Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Lost Colony of Roanoke

Image result for roanoke colony

John White Searching for Roanoke Colony

I recently visited North Carolina, the site of the first English settlement in North America, the so called “Lost” Colony of Roanoke. While I was there, I picked up a book about the Roanoke Colony, “The Secret Token,” by Andrew Lawler, and learned some things I didn’t know about American history, about humans’ will to survive, and about their ability to bend history to serve their interests and imagination.

The Roanoke Colony was a project of Sir Walter Raleigh, who was seeking gold, a shortcut to India, or some other way to make himself richer, and in 1585 he was granted a charter by Queen Elizabeth I to establish a colony in North America. After an initial party explored the area, three shiploads of colonists were sent in 1587. They settled on the island of Roanoke, just inside the barrier islands known as the outer banks, off the coast of what is now North Carolina. The colony’s governor, John White, returned to England for supplies later that year, leaving behind his daughter Eleanor, his son in law Ananias Dare, and their new born baby, Virginia. Soon after he returned to London, the Spanish Armada attacked the English coast, and every available ship was used for defense, preventing him from returning until three years later, in 1590. When he finally made it back to the site, all he found was the word, “Croatoan,” carved on a tree.

Ever since then, the fate of the 115 Roanoke colonists has remained a mystery. The carving suggests that they moved near the Croatoan Indian tribe, which was located on what is now Hatteras Island, but no archaeological evidence has been found to substantiate that theory. Over the last 400 years, archaeological digs have been done in other locations where the colonists might have gone. Genetic studies have even been done on descendants of the local Indian tribes looking for DNA from the colonists without conclusive results. The fate of the Roanoke colony does have some historic importance since it was the first English settlement in the new world, predating the Jamestown colony by 20 years, and John White’s granddaughter, Virginia Dare, was the first English child born here.

Through the years there have been many theories about what happened to the Roanoke colonists. They most likely were either taken in or killed by the local Indian tribes or starved to death like the Jamestown settlers almost did twenty years later. After some initial misunderstandings, the Indians had been helpful to the colonists, thinking that an alliance with them might give them an advantage over the neighboring tribes. Spanish colonists and  African slaves had been adopted by tribes further south in similar situations. There was a drought about that time, so no one, not even the Indians, were getting enough to eat, so the starvation theory also makes sense. Actually, when the Jamestown settlers arrived, Chief Powhatan told them that his warriors had killed the Roanoke settlers, although historians think that he was referring to a group from the earlier exploring party stranded on the outer banks in 1585.

Since there’s no good evidence to support any of the more realistic possibilities, many legends and other supernatural explanations have been invented over the years to fill the void.   

The word Croatoan has been found in the journals of Amelia Ehrhart and Black Bart the pirate after their mysterious disappearances. Edgar Allen Poe, famous for writing spooky stories, is said to have whispered the word “Croatoan” on his death bed. One legend tells of the colonists being stricken by a terrible disease that drove them to cannibalism. In a variation of the story, the colonists were possessed by evil spirits which the Indians banished by carving the word Croatoan on the tree. In the movie, The Lost Colony, The Legend of Roanoke, released in 2007, the island is haunted by the souls of Viking explorers, who take revenge on the helpless settlers. The current season of the TV series American Horror Story has been devoted to the spirits of the Roanoke colonists. Some have even claimed that the colonists were carried away by aliens. 

While some of the speculation over the disappearance of the Lost Colonists of Roanoke has been entertaining, some of it has been taken seriously, and may have even had an effect on the course of history.More about that in my next post……… 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Geel, Belgium

Saint Dymphna

Sorry for the delay, but my post of October 1 was meant as an introduction to this one, about Geel, Belgium.

I have known about Geel for some time, but NPR did a story recently and it reminded me about Geel, and about my friend, Greg.

Geel is a small farming community in Belgium that has a unique custom of caring for the mentally ill in people’s homes. The tradition began in 1480, after the death of a nun, Dymphna, an Irish princess who had fled to a convent in Geel to escape from her father who was “mad.” As a nun, Dymphna had special compassion for the mentally ill and she cared for them in her convent. Her story ended when her father followed and murdered her. She was canonized after her martyrdom, and then families began make pilgrimages to Geel with their mentally ill relatives. Eventually there were too many for the convent to handle, so instead of turning them away, people in the community took them in.

