Cover illustration by Rudy Nappi
Brad Andrews’ unhappy past drove him from reality to the walls of a private mental institution. And Nurse Holly Warren did not realize how involved she would become with her handsome patient until she helped Dr. Mike Barrish administer the “truth serum” to uncover his secret and make his life more bearable. Soon Holly found herself very much a part of Brad’s life. He needed her love—while Holly’s own heart was drawn to the fascinating doctor who belonged to another woman.
“He hoped that in two years, he would learn to love his fiancée as much as he loved her father.”
“I’m a nurse, I’m not interested in men.”
“Where other hospitals had a speaker system to call doctors, except in the wards where they used a system of lights, Riveredge had a system of bells, with a code for each doctor; this was because calling the doctors by name excited the patients.”
“Holly felt a most unprofessional pique at his seeming lack of interest. Maybe this Brad Andrews was disturbed, Holly thought, but he wasn’t blind. She wasn’t used to men studying her fine features as Brad had done, then showing no more reaction than if they were looking at the side of a barn.”
“Mike slipped his arm around Holly’s waist and squeezed gently. He refused to let himself think of his patient or possible involvements with the pretty nurse, he refused to let himself think of his beautiful blonde fiancée. ‘I’m a pretty wonderful guy if I do say so myself,’ he whispered into Holly’s ear, at the same time blowing a wisp of her hair back under the cap it had escaped from. ‘I’m a wonderful dresser, I’m a wonderful dancer, in fact I’m just plain wonderful all over. But you don’t have to take my word for it,’ he added, feigning modesty. ‘Just ask any of my women patients.’ ”
“I know you don’t approve of him and I know he’s engaged but honestly, Anna, all we’re going to do is eat hamburgers together. We’re not going somewhere to make babies.”
“Maybe Anna was right and Mike was a heel who blithely went through life breaking hearts and messing up women’s lives. If that were the case, he could count her out in spite of the fact that her body ached for his touch.”
“You’ll still have coffee with me, won’t you? I hope you’re not afraid of me. My doctor wouldn’t have given me a pass if he thought I’d go berserk, you know.”
“You call me a woman, Holly, where is my man? You call me a woman, where are my babies, where are the people who need me, who will cry for me when I’m gone?”
Holly Warren is a young woman in the nut house. No, silly, she’s not a patient—she’s a nurse, and you can tell because she wears this white nylon uniform! But she’s very sympathetic to all the loonies she takes care of at Riveredge, because she herself once had a brush with insanity: When she was six years old, she was accidentally shut up in a closet. She was freed “almost immediately,” but Holly was never quite the same. There were the dreams, of course, and she’s always wondered, if she had been stuck in the closet any longer, “would she now be one of a group of women patients huddled about the center of the wardroom in Ward 8, women’s side, keeping away from the walls?”
Perhaps this experience is what has given her a special affinity for the mentally unbalanced. When working with a new mother who was slow to recover from childbirth, she was the only one who recognized signs of postpartum depression; the doctor brushed her off—“there’s nothing wrong with her that a stiffer backbone wouldn’t cure”—when she voiced her concerns. Then one night Holly was vindicated, of sorts, when the woman bashed her husband’s head open with an ashtray because he “would never get up at night when the baby cried.” (This is in part a response to the doctor’s concern that the mother has been “spoiled and pampered,” and “they’ve got to make her stand on her own two feet.” Holly, on the other hand, thinks her patient “might just as well have been alone for the amount of help she got from her husband. Her patient had told Holly that her husband was acting as helpless as the baby; not only did he never give her a hand with the baby, but he expected her to wait on him hand and foot!”) So let that be a lesson to you, boys.
Soon after she starts working at Riveredge, Holly is taking a shortcut through the basement of the hospital when she hears a man walking behind her. Remembering that story about a violent escaped patient who hid in the basement, she breaks into an all-out run, and the man runs after her, grabs her with “hard hands,” spins her around “so quickly her feet left the floor,” and shakes her. She’s too petrified to understand what he’s saying to her, and as she struggles to free herself he grabs her more and more tightly until “she knew the pain she was feeling was real and not the result of fear.” She’s just about to start screaming bloody murder when he kisses her “—hard—on the mouth, shutting off her screams.” Does she knee the rapist in the testicles? vomit with revulsion? No: “oddly, since she was still in the grip of fear, this sent thrills down to the toes of her sensible nurse’s oxfords. She felt herself go limp in his arms, felt her lips go limp even, and she had to fight an impulse to kiss him back.” Her shoes might be sensible, but it’s pretty clear that Holly has the sense of a gnat. Either that, or it’s every woman’s secret desire to be sexually assaulted. I’m going with the former, because it isn’t two chapters later before Holly is hopelessly in love with the rat.
