Barbacena: The Brazilian ‘city of madmen’ that claimed 60,000 lives

The majority of internees at Hospital Colônia were not insane but “social undesirables.” Now a museum, the site of former atrocities is also a therapeutic residence for mentally ill patients

Interns at Colonia in a photograph from 1959.
Interns at Colonia in a photograph from 1959.Luis Alfredo (Ayuntamiento de Barbacena)
Naiara Galarraga Gortázar

When João Bosco Siqueira turned 45, his colleagues in the Military Firefighters Corps gave him a priceless gift: they found his mother. The woman he had never met was the key to discovering his origins after being born in a sanitarium and growing up in an orphanage. The long-awaited embrace between mother and son took place on November 11, 2011, in a barracks under the emotional eyes of dozens of uniformed personnel.

It was a turning point in both their lives. Doña Geralda was only 15 years old when she gave birth at Hospital Colônia de Barbacena, 500 kilometers from São Paulo. Her employer, a lawyer, had taken her there to avoid a scandal after raping and impregnating her, Siqueira says via a videocall. The memories are so painful that he pauses several times during the interview to contain his tears and take a deep breath before continuing his story. Before and after Geralda, tens of thousands of Brazilians were abandoned to the mental institutions at Barbacena, which became known as the city of madmen.”

The majority of the internees, like Geralda, were perfectly sane. They were alcoholics, syphilitics, prostitutes, homosexuals, epileptics, single mothers, wives who were discarded for mistresses, non-conformists… people considered social outcasts whose families or the police sent by train to Barbacena, in the state of Minas Gerais. Some 60,000 people died there of cold, hunger or diarrhea during the eight decades from its foundation in 1903 to its closure in 1980. They lived naked and were forced to work as so-called therapy in the yards or in their cells.

João Bosco and his mother Geralda, who was a teenager when she gave birth at Colônia. Both were reunited four decades later
João Bosco and his mother Geralda, who was a teenager when she gave birth at Colônia. Both were reunited four decades laterCortesía João Bosco

The lockdown anxiety suffered by millions of people worldwide as a result of the coronavirus pandemic has reignited the debate over mental health and the stigma that still surrounds it, a veil of secrecy that famous athletes like US gymnast Simone Biles and Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka have helped to pull back after talking about their own mental health issues.

Barbacena stands out because rather than seeking to cover up the infamy perpetrated in the name of psychiatry, the authorities agreed to look it straight in the eye. One of the wards of the old hospital was turned into the Museu da Loucura, or Museum of Madness, 25 years ago, and coinciding with the anniversary a television series has brought the subject back into the public consciousness. Furthermore, in tune with the international movement to humanize treatment for mental health patients, from the year 2000 onward Brazil undertook a transcendental change.

A city that was once reliant on psychiatric institutions and the cultivation of roses replaced these wards of the socially undesirable with therapeutic residences. “Until that point there was no limit. Everybody who turned up at the gates was committed. We started to evaluate them one by one and the majority did not need to be interned. The number of people being admitted fell from 130 a month to 30,” says Flávia Vasques, director of the public network of mental health services in this city of 140,000 inhabitants, during an interview in an outpatient facility.

The museum is a tour of the atrocities suffered by thousands of patients, some of them in accordance with international practices. “It was decided to call it the Museum of Madness to awaken public interest and because it is not only dealing with a local issue but one that is a reference point to analyze the past, to preserve it and to ensure it is never repeated,” says the director of the museum, Lucimar Pereira, during a guided tour.

A room at Hospital Colônia in 1959.
A room at Hospital Colônia in 1959.Luis Alfredo (Ayuntamiento de Barbacena)

Due to its mountain climate the site was originally a clinic for the rich, with a telephone and silver cutlery, but in 1903 it became the first sanitarium in Minas Gerais, which chose Barbacena to centralize psychiatric attention in a state roughly the same size as Spain.

The Hospital Colônia was a sanitarium with a cemetery, evidence that healing was not its mission. For decades there were no doctors or nurses, merely guards. Treatment was basic: blue pills or pink pills, depending on the symptoms, as well as electroshocks and lobotomies, as the medical textbooks of the time prescribed.

When sleeping space was sparse, the bureaucrats adopted a solution they baptized as the “one-bed policy” and recommended it be extended on a wider basis: they simply got rid of the beds. Without them, they could fit more patients in. The internees slept crowded on the floors to keep each other warm on cold nights. Some died of asphyxiation. Often those who had entered the Colônia went mad.

And even after they died, the authorities did not take pity on them. The bodies of more than 1,800 patients were sold to universities up until the 1970s. The remainder were taken in a cart to the cemetery where they were buried in mass graves. The cemetery remains, although it is now closed, and a plaque promises one day to convert it into a memorial combining roses and madness. They were fed fetid soups because in the name of security cutlery was prohibited. After decades without chewing, many lost their teeth.

