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The Butterfly Inquiries

by Catherine J. Skye

Detective Julia Rosati hauled herself through the glass door of her office at the end of a twelve-hour shift, and let out a pissed moan. The box of evidence from the case had been opened. A charred butterfly pendant was out of its ziplock bag, eye of a storm of strewn pictures and files.

“Who’s been messing on my desk again?”

Without shrugging off her coat, she sank in her chair, dragged a sip of her left-over coffee. It was stone cold, bitter. Unpleasant enough to keep her focused a little longer. She straightened the reports. Read through the pages, while sorting them out.

* * *

Transcript by Julie Natowsky, for the Northern Station of the San Francisco Police Dept.
Date: 07/12/89
Attachment to Report A

(Transcript Begins)

Is the tape all right? Yes. The repetition’s recorded. All right then.

(Low whirring sound. Reel rewinding.)

I am Doctor Helen Bower, dictating this for the twelfth annual Convention on Mental Health in San Francisco. My aim is to demonstrate the evolution of psychiatric care, since the gradual abandonment of the once widespread practices of electroshock, hydrotherapy and prefrontal lobotomy.

I aim to illuminate the first experimental changes of practice that led to our contemporary, person-centred approach in the treatment of violent psychosis. The session in analysis comes from the Daelar State Hospital, Massachusetts. It dates 10 November 1967.

The patient... (rustle of paper) Yes, Jane Carlton. So it will be: J. C... Uhm, aged 19, only child. According to her profile, before the internment she... had just finished freshman year at the Philadelphia College of Art. She was a member of the Students for a Democratic Society movement, an activist for racial equality and in anti-war protests. Criminal records... hmmm, yes. Was arrested in an anti-war rally in July 1965. Charges were not filed.

She was interned the 13th of August 1967, after setting fire to her family home, in Waltham, causing the death of her father, A. C., aged 51. When rescued from the arson, the patient claimed that Elsa... that a girl named Elsa had started the fire in her room. Doctor Ethan Rogers’s conclusion...uhm, Doctor Ethan Rogers, psychiatrist in the DSH facility, 1954-68. His working diagnosis on the subject was schizophrenia.

Six tapes were received at our foundation from the former hospital, together with all surviving documentation of the case. This is the last session recorded by Doctor Rogers, on the 12th of January 1968. Tape 28.

(Crrr. Shhhhhhh... Static. Only scratches of white noise.)

“I understand. I understand. I understand... There’s no one else here. No one else.”

“Jane? Jane, I am here with you now.”

“Yes, Doctor Ethan. I can dig that.”

“I am real. Can you tell the difference?”

(Pause. Low sound of static. Crrrrrr...)

Mmmm. Come on... I’m afraid this recording’s irremediably ruined. The fire that took down the ward has destroyed almost every other document. Even the surviving material must have been exposed to extreme heat. Maybe fast-forwarding...

“She’s here now.”

“No, Jane. We are alone in the room.”

Yes. Excellent.

“There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right, if everybody’s wrong...”

“Jane. Open your eyes. Stop this mumbling. We are not at a rally.”

“Right on. You’re the Man.”.

“Stop using this language, you are better than this.”

“Elsa says she doesn’t like you.”

“I’m sure... Is this why I can’t see her?”

“No.” Pause. “She goes to the lonely.”

“Are you feeling lonely, Jane?”

“I... I need to bug out.”

“I can’t yet discharge you. Look at me now, Jane.”

(Sobs? No, chuckles. Like faint, desperate laughter.)

“Whoopee, we’re all gonna die!”

(Sound of metal scraping against wood. The patient is cuffed to her chair? Crrrrrshhhh. White noise again. Faint clacking. Manual whirring of tape?)

“Jane, I have promised your mother I will send you home. You have to believe me.”

“Elsa says her father was a doctor. She doesn’t like doctors.”

“Your father was not a doctor, Jane.”

“You’re not listening to me!”

“I’m sorry. Go on, child. Please...”

“She bleeds...”


“Inside her legs. And from her mouth when she talks. She has no teeth. Only darkness, and blood...”

“Enough, Jane. Shhh. Quiet... She can’t harm you. She can’t bleed. She is not real.”

“She’s behind you.”



Doctor Roger... (Rattle of pen falling?) Doctor Roger believed this recurring vision to be the patient’s response to a traumatic experience. He was investigating the chance of child abuse, at the hands of the girl’s father. Sure, there are no official reports of domestic violence on the local police records, yet the psychological signs could be coherently patterned. He contextualized the girl’s political activism as an attempt to translate her sense of alienation from her family, which is... possible.


In the previous sessions, J. C. has described Elsa as a blonde teenage girl. Is she her speculative reflection? An alternative identity born from a personality disorder? She wears a white, bloody hospital gown and a silver butterfly pendant around her neck. I... The patient is very specific in Elsa’s description; all of her teeth have been pulled out, her hair is matted and held in a loose tail. Her linen gown has a V-shaped neck, two pockets on the lower front, three-quarter sleeves reaching the wrists, drooping shoulders.

The patient has had time to build and refine the traits of this figure. The fact that blood flows on the inside of Elsa’s legs seem to be particularly relevant. Is this a memory of removal surgery? Is she trying to exorcise an illegal abortion, perhaps? The butterfly pendant in particular gives away the reflective nature of this figure: J.C. wore the very necklace she describes on the day of her internment.

This shadow identity might also allude to a deeper meaning, to a subtler attempt of communication on the part of a highly receptive patient. One cannot see Elsa’s toothless, bloody figure without being reminded of the collective delusion of surgical bacteriology. Easy as it is for us to dismiss it now as a horror of the past, this practice was considered the height of clinical psychiatry in the early 1900’s, and was practiced until as late as the 1950’s.

