LAWRENCE, Kan. — Anna didn't flinch when some kids in the mental ward began calling her Crazy Girl. Truth is, she saw it as flattery.
It was their way of saying she was stubborn. It was her way of thinking she was sane.
But there she was, just 14, locked in a mental hospital--metal bars, metal window screens, metal beds--a place so bleak she sometimes lashed out, banging her fists on the floor or pounding her face bloody against the walls.
Anna had been signed into the state-run hospital by her parents--a father, she says, who slapped her around and a mother who beat her while she was in the shower, called her names and, in between, told her she loved her.
Anna was terrified. But she was furious too, being cooped up, constantly monitored, watching as some kids were wrestled to the floor or subdued with drugs. She spoke out.
"The other kids thought I was crazy that I still had any spirit left," she says. "They didn't think that anybody lives any differently. When some girl comes along and says there's something better out there, they think that's crazy."
So they nicknamed her Crazy Girl.
"It was one of the few compliments I had, really," she says.
While still a patient, Anna decided that the world should know what can happen to abused kids in the mental health system, how they can be overmedicated, intimidated and neglected. This was a story that should be told by an insider.
Anna was just a kid, but she had the perfect candidate.
\o7 My grandmother says I destroyed my mother before I was even born. A little flame of hate burns before her ordinarily cold gray eyes when she says . . . . "You were so big, you tore her apart."\f7
And so it begins.
At age 16, Anna typed the first words of her story on a borrowed word processor. She had dropped out of high school to complete it.
At age 17, she had a 525-page manuscript, as thick as a phone book.
"Becoming Anna," the memoir of her turbulent adolescence and survival as a mental patient, is being published this month by the University of Chicago Press.
Anna Michener is now 21, though she barely looks it, with green-gray eyes, a Victorian pallor, short brown hair and blood-red lipstick and nail polish.
Today, she has a new life and a new identity. She adopted her first name from one she had taken in a German class. Her surname comes from Charles and Mary Michener, the elderly couple she credits with rescuing her after her release from the mental hospital.
Anna's parents are not identified in her book. Her birth name and those of the doctors and mental hospitals were changed by her publisher for privacy and legal reasons. And that's fine with her.
"It's more of an Everyman kind of story," she says. "It drives home the point that it could be anywhere."
For Anna, home was in Midwest farm country, where she and her younger brother were part of a respected, intelligent, middle-class family. Her father worked at a convenience store; her mother suffered from diabetes and neuropathy, a painful, sometimes debilitating illness.
Anna--called Tiffany in her book--blames her troubles on a childhood she says was filled with physical and mental torment: a father who never touched her except to hit her; a mother who could give her the best birthday gift, then twist her arm; a grandmother who jabbed her with knitting needles and told her she had no conscience.
Anna says those experiences at home turned her into a scared kid at school, cowering when teachers came too close, fearing they'd strike her.
"I just didn't know what anybody ever expected of me," she says, "so I tried to do as little as possible to leave as little room for mistakes."
She had few friends and comforted herself with solitary activities such as drawing and writing. But she also called attention to herself, faking seizures after discovering they aroused sympathy among teachers and classmates.
When Anna was 13, her parents took her to a psychiatrist. He asked if she would like a "little vacation." That turned out to be a private mental hospital where she stayed for seven weeks. After a few months back home, she was committed again, this time to a state mental hospital. She was 14.
Her first diagnosis was depression. Then, dissociative disorder, a set of conditions that include disruptions in consciousness, memory, identity or perceptions.
Anna's memories of nearly a year in the state mental hospital are filtered through a teenager's eye, stark and simple, good versus evil: The kids, generally, are caring and decent, tormented by the staff that is, generally, insensitive and sadistic.
"It certainly wasn't a place for healing," Anna says. "Everyone's treated the same whether you're supposedly depressed or violent or schizophrenic."
As time passed, Anna, the timid girl who carried her stuffed brown bear to the hospital, turned foul-mouthed and rude.
She chafed at the 5 a.m. showers, the point sheet to grade her behavior, the ceiling mirror in her room that allowed staff to always see her, even from the other side of the door.