And calling Mike Barrows a rat might be slandering the poor rodent. Frankly, I didn’t realize until I started going through my notes what absolute scum he is. Despite his engagement to his mentor’s daughter, he dates lots of other women—some of them married, even—and “if he enjoyed himself more than an engaged man should on the dates he’d had with other women, well, at least no one could say he’d ever tried to lead any of them on. To do him credit, he’d never even tried to seduce any one of them. A casual good night kiss was all he asked and if it went past that, it had invariably been the girl’s idea, and he was human after all, wasn’t he?
He puts the moves on Holly, but after a firm lecture from her landlady, Holly dresses down for their inevitable date. When he picks her up, his ongoing rudeness makes it quite plain that it wasn’t her mind he was attracted to and that he is a complete boor: “I think I liked you better in your uniform. At least there was no doubt about your sex,” he tells her. Nonetheless, he magnanimously agrees to go through with the date, even though it will be a terrible chore for him. “I’ll buy you a burger and a soda, Holly, but if you don’t mind, I’ll keep my face turned as I eat,” he informs her. “That’s if I’m even able to eat.” It’s no wonder that Holly is soon thinking, “It’s Mike I love and Mike I want, and only Mike forever and ever. I don’t care what kind or quantity of love he can give me—whatever it is, I’ll take it and be grateful.” My guess is it won’t be much, and it won’t be long until he’s coming in late with lipstick on his collar. But we’ve already established that Holly is a doormat and an idiot, so maybe she won’t notice.
Would that things were as simple as that. Mike stops calling Holly after their disastrous date. Then Holly—20 pages from the end of the book—runs into Brad Andrews, a frequent flyer at the asylum, who is on the verge of being sprung again and ready to start dating. Mike feels that Brad, who has an unhealthy relationship with his mother, suffered some repressed trauma that he will not reveal to Mike, and this is what is keeping him from a permanent recovery. Mike presses Holly to take advantage of her new relationship with Brad to find out Brad’s secret, but Holly is unable to get to the bottom of the story. She does get somewhere else, though; five pages after she meets Brad, “according to the hospital grapevine, Holly and Brad were talking marriage.” What will she do? “It’s really your duty to marry Brad even if you don’t completely love him, she told herself. Don’t think of anything but your duty.” But she has one moment of sense and turns Brad down. Instantly Brad remembers the woman he really wants to marry, a poor woman in Mexico, and that his mother had feigned a serious heart attack at the news and forced him to leave Mexico at once, lest her next heart attack be fatal. Brad runs off, completely cured, to have a chat with his mother and book a flight to Mexico. Now all we have to do is dispose of Mike’s fiancée—but don’t worry, it’ll just take a sentence: “Iris had gone on her trip alone, but come back with a husband.”
Holly’s relationship with Brad is so appalling that I really have a hard time moving beyond that to the rest of the book. But when I steel myself and set our heroine’s flaws aside, I find the rest of the book has lots of them, too! There’s the landlady, who lived in sin with a married man and now devotes herself to finding suitable marriages for her nurse renters, because without a man, their lives are meaningless at best. She begs Holly to stop chasing Mike and marry Brad, saying, “Holly, live—be a woman, a real woman, not a shell of a person like me.” (In other books, a “real” woman is one who has had sex, but here, apparently, sex is not enough; you have to be married to be whole.) One of her renters had an unrequited love for Mike, she tells Holly, and “if I hadn’t taken her in hand, right now she’d be sitting on one of the wards at Riveredge, waiting for the nurse to come and move her arms and legs before she got stiff. Either that or planning for her own funeral.” Again, this book would have us believe that insanity and suicide are just a bad day away for any of us.
Which brings me to the book’s infantile image of mental illness, and the trivial manner in which Brad’s longstanding illness, which has left him nearly comatose at times, is “cured.” You would think that if you are going to make psychiatry the focus of your story, you might at least spend a day or two researching the subject. Then there’s the fact that Brad doesn’t really enter Holly’s life until the tenth chapter (the book has 12), and the disposal of some fairly significant problems—Brad and Holly’s relationship, Brad’s mental illness, and Mike’s fiancée—in a cavalier sentence or two, both of which demonstrate the author’s abysmal grasp on the concept of pacing. So all in all, there’s not much to appreciate in Psychiatric Nurse, except perhaps the fine line between the patients and the staff.