Handcuffs that were used on interns, most of whom did not have any mental illness.
Handcuffs that were used on interns, most of whom did not have any mental illness. Flávio Tavares

“Today I have been in a Nazi concentration camp. I have never seen anything like this anywhere,” said the psychiatrist Franco Basaglia, a driver of mental health reform in his native Italy, after a visit in 1979. Local journalists made the first public complaints in the 1960s and 70s. Their reports and photographs generated disgust, but they were soon forgotten. Daniela Arbex was already an adult when she heard for the first time about the macabre history of the area.

“I went looking for survivors. And thanks to them I was able to rescue what had happened behind the walls,” says the author of O Holocausto Brasileiro (The Brazilian Holocaust), a best-seller that helped to spread knowledge of a terror that few Brazilians had ever been aware of. Arbex believes that everybody at the Colônia was complicit: doctors, families, local residents, society at large.

Siqueira says from his home town, where he has been spending the quarantine with his family, that his mother Geralda still lives in Barbacena. He would visit every month until coronavirus restrictions put a stop to travel. The firefighter finds it disconcerting that some residents feel that lifting the lid on the atrocities committed in Barbacena will damage the area’s reputation. In his view, doing so is the best way to avoid anyone else ever being treated in such an inhumane way.

“Although I was born into cruelty, I am the fruit of a network of solidarity,” he says in reference to the monks and other adult employees at the orphanage who mentored him when he was a child who would become jealous when others received a visit.

Treatment consisted of pink pills or blue pills, depending on the symptoms. Lobotomy and electroshock therapy without anesthesia was also administered.
Treatment consisted of pink pills or blue pills, depending on the symptoms. Lobotomy and electroshock therapy without anesthesia was also administered. Flávio Tavares

Bento Marcio da Silva always had a family but he has spent half of his life in and out of psychiatric care and spent some time at the Hospital Colônia. The 57-year-old speaks with ease about his illness (“I’m bipolar”) and of his struggle to persuade his doctors to change his medication, which for 15 years caused crippling side effects. He says with a chuckle that in his moments of euphoria he would do nothing but sing.

The medical response? “They tied me to a gurney, they injected me here, there and everywhere and they left me there all day. I ended up completely drenched in urine and fluids. ‘If you give me more Aldol, I’m going to lose my mind,’ I told them, but they wouldn’t listen.” Nobody listened, during years of vagrancy on the highways of Brazil where he preferred to be to avoid being committed again. “My beard became so long that people called me Bin Laden,” he says.

Bento Marcio da Silva, left, and Zezé during the latter's 60th birthday party at their residence in Barbácena.
Bento Marcio da Silva, left, and Zezé during the latter's 60th birthday party at their residence in Barbácena.Flávio Tavares

Da Silva lives in a therapeutic residence where recently there was a party because Zezé, one of the seven patients, was celebrating his 60th birthday. It was an emotional sight watching these men, neglected and degraded for so many years, concentrating to lift a piece of cake to their mouths or to take a sip of caffeine-free Coca-Cola. In the joy of the moment, Zezé laughed so hard his false teeth fell out. With their many long-term afflictions, they appear overjoyed as they sing happy birthday. Now, they are not afraid of strangers or of going out into the street. And neither do the local residents fear them, says Leandra Melo Vidal, coordinator of the 27 residences scattered around Barbacena, who knows each and every story of her charges in detail. And they adore her.

Some survivors are extremely dependent, but the changes experienced by others are astounding. “With rehabilitation, they were able to recover human abilities such as choosing, deciding when to shower and what clothes to wear,” says Vidal. It was difficult for them to abandon the routines instilled behind the walls or to accept they could have belongings and eat when they wanted. Initially, therapists assumed some were mute after spending 50 years without saying a word – “maybe as a defense mechanism,” suggests Vidal – until one day they suddenly recovered the ability to speak.

Aerial view of the old psychiatric hospital of Barbácena, now converted into a Museum of Madness and a hospital.
Aerial view of the old psychiatric hospital of Barbácena, now converted into a Museum of Madness and a hospital.Flávio Tavares

Through programs financed by the public health department, former internees of the Colônia have been able to leave behind a life in inhumane psychiatric wards to enjoy old age in company and dignity. They are legally registered and receive pensions. Meanwhile, the process of emptying the hospitals is ongoing. The 85 chronic patients who remain interned will be distributed around the local area due to overcrowding at Barbacena.

When Geralda was a teenager who protested disconsolately over being separated from her baby, she was subjected to electroshocks. “Crying and arguing won’t do you any good, you’re never going to see him again,” she was told. Firefighter Siqueira, who has since had two children of his own, is relieved that she didn’t receive more lasting injuries. “God was generous to my mother, who is a simple woman, because if she was aware of the violence she was subjected to, she would have gone insane.”

English version by Rob Train.

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