It’s a remarkable story, not just as evidence that human kindness still exists in this contentious world, but also because the system still seems to work, after 500 years! Now the process has been modernized. Guests are screened by doctors, prescribed medication when appropriate, and assigned to families. They help their host families or have jobs, and the government provides a small stipend. Some of the guests act out, depending on their diagnosis, but they are accepted by their families and by the community. According to the reporter, the host families were surprised by questions about whether their guests are a problem. The average length of stay with a family is 28 years!

The NPR piece described several examples of families’ relationships with their guests. One man twisted the buttons off his shirt every day, and every night his host would sew the buttons back on. When the reporter suggested that the host use tougher thread to save herself the trouble of her nightly repair job, she was shocked. She said, “He needs to do this.” A man with hallucinations about being chased by lions was satisfied when the host pretended to chase them away.

There were examples of violence, of abnormal sexual behaviors, and in each case the host families found ways to adjust. Both hosts and guests interviewed described themselves as being happy with their arrangement.

Several studies have been done trying to explain what makes Geel’s system work, without any real success, but one factor seems be the attitude of the host families. The guests are accepted as they are. The hosts aren’t embarrassed by them. They don’t try to “cure” them. They don’t even think of them as abnormal. This explains one of the rules for assigning guests to families. No one is assigned someone from their own family.

The reporter did look for other examples where acceptance of mental illness is practiced. It’s a little hard to replicate Geel, because they have a  long tradition, everyone in the community understands and accepts the situation, and the community is rural and there are a lot of ways for someone to be useful without fitting into traditional occupations. She did find a woman who has been managing an apartment house in a US city, trying to replicate to situation in Geel, with some success.

Which brings me back to Greg. I’m certainly not any more accepting, or more broad minded than average, but Greg and I got along fine. And maybe Geel's principals of acceptance should apply not just to differences in behaviors, but also to differences in opinions and beliefs, 

We can all learn something from the people of Geel. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Accepting People as They Are

During my last year in medical school I roomed with a guy named Greg. He was the brother of a friend of mine who had moved to New York to attend Union Theological Seminary. Greg had lived with him until he got accepted to Union and he didn’t want Greg to have to live by himself. I was kind of tired of being alone in my apartment anyway, and it was nice to have someone to share the rent.

Greg was several years older than I, but we got along fine. He was neat and had a  pleasant personality. He wasn’t opinionated and didn’t have any rowdy friends. He was taking some classes at Central State University in Edmond, Oklahoma, so both of us were busy, and we both studied in the evenings. There was something unique about Greg though. He was paranoid schizophrenic.

Greg’s brother didn’t actually tell me much about him, so I didn’t know much except for his diagnosis. He had done some outlandish things in the past. He told me that he had once walked down Main Street in his underwear brandishing a pistol, but at the time I knew him he had learned how to control his behavior, and he was on a big dose of Thorazine, I think 800mg a day.    

I didn’t notice anything very unusual about Greg. He was very open and would talk about his history or his experiences if I asked, but I didn’t pry. I didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable.

Greg didn’t drive, so if he needed to buy groceries, go to the laundromat, or just get out of the apartment, I would take him, since I had a car. He rode the bus to school. When we went out he would glance around at the cars behind or beside us. When I asked why he said that he thought someone was following us. I reassured him, but he kept looking around anyway.

The other thing Greg did that was unusual, especially in those days, the early ‘60’s, was listen constantly to a little radio he carried with him every where he went. When I asked him why, he told me that it was to drown out the voices. It was then that I started to realize how miserable he must be, having to listen constantly to hallucinations. They weren’t just the ordinary daydreams either.  They told him that he was in danger, that people were plotting against him, and it was hard for him to ignore them, hard not to believe them, even though he knew logically that they weren’t real. He would tell me sometimes about the voices, I think just to get me to reassure him. 

Greg was kind of childish. He not only relied on me to help him fight against his hallucinations. I also helped him to establish a routine. I got him up in the morning, helped him with his breakfast. He told me his schedule so I could make sure he got to class on time. He was having trouble with his weight, so I put him on a diet, which he followed to the letter and lost twenty pounds in a month. He wasn’t stupid. He was just constantly distracted. I can’t imagine what it was like for him.

Greg and I roomed together for a year and then I left him. I went to St. Louis for my internship. After a couple of months I heard that he had killed himself. He got in the bathtub and dropped a lamp in the water. It still hurts when to think about it.