A place to belong
(by Elizabeth Sherrill, Roving Editor)
It was market day as my husband, John, and I drove through
the ancient town of Geel, Belgium. “Let’s stop
and pick up lunch,” John suggested. The broad central
square of Geel (pronounced “Hale”) was thronged
with shoppers. John and I strolled among awning-shaded tables
piled with cheeses, sausages, strawberries, great round loaves
of bread. While I bought some fruit, John went off to look
for olives. Passing a vegetable stand, I was stopped by a
man handing out plastic bags. I shook my head but the neatly
dressed salesman, as I took him to be, thrust one of the bags
toward me anyhow, then gave some to a group of women coming
toward me, all of whom, without a break in their conversation,
reached across the stand and handed the bags to a man in a
I watched as the bag-bestower handed out the last one, then
lifted a fresh supply from a box beneath the stand. Now the
aproned man gently pulled the bags away, murmuring something—I
couldn’t understand the Flemish. The oddest thing about
the little scene was that no one but me paid the slightest
attention to it.
I went to tell John about it. “I just saw something
very strange,” he said before I could speak. “A
woman walking along with her hand to her ear, talking a mile
“John, every other person here is talking on a cell
“She didn’t have a cell phone. She was talking
into a black sandal. No one else even glanced her way.”
Intrigued, we visited the town’s information office
and spoke to a young woman named Petra. Like many Belgians,
Petra spoke excellent English. We told her we’d seen
perhaps a dozen men and women with apparent psychiatric disorders
mingling easily with the rest of the population. “Everyone
seems so accepting of them,” I said.
“It’s the custom here,” Petra said, a phrase
we were to hear again and again the next few days. In the
Middle Ages when the mentally ill were caged and carted to
fairs like animals, they’d been welcomed and cared for
in Geel. “You should visit our museum. Hear about the
princess and how she was murdered.”
A princess and a murder?
The next morning we entered the library of the local museum,
housed on the ground floor of a once-bustling convent-hospital.
The museum’s director, Dr. Frieda Van Ravensteyn, set
cups of tea down next to two great volumes of illuminated
manuscripts. “They must be five hundred years old!”
“More like seven or eight hundred,” the director
replied. “But not nearly as old as the story of Dymphna.”
Dr. Van Ravensteyn opened a dusty volume. “Here’s
how Renaissance artists imagined her martyrdom.” A young
woman knelt with bowed head while an older man raised a sword
He, Dr. Van Ravensteyn explained, was an Irish king who around
the year 600 had gone mad when his wife died. Mistaking his
daughter, Dymphna, for her deceased mother, the king tried
to force her into marrying him.
Horrified, Dymphna fled in a small ship, which eventually
put in at Antwerp in what is now Belgium. Dymphna settled
in the hamlet of Geel, but her father’s soldiers tracked
her down. The king arrived, repeated his proposal, and when
she again refused, cut off her head.
At the spot where villagers buried the young woman, healings,
especially of the insane, were reported. Insanity during the
seventh century—and for another thousand years—was
regarded as devil-possession and sufferers were frequently
cursed and attacked with stones. As the fame of Geel spread,
despairing families brought sufferers from all over Europe,
boarding temporarily with local families. A church dedicated
to “St. Dymphna” was built.
“I don’t think it’s important whether her
legend is true,” said Dr. Van Ravensteyn. “What’s
important is that the story inspired hope, perhaps for the
first time ever, that the mentally ill could get better. And
here in Geel, you know, they always do get better.”
We didn’t understand right away what she meant. Many
who came to St. Dymphna’s grave were not healed of the
strange behaviors that made them outcasts. Disappointed families
faced long journeys home with their afflicted son, sister,
father, who would once again be ostracized. Only here in Geel
there was a different attitude. Geelians had grown used to
behavior that elsewhere aroused fear and loathing. Here, no
one laughed. No one labeled it God’s punishment.
Many families, seeing their loved ones treated not as freaks
or fiends, sought a way to let them remain. Might the troubled
individual be able to stay on with the family who was boarding
him? It was the beginning of a foster-family system of care
still practiced in Geel today.
When the natural family could pay for their relative’s
upkeep, Dr. Van Ravensteyn said, they did so, but before Napoleon’s
1797 invasion, the church provided most funds. “The
nuns at the hospital also accepted mentally disturbed people
who got sick. If you have time I’ll show you St. Dymphna’s
A Gothic structure erected in 1349 on the site of a still
earlier St. Dymphna’s, the church is down the street
from the hospital-turned-museum. Dr. Van Ravensteyn led the
way into the “sick room,” a small house built
onto the side of the church, where patients once stayed for
an initial period of prayer. Under Napoleon the church and
the sick room were closed, the convent with its hospital dissolved.
A centuries-old commitment to the mentally ill, however, could
not so easily be ended; the foster-family system continued.
Later, the Nazis met this same community resolve, and left
the mentally ill, exterminated elsewhere, untouched in Geel.
“The town would have risen in outrage,” we were
told. In fact, so inviolate was the tradition that Jews were
often concealed here as mental patients.
The next morning we paid a visit to the public psychiatric
hospital that oversees the family-care system today. The hospital
is housed in a 100-year-old building flanked by half a dozen
smaller houses. In a garden outside the entrance two men were
talking animatedly as they unloaded pots of bright yellow
flowers from a wheelbarrow. As we drew near, it became apparent
that they were not conversing with each other but were absorbed,
each one, in his own private world.
These men, we learned, were in the initial stage of possible
placement with a Geel family. “This is their first exposure
in many years to life outside hospital walls,” Wilfried
Bogaerts, the hospital psychologist, explained.
Today, it isn’t families who bring the disturbed to
Geel. “Ninety-eight percent of our patients come from
institutions,” he said. “Most have had no contact
with their natural families for years.”
When they come to Geel they are evaluated here at the hospital.
Violent patients are not considered for family care. The next
step is for the patient to live for a while in one of the
small houses we’d seen on the grounds. After years of
bells and bars and regimentation, how would the individual
handle a more homelike setting? They are given small chores—washing
dishes or watering the lawn—taken on brief excursions.
Did the person know what money was? Could she ride a bicycle,
as most Geelians do? Did he understand traffic lights?
If the patient is comfortable with the new freedom, he is
placed with a foster family. At present over 600 “boarders”
are living in homes in the community, and there is a waiting
list of available homes. The motivation could hardly be money;
the host receives the equivalent of $13 a day to maintain
At any point, the family or boarder can end the relationship,
yet breakups seldom happen. When the original foster parents
die, one of their children usually takes on the responsibility
of giving care to the mentally ill boarder.
“And do they always get better?” I asked, remembering
what Dr. Van Ravensteyn had said.
“Yes,” Mr. Bogaerts answered. “When a patient
is placed with a family, motor function improves, medication
levels go down. But there’s a far more important kind
of healing. Healing from a lifetime of rejection. Here the
mentally ill are people of value—you can see it in the
way they hold themselves.”
On a final stroll through Geel we observed again people
whose differences are respected, even cherished, by their
community. People who’ve at last found a place to belong.
Outside a music store a woman was conducting an imaginary
orchestra. Passersby nodded to her.
In Geel, the mentally ill are of value, above all, because
they are children of God. And of course you can’t recognize
his presence in someone else, without catching a glimpse of
it in yourself. Perhaps this is the reason for the statistics
we’d heard about Geel: low crime, low divorce rate,
school dropouts rare. Here in a tiny Belgian town they’ve
learned that being your brother’s keeper is the best
way to make brothers of us all.