I didn’t know whether or not I would review this book, but decided to do so when I remembered a couple of y’all expressing interest when I mentioned it in a previous post.
Issa Ibrahim is institutionalized for a very specific reason: readers will find out the details later, but it’s not a spoiler to reveal that he’s murdered his mother. According to him, it was a marijuana-induced psychosis, i.e. the drugs were a deadly choice for someone with potential preexisting mental health issues.
Because of this, Issa Ibrahim spends some time on Rikers Island, wins an insanity plea, and gets transferred to Creedmoor Hospital. Here, he stays nearly two decades, learning to live with his crime, and move toward a life beyond Creedmoor’s walls.
The Hospital Always Wins, perhaps a play on “the house always wins,”illustrates what an insanity plea really means. It’s an insider look at how the criminal justice system fails the mentally ill by placing them in facilities just as flawed as regular prisons. Ibraham describes both sexual relationships and assaults between patients and staff, as well as bureaucratic conspiracies to keep patients under lock down. It’s not pretty. In fact, on many occasions, it’s wholly disgusting.
Effectively disowned by his remaining family, Ibrahim immerses himself in his art. He’s commissioned by staff to illustrate tattoo designs and uses the money to increase his stockpile of art supplies. Art takes him far, and his art shows become one of few ways he’s allowed to leave the Creedmoor campus (escorted by male staff, of course).
Ibrahim’s artist statement: “My interest in the politics of race, mental illness, and popular culture informs my range of subject matter. I am telling a parallel narrative. My life as a psych patient, a flawed Superman, learning to navigate the many identities I had to assume in the system in order to survive various barriers to freedom, in addition to exposing the Everyman in the world at large. We are living in a comic strip, with plenty of super villains and heroes, love stories, cliffhangers, absurdist comedy and heartbreaking tragedy. With equal parts whimsy and warning, I use familiar icons in historical settings as reflections and metaphors for our own bankrupt culture.”
Ibrahim intersperses the recollection of his time at Creedmoor with memories of his mother, the most loving figure in his life. It’s an effective storytelling tactic, that builds to the crescendo– when he recounts exactly what happened the night of her death. It would be crass to end there, but Ibrahim also discusses how he begins to find closure.
The Hospital Always Wins is a purposefully cringe-inducing look behind a mental institution’s tightly closed doors. While Issa Ibrahim, for many reasons, is perhaps one of few who could tell this story, I found the people on the periphery a bit more interesting. I was personally turned off by what I interpreted as Ibrahim’s problematic relationship with women, with whom he seemed unable to build nonsexual bonds.
For those interested in Issa Ibrahim, I’m a much bigger advocate of his work elsewhere, including this article, and this appearance in an HBO documentary from several years back. In the recommended links, you’ll find engrossing details about his crime, diagnosis, and institutionalization. Heavy on the serious content and light on the schoolboy sexual details about him and the hospital staff.
I’d love to hear from some people who felt this book spoke to them. There is a discussion worth having about how mental health issues are handled in the criminal justice system, but this book missed a great opportunity to bring them to the fore.
Disclaimer: I was given this book in exchange for an honest review.