his last important task before traveling back to the States.
As Dr. Rapelli left the courtyard to join his family, however, the giant clock suddenly fell from the wall. It landed on top of his wife and young son, crushing them both to death.
It wasn’t until several months later that Dr. Rapelli arrived at Green Oak. It was reported that Dr. Rapelli was experiencing severe psychotic episodes. The nature of these psychotic episodes, however, was unclear.
He appeared relatively normal upon first entering the hospital. In fact, he was very well-mannered. The doctor was, however, a bit eccentric in his mannerisms. Most bizarrely, he communicated in a strange dialect that we had never heard before. Still stranger: his dialect transformed into a posh British accent the following morning. His whole posture changed as well. He seemed somehow stouter. Even his facial expressions were different. He, however, remained perfectly pleasant besides occasionally muttering “that damned Gallipoli campaign” beneath his breath.
Each morning he’d wake up with new eccentricities. It wasn’t until he was here a week that we started figuring out what was going on. The morning began with him crouching low and drawing in the dust on the floor with his finger. As much as we tried, we couldn’t make sense of his illustrations. He walked around the hospital with a presence that was somehow both fierce and demure. The doctor spoke mostly in paradoxes, and repeatedly prophesied a coming age when the world’s authorities would be crushed. It wasn’t until evening that we finally discerned what was going on. He pulled a technician into his room and told him in a soft whisper that he would call him “Peter” and upon him he would build his Church.
Dr. Rapelli wasn’t our first patient who thought he was Jesus Christ. But he was the most convincing. We wondered what new personality would arise tomorrow. It was the following morning that the truth of his condition dawned upon us.
He went to bed Jesus Christ and woke up Charlie Chaplin. It was obvious immediately. The way he walked, the sort of graceful clumsiness to his movements — his inaudible mouthing of words. It became clear to us that Dr. Rapelli didn’t just embody varying personalities generated from his psychosis, but real historical personages.
We weren’t certain of this at first, but after he went to bed as Charlie Chaplin, he woke up as Pope Gregory VII. He was under the impression that the technicians working with him were all various embodiments of Emperor Henry IV. He spent the entire day commanding that they repent and that they kneel in the snow before the glory of the Church. A day later, he was the philosopher Epictetus. He sat around all day soliloquizing about the fragility of life. One technician found a copy of Epictetus’ Enchiridion and discovered that Dr. Rapelli was reciting the entire work from memory.
He would awake as great sages, philosophers, priests, princes, warriors, movie stars, novelists, generals, and even Hermann Goering. Some days he was vastly more difficult to work with than others. Each figure displayed entirely unique character traits. Thus, Dr. Rapelli was an incredibly difficult patient to help. We never knew if we’d get Genghis Khan attacking the staff and other patients, or the Buddha walking with quiet meditative steps through the halls.
The strangest day came when he woke up as Dr. Rapelli. At first, we thought we made a breakthrough with him. This was the first time he referred to himself by his proper name and exhibited normal patterns of behavior.
We were ecstatic over this, but our celebrations were short lived. He was Dr. Rapelli, the historical figure, and not his genuine self. We only realized this when we attempted to address the incident in Algiers. He expressed no recollection of such an event, and instead waxed on about the complex political structure of premodern Bengal.
We were all somber at the close of that day, because we knew we’d find a new historical personage the following morning. We wanted Dr. Rapelli to remain with us. We even expressed such sentiments to him that evening. We told him we wished he would stay longer, that we wanted to hear him talk about the rich tapestry of history to us. The last words he spoke to us that night were: “history is the legacy of those crushed by time.”
This thinly veiled idiom revealed that he remembered the incident in Algiers after all. Some of us assumed that this meant that it had all been a performance, that he was not actually psychologically disturbed. Nevertheless, we concluded that a person taking on a series of personalities in order to cope with serious trauma may indeed be mentally ill.
The following morning, to our surprise, he remained Dr. Rapelli. He asked for a cigarette and permission to take a walk in the courtyard. We obliged, under the condition that a technician join him.
On the walk, he began to talk about his next book. He said it would be about dispelling the historical fabrications surrounding the great clock in the library of Algiers.
“There’s no way,” he said “that Henlein ever traveled to Algeria.”