NONFICTION April 19, 2019

Various Small Flames

Nonfiction by Jeff Hoffmann

I ’ve never been inside the Museum of Contemporary Art before tonight, but I stared at the outside way too much during the Bowie exhibition. That was in early 2016. I know this because our thirteen-year-old daughter spent a week in the psych ward of Children’s Hospital right next door, and her window featured a bird’s-eye view of the MCA. During visiting hours, while our daughter ate the take-out we brought her, or after we had all run out of things to say, I would peer at the clean lines of the building and wonder what, in addition to the Ziggy Stardust costumes, could be inside. I studied the people climbing down that waterfall of stairs and imagined the insights they had discovered. Our daughter isn’t with us much these days, so I now have the time and the need to search for meaning myself, to stitch together a narrative. As I climb the stairs, I realize that it’s six o’clock, visiting hours on the eighth floor, but I don’t look up.


I’m drawn immediately into the exhibition of pictures that tell stories. I find a book under protective glass. It’s called Various Small Flames, and it’s propped open to a page that shows a photograph of a matchbook on fire. The plaque tells me it’s from the seventies, and it looks brittle, like I could easily tear it to shreds if I got my hands on it.


Children’s has one of the nicer pediatric psych wards in the area. The hallways curve gently and glow a soothing green. The furniture in our daughter’s room was bolted to the floor, of course, but it looked new and un-scuffed. There were no metal screens on the windows like at Highland Park, and the staff exuded kindness. Our daughter was one of the oldest on the floor, so there were no eighteen-year-olds teaching her about self-harm and suicide and booty-juice. Children’s knows how to handle co-morbid children—children with both autism and mood disorders—but we couldn’t get her admitted the first three times she was hospitalized. They don’t restrain patients at Children’s, and our daughter was far too violent in the beginning. During the Bowie exhibition, though, she mainly wanted to hurt herself, so she fit in nicely.

We waited six days for the psychiatrists to adjust her meds. That’s all they really do when you bring your daughter to a psych ward—that and keep her safe for a while. She was admitted just before New Year’s Eve, and the psychiatric fellow she was assigned went on vacation shortly after she arrived, so we didn’t make much progress before the insurance company decided it was time for her to be released. The insurance companies always deem the psych ward medically unnecessary after seven days, but at least it gave us time to lock up the knives and hide the sharp objects. The doctors continued to adjust her meds for another few weeks at the day program, until we finally arrived at a temporary stasis.


I wander into the Koons exhibition and find three basketballs settled onto the bottom of an aquarium. The piece is titled Equilibrium, and after a moment I realize that the balls are supposed to be floating in the middle of the tank. I can’t help but think that Koons was careless. Of course the air leaked out. He should have known that equilibrium wouldn’t last.


Two months after our daughter was discharged from the eighth floor, chaos returned. She wanted to kill herself again—at that time, hurting us was mainly a byproduct of the impulse to hurt herself. After Children’s, everything sharp was locked in a room in our basement, so this time she tried repeatedly to jump from a second-floor window. We nailed her bedroom windows shut. We held her down when she darted toward rooms where the windows were only secured with a latch. She was strong, and it took three adults to hold her most nights, so we hired an aide to help. At its worst, we dragged her mattress into a small room with no windows and slept outside the door. When her school got wind of this, they told us what we already knew but didn’t want to admit. We clung tightly because it didn’t feel like we’d be holding her much longer.


I’m pulled toward the gallery promising Gradations of Slow Release. I find a sculpture with four figures, two parents, two children. The four heads are distinct, but their bodies meld together as one. To release any of the individuals, even slowly, gradually, would shatter the piece, leaving bits scattered across the gallery floor.


I know a nurse at Children’s, so I called her on the drive to the city after our daughter’s school forced us to release our grip again. She checked the computer system and confirmed that a bed was open on the eighth floor, but after nine hours in the ER the doctors told us that all their beds were full. They may simply have decided that our daughter would need to be restrained that time. There are no loyalty programs at psych wards, no points, no preferential treatment for frequent guests. Just before midnight, they packed us into an ambulance for the ride to Linden Oaks in Naperville (another nice option). The staff was kind. The building was just one story tall, surrounded by trees. There were no museums outside the windows, no false promises of meaning.


I sit down in a black leather chair near the windows at the front of the museum. The black floors reflect the stark white walls, and I feel cold. Through the window, I can see the hospital, and I wonder how the new kid on the eighth floor is faring. There is always a new kid. Sometimes our daughter would complain about the new kid who screamed all night and made it hard for everyone to sleep. Sometimes the new kid would be curled up on a mattress in the hallway when we visited, medicated to semi-consciousness. I think the staff must pull them from their rooms so they can maintain a line of sight, make sure that the children don’t choke on their own vomit.