So, was the construction of Elsa a way of asserting through symbolism the patient’s mistrust of the figures of authority of her age? Her own rebellion to the accepted rules of society, to the dominant male figures surrounding her?

This case offers us, as doctors, both an interesting profile and a cautionary tale. Never, it reminds us, never be led by your assumptions alone. No matter how strong your convictions, unquestionable beliefs generate horrors.

(Pause. Low sighing.)

Another interesting line of enquiry would be to consider how J.C. has obtained the knowledge of practices abandoned decades before her own internment, and which she has integrated in the details of her own psychos—

(Crash of glass breaking. Speech? Unintelligible.)

“How did you get in here?”

(Static. Unintelligible. Sound of scraping chair.)

(Second voice. Unintelligible.)

“No... Who are you?”

(Low crackling sound. Fire?)

(Static. Unintelligible.)

“Elsa.” (Woman’s voice. Still unidentified.)

* * *

The above recording is part of the evidence collected on first inspection at Misper’s office in 1023 Broadway Street W. by officers: Crow, Daniel, ID 741 and Johnson, William, ID 839.


Patrol arrived in the office at 17:48, soon after the firefighters had extinguished minor arson. (see pictures #04 to #13)

Victim: Doctor Helen Bower. Caucasian. DOB: 12-04-1965.
Unmarried. No children.
Next of kin: misper’s only living relative is her mother, Mrs. Agatha Bower, resident in Golden Valley Nursing Home, diagnosed with advanced stage Alzheimer’s. (attachment #401, Report B)

Witnesses: misper has been seen entering office by the building’s porter (regular, evening shift): Jeff Graitz, DOB: 04-26-1962, at 3:30 pm, but not exiting it. Witness declares he has left his post to alert 911 of smoke from 4th floor windows, at approximately 17:20.

Office windows appeared to have been shattered prior to fire. Toppled chair and fallen paperwork suggest sign of struggle on scene (see pictures #1 to #3).

On the coat hanger: remains of a suit jacket. Identified from cctv as belonging to misper.

On the floor: bronze handbag frame, cell phone (exploded), metal wallet with 4 molten cards, misper’s driver’s licence (warped), one fountain pen (burst) (see pictures #14 to 19)

On misper’s desk: Four notebooks, a silver necklace with a butterfly pendant, a cardboard box with 16 RCA tape cartridges, a letter opener, an HG digital Dictaphone, two opened paper folders.

All evidence from scene has been turned over to the SFPD Northern Department (see pictures #19 to #26).

Signature of Investigating Officer: Det. Julia Rosati, ID 534

* * *

Detective Rosati gazed at the open report a moment longer and reclined on the worn back of her chair, creating a physical distance from its contents. She glanced at the pictures attached to the file. One was of Doctor Bower, a black-and-white portrait from her publications: piercing gaze, dark hair in a bun, suit-perfect. A few of her study in disarray. The layer of soot covering the walls and the ruined furniture enveloped the desk in a curious frame, a wreckage in shades of grey.

Helen Bower had gone missing 48 hours before. Her profile didn’t suggest a high-risk subject. Without the arson, this case wouldn’t have reached Rosati’s desk.

In a way, she understood this woman. Her career was her life. What if she set fire to her own office? Finally gave way under the pressure? Ran away. She might well be on her way to Mexico... But no. The chance was thin.

There was another report, from the inspection of Helen’s home and the scrupulous combing of her life. Rosati wondered if her own profile would wield the same skilful, mechanical void.

Helen’s life was her resume, though an impressive resume, to be fair. Rosati had found the name of Helen’s shrink in it. Doctor Sauer had refused to release Helen’s file but had admitted she was overworked and had been suffering from minor hallucinations.

Now, that’s an understatement...

Rosati picked up the grey binder, the one she had gathered from the squall in Helen’s bedroom, from every floor tile, drawer, chair, and bed-cover where it had rained on.

Case 91 from the Daelar Hospital: Jane Carlton. The binder was filled with obsessive sketches, drawings, pages and pages of notes in Helen’s handwriting. Some of it was scrawled over the original files of Doctor Rogers.

There were two pictures of Jane in it: the first showed a smiling teenager with long wavy hair and a flowered shirt. It had the grainy yellow quality of photographs Rosati remembered from her own childhood, in the sixties. The other had been taken a few months later. Jane had a silver butterfly pendant at her neck. Her eyes were dull. Haunted.

Madness can be captured in the pictures,” Helen had scribbled on the edge. Even if that was true, Rosati didn’t have the tools to decipher Jane’s mystery. There was no after-the-cure shot. The girl had gone missing in the fire. Her case had been archived long ago. Those were different times, and a misper like that — student, looney-bird — would not furrow a department’s brow for long.

Attached to the notes of Helen’s own transcriptions of the tapes was a last picture. A very old one. The black and white was deeply contrasted, as in a frame stolen from some silent movie. There was a date scribbled in yellowed ink at its foot: 12/04/1928. On the back, scratched in bright black pen: A butterfly is about transformation of the soul.

Rosati studied the blonde girl sitting on an antique upholstered couch, staring sideways, escaping the photographer’s flash. A butterfly necklace dangled from the white collar of her dark, buttoned dress.

Rosati shivered. All the evidence was scattered on her desk or stacked in the white cardboard box. Under the cold neon glare, a glint of silver came from the burnt necklace. She took it from the ziplock bag, weighed the cold silver in her hand.

“Well, I’ll be damned if I’m taking this home with me.”

Rosati put the butterfly back in the box. Closed the folder. And went home to feed her cat.

Copyright © 2015 by Catherine J. Skye

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