Guest Blog: Helen Macie Osterman

Little did I know as a student nurse doing my psychiatric rotation at a state mental hospital in 1950 that, over half a century later, I would be writing a book about it.

Actually, I wrote the outline of Notes in a Mirror twenty years ago and tucked it safely in a drawer. Every few years it would call to me, as words do. I would take it out and read it, enlarge on it, then put it back.

I made contact with a psychologist who had done extensive research on Chicago State Mental Hospital, also known as Dunning, after the man who was involved in land transfer. He gave me an entire packet of information about the history of the area, starting from the time it was designated as the Cook County Poor Farm in the early part of the nineteenth century. Of course the pages had been reproduced numerous times so that most were undecipherable. But I was able to retrieve some interesting information about the place. There were pages listing the costs of various items. Also the number of patients admitted by age, type of work, and length of stay.

One of the most fascinating lists I came across was the supposed causes of mental illness. Here were the diagnoses at that time: religious excitement, marital infidelity, sunstroke, disappointment in love, alcoholism, abortion, puberty, overwork and, the most common cause of male insanity was thought to be masturbation. The medical profession has come a long way since then.

Two years ago I tackled it with renewed energy. I made it into a paranormal/historical, added a bit of mystery a tad of romance. I added mirror-image writing as the way the spirit contacts my protagonist. I chose this means of communication because I was born left hand dominant. But, at that time, girls were not allowed to write with their left hands. So the teachers in school forced me to use my right hand. In the process of retraining my brain, I was able to write mirror-image with my left hand. I decided to make my character somewhat like myself in that respect.

Finally the manuscript was ready to present to my writers group, The Southland Scribes. A few suggestions by the group and another revision and I was ready to seek a publisher. A big hurdle! After a number of rejections, I met Sue Durkin of Weaving Dreams Publishing. She loved the story and agreed to publish it.

Then the hard part started—marketing. That is a full time job. I belong to a number of women’s groups and they all buy my books. So far I have mailed 200 post cards, spoken at a number of libraries and bookstores. And we’ve only started.

After the holidays I plan to contact nursing schools and ask for a few minutes to talk to the students about how the profession has changed. There was no technology in 1950: no computers, no critical care, no CPR, and no monitoring devices. And the care of the mentally ill was archaic.

I tried to bring this out in Notes in a Mirror as I wove my story of Mary Lou Hammond, a shy impressive young girl, suddenly finding herself in a madhouse.

Even though the experience happened over fifty years ago, I remember it as if it were yesterday.

Helen Macie Osterman


Helen Osterman lives in a suburb of Chicago. She has five children and nine grandchildren.

She received a Bachelor of Nursing degree from Mercy Hospital-St. Xavier College. During her training, she spent three months at Chicago State Mental Hospital for her psychiatric rotation. Years later, she earned a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University.

Throughout her forty-five year nursing career, she wrote articles for both nursing and medical journals, including Geriatric Nursing, Nursing Management, Orthopaedic Nursing and Nursing Spectrum. She wrote a section for Clinics in Podiatric Medicine and Surgery in 1997.

In 1997 and 1998, she published two short novels about a nurse, The Web and Things Hidden, by Vista Publishing, a nurse owned publishing company.

She is also the author of the Emma Winberry Mystery series. The Accidental Sleuth, 2007 and The Stranger in the Opera House, 2009.

Helen is a member of The American Association of University Women and The Mystery Writers of America.

Helen can be reached through her publisher Weaving Dreams Publishing or at her website.

Readers, Helen is giving away a copy of Notes in a Mirror to a random commenter. To enter the contest, leave a comment or question for Helen. Then you must either leave your email address in your comment or send a message to The winner will be chosen on Thursday, December 3.