I wonder about the parents of that new kid. I wonder whether they’re home yet. I wonder whether they’re still crying. The first time our daughter was hospitalized—at Highland Park (I can’t recommend it)—she had been attacking us for a month before she went after her brother, forcing our decision. We cried every night on the way home from visiting hours and usually once or twice more each day. They released her after seven days, and she attacked us before we left the parking lot. My wife cried when she split her head open on the coffee table, trying to take our daughter safely to the carpet. We both cried when we brought her back the next day, and we cried when we flew her two weeks later to Utah for a two-month stay at a “stabilization center.” I’m not exactly sure when we stopped crying, but I remember that we didn’t cry when she was at Children’s, and we didn’t cry when she was at Linden Oaks. Sometimes, though, the crying felt better than the numbness that had settled into our bones.


I went to Linden Oaks by myself one night for visiting hours. It’s a big unit, and thirty or so parents and siblings gathered in the waiting room just before six o’clock. They read magazines, stared at the fish tank, avoided eye contact. Right at six, one of the staff led us down the long, dimly lit hallway to the unit. I had learned to edge my way to the front of the pack so that I’d be one of the first to sign in, so that I could lay claim to one of the sterile therapy rooms and spend thirty minutes alone with my daughter.

“Mom and I have been talking,” I said when we got settled into our room. A Successories poster on the wall showed a snail and a quote from Winston Churchill about optimism.

“About what?” my daughter asked.

“About finding you another school.”

My daughter’s eyes lit, and a smile burst. She was convinced that her school was the problem. “Really? Are you serious?”

“Before you get too excited, you should know that there might not be another day school in Chicago that will take you. With everything going on.” I let that sink in. For her. For me. “It might be a therapeutic boarding school.”

“That’s fine,” she quickly assured me. “I hate my school!”

“It might not be near here. It might be in a different state.”

She paused. Her smile faltered for a moment. With a bit of effort, she propped it back up.

“What do you think about all that?”

She hesitated for another long moment. “Don’t be mad,” she said, “but I think I’d rather go to a boarding school.

I still try to tell myself that I was transparent and honest, that I told her what might happen right after we started to consider it. But I called it a therapeutic boarding school instead of a residential treatment center, and I knew that her years-long obsession with Madeline would help her mind drift toward Miss Clavel and Paris rather than Utah. And I allowed her to think that she had a choice.


We soon learned that we had very few choices, that there just aren’t many RTCs in the country that can handle volatile kids with both autism and mood disorders. We learned that most are in Utah, and most are for-profit. We didn’t learn this by searching the Internet, though, and the hospital wouldn’t tell us how to find an RTC. Instead they handed us a list of “educational consultants,” and we paid our consultant thousands of dollars to tell us that we had few choices.

The Internet told us that the clinical director for the first RTC that accepted our daughter had graduated with a degree in criminal justice. The Internet told us that the second RTC that accepted our daughter makes the cutters wear red jumpsuits, and each client raises a calf until it’s old enough for slaughter. This allows their clients to address attachment problems, they say. The Internet told us that the third RTC that accepted our daughter had lost track of a boy and that he was never found. The Internet told us about the child who had died in restraints at the fourth RTC that accepted our daughter. The Internet did not tell us what we should do.


I push myself out of the chair and trudge toward the Raised on the Internet exhibition, doubting that I want to see what it will show me. A demolished PC lies dismembered on the floor. It’s not the shattered case or the scattered keys but the violent, angry videos of children on the battered monitor that seize my attention. After a moment, though, I find that the children are just frustrated with technology that didn’t work as they expected. I look up, see people taking selfies with ironic art about selfies, and turn back toward the stairs.


We heard rumors about the RTC in Hyde Park from the beginning, but we were told that our daughter was too acute. It was nonprofit and affiliated with the University of Chicago, and it was mostly called a school rather than an RTC. People whispered the words “gold standard” before assuring us that the school in Hyde Park would never take our daughter. They murmured about the rigorous curriculum while gently reminding us of her low IQ, a score captured in a drug-induced haze out in Utah. We maneuvered and wrangled and called in favors and had her IQ re-assessed, and when they interviewed us in their beautifully appointed living room we didn’t say anything about the violence. They interviewed our daughter, too, and I still don’t know what she told them or what they told her, but she was very quiet on the drive home, her looming future made suddenly real.

I was in the airport, on the way to visit the RTC that had lost the boy, when I got the call from Hyde Park. I held my breath, gripped the rail of the people mover, and stared glassy-eyed at the blinking colored lights while the admissions officer wandered through a long sentence on his way to an answer. After I hung up, tears of relief and shame blurred the colors. It didn’t seem right to feel so grateful that strangers had just agreed to take my daughter from me.

