Recounting life inside Traverse City State Hospital

Jan 19, 2017

Jack Kerkhoff grew up Traverse City. And he remembers walking past the state hospital as a kid.

“How many times I had scampered up that driveway with my gang, fearful yet curious. How many times we had wandered outside the bleak tower-topped buildings that had iron bars at the windows, and shouted at the men and women behind the bars and giggled over the obscenities they tossed back at us.”

That’s a passage from Jack’s memoir How Thin the Veil.

In 1952, the tables were turned and Jack found himself on the inside of the old hospital. Here’s how it happened.

First, his wife passed away. Then, eight years after that, his 25 year-old daughter died. He started drinking and eventually tried to commit suicide.

'How Thin the Veil' chronicles Jack Kerkhoff's 45-day stay in the Traverse City State Hospital in 1952.
Credit Dan Wanschura

“So he came up here to Traverse City and self-admitted to get some help,” says Dave Page, a tour guide at the Grand Traverse Commons. “Spent 45 days here and kept a daily account of life here.”

It turns out, it wasn’t as bad as he’d imagined as a kid. Jack ate meals with friends in the cantina, smoked cigarettes with doctors, and attended a dance. He also met a patient named Suzy and they fell in love.

“Overall, How Thin the Veil reveals the humanity of the institution, of the workforce, and the patients, and what they were trying to accomplish here,” says Page. 


A book launch will be held for How Thin the Veil at Kirkbride Hall next Thursday evening, January 26. The evening will include a readers theater performance of a portion of the book and a talk about plans for a Traverse City State Hospital exhibit. For more information, visit Mission Point Press.