How To Save A Life, Medieval Style

Joe Biel
7 min readMay 21, 2018

For over 700 years the 35,000-person town of Geel, Belgium has had a saying “Half of Geel is crazy, and the rest is half crazy.” Based on the legend of Dymphna, the Catholic patron saint of the mentally ill…who was also the decapitated victim of her mentally ill father, the town created a social responsibility to care for the mental health of all of its citizens.

There’s also a long-standing tradition In Geel of taking in mentally ill strangers to live in your home. The methodology of this care is that nobody is trying to “change” or “fix” people, even if they hallucinate or have violent tendencies. One family recalls taking in a man who saw lions and that rather than denying that the lions were real, the family would protect the man from these lions until they no longer appeared in his vision. Through acceptance and creating bonds with strangers where there is no emotional baggage or negative past experience, even the most extreme cases get better.

I have autism so this idea struck me as quite profound. So often my only real problem is that other people cannot accept myself, my character, or my symptoms because of the unusual nature of how I express myself.

I ran into the following quote from none other than Mr. Rogers:

“Part of the problem with the word disabilities is that it immediately suggests an inability to see or hear or walk or do other things that many of us take for granted. But what of people who can’t feel? Or talk about their feelings? Or manage their feelings in constructive ways? What of people who aren’t able to form close and strong relationships? And people who cannot find fulfillment in their lives, or those who have lost hope, who live in disappointment and bitterness and find in life no joy, no love? These, it seems to me, are the real disabilities.”

Which profoundly drove me to tears because it felt like Mr. Rogers was singularly describing me. It felt he understood what I was going through in a way that no one else ever seemed to. He understood the pain, the fear, the loneliness, and the results of these feelings. I wondered if things might be different if I lived in Geel.

Joe Biel

self-made autistic publisher and filmmaker formed by punk rock,