It would be eight weeks until a bed opened in Hyde Park. Our daughter knew where she was going, but she didn’t know what it would be like. That certainty and uncertainty and waiting was like a match on the dry kindling of her autism and mood disorders, and for eight weeks we tended to various large flames. We put a half dozen of our strongest neighbors on speed-dial. When we called, they came quickly; they knew it took three to hold our daughter when the flames flared. People were bitten and bruised, but then she would calm, the neighbor would leave, and my wife and I would hold her more gently because we knew where she was going, too, and we didn’t know what it would be like either.


It occurs to me that I once studied the MCA building from a happier perch. On the north side of the building stands Water Tower Place, and the dining room of the American Girl Store is behind the third-floor windows. Our daughter decided that she wanted an American Girl doll when she was eight. She was clear from the start that she wouldn’t play with it, but all the other girls had one so she thought it might give her something to talk about with them. When she was nine, she said she wanted to visit the store. I agreed to take her, but I knew from experience that our visit would be short and end badly.

We stayed for four hours. She opened every box and felt the texture of every item in it—every outfit, every tiny plastic skateboard or tea cup or ice cream cone. Each time she carefully re-wrapped the items and went on to the next box. She felt the hair of every doll in the store, noting the subtle differences that the rest of us would miss. Amid the cacophony of spoiled girls and anxious mothers and annoyed fathers, my frenetic daughter found peace unpacking boxes and touching cloth and plastic and synthetic hair. After I learned to ignore the glares of the sales staff, I relaxed into it, as well. After that first visit, the American Girl Store became our thing for a while. She would save her allowance so she could buy a doll or an outfit that she’d never play with, but the real draw was the touching. On our fourth visit we found ourselves in the dining room, for high tea with one of her dolls. We were seated next to the window.

“What’s that building down there?” she asked.

“It’s a museum,” I said. I was pretty sure they wouldn’t let her touch the art. “I don’t think you’d like it.”

She didn’t ask about the hospital.


The first eight months at the Hyde Park RTC proved volatile, even as our house grew far too quiet. To ensure transparency, the staff would send an email and call us every time there was an Unusual Incident that involved our daughter. That usually meant that she had broken furniture or tried to expose herself or had to be restrained by the staff. We learned after forty or so of those calls to just listen to the staff member as they described the crisis of the day and then quietly thank them for calling. We never learned to silence the buzzing in our ears after we hung up.

She’s lived in Hyde Park for two and a half years now. She’s sixteen. She comes home every other weekend, and she’s doing a lot better than she was, but I don’t know when she’ll come home for good. In the beginning, she wasn’t allowed to leave the building, but after about four months we managed a brief off-grounds visit in the city. We asked her where she wanted to go, and we weren’t surprised when she chose the American Girl Store. She opened the boxes. She felt everything. We had a nice visit. She recognized Children’s when we drove by.

She didn’t ask about the museum.


Near closing time, I find a video of a naked woman standing on a patch of grass while a backhoe digs around her. The woman stands stock still, and the backhoe claws at the earth until gaping holes surround her shrinking pedestal of grass. I watch the video for a long time because I want to see how it ends, but nothing really changes—the woman stands on the grass, and the backhoe grumbles and tears at the soil. I walk away for a while and come back. Still digging. Still naked. Still trapped. I walk away again. I come back. The film has looped. The woman is back where she started, standing still, and the backhoe is taking its first bites. I decide that it’s time to leave.

Outside, I stand for a moment on that cascade of stairs and look up. I count the floors on the building across the street and find the windows on the eighth still lit. Other people’s children are locked in there, alone, preparing for lights out. I want to find their parents, those sad people who might have been staring out the window during visiting hours earlier, watching me enter the museum in search of something useful. I want to assure them that there’s nothing to see here.

Jeff Hoffmann's writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Sun, New Madrid, Harpur Palate, The Roanoke Review, Barely South, The Baltimore Review, and Lunch Ticket, among others. He won The Madison Review's 2018 Chris O'Malley Prize for Fiction and is completing a novel based upon that story. Jeff lives near Chicago and is pursuing his MFA at Columbia College Chicago.
Jeff Hoffmann's writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Sun, New Madrid, Harpur Palate, The Roanoke Review, Barely South, The Baltimore Review, and Lunch Ticket, among others. He won The Madison Review's 2018 Chris O'Malley Prize for Fiction and is completing a novel based upon that story. Jeff lives near Chicago and is pursuing his MFA at Columbia College Chicago.