She closed her eyes. “Howard, did you ever know anyone with a head injury—a really bad one that caused them to be—well, helpless?”
“Sure, I saw a lot of that during the war.”
“What happened to them?”
“Most of them died.” He put his hand briefly over his eyes. “They were the lucky ones. The others, well, they went home. You couldn’t say they were really alive though.”
“Their families had to take care of them, you mean.”
“Or find some place to put them.”
He shook his head. “Nothing so fancy. Asylums, they’re called.”
“But people are cared for there.”
“I’ve seen a few of those places, and no, I can’t honestly say people are taken care of in them.”
“No money for one thing. No decent help either. I’d beggar myself before I’d put a member of my family in one.”
“They’re that bad?”
“Do you believe in hell, Susanna?”
“I think so—yes.”
“Well, that’s what they’re like.”
Although institutions/hospitals to deal with mental illness/brain damage/birth defects were conceived as early as the medieval era, such places were meant to house rather than treat the unfortunate inmates and were often--as the character in Susanna’s Secret opined--“hell”. Before the era of public “madhouses”, families had no choice but to keep their mentally ill members or mentally challenged children locked away or boarded out.
Great Britain took the lead in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the concept spread to America when the Utica State Hospital opened in New York in 1850 due to the influence of Dorothea Lynde Dix. Around 1841, she reported to the Massachusetts State Legislature, "I proceed, Gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of Insane Persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience."
Women were particularly vulnerable to confinement in these so-called hospitals. Being outspoken, having strong opinions opposed to their husbands, and even real illnesses such as postpartum depression or symptoms connected to menopause, could earn them a one-way ticket out of sight and out of mind.
Ten Days in a Mad-House resulted from journalist Nellie Bly’s (arranged) commitment to the Women's Lunatic Asylum in New York City in order to investigate conditions there in 1887. (Follow the link Nellie Bly to read about her brutal experience.) She also published her findings in the New York World newspaper. The ensuing investigation led to a budget increase to ensure that only those who really needed institutionalization were admitted.
In Nazi Germany, Hitler emptied hospitals and institutions and dispatched the residents to premature deaths in order to be rid of anything he deemed incongruous with the perfect specimens who would populate his Thousand Year Reich.
Along the way, many horrific and unhelpful ‘treatments’ have been visited on the mentally ill: trepanation, hydrotherapy, chemically-induced seizures, insulin-coma therapy, and the irreversible lobotomy which reduced presidential sister Rosemary Kennedy to living out her life in an institution with twenty-four hour care. These rare photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries illustrated the slow progress of treatment.
In the 20th century, parents who had a child with signs of mental challenge or serious physical impairment were often encouraged not to bring the baby home from the hospital but rather allow the doctor to find a place for them. (It happened in my own family in the 1940s.) Today, medical science has advanced to the point of being able to diagnose problems in utero. As a result, many doctors encourage, even urge, the termination of such a pregnancy. It’s estimated that as many as 90% of babies thought to have Down Syndrome are never born.
In Susanna’s Secret, I deal with the subject of mental impairment and what it meant in the 1870s-80s.
|Available June 28 from Amazon|
Susannah's Secret is a fast paced tale of human failings and triumphs. It typifies how courage and compassion in the face of adversity works to the advantage of all. The characters are so believable through their human failings but rise above their selfish interests. Readers who have wanted, birthed, raised, or lost a child can especially connect with Susannah and her choices which is what good reads do by pulling us into the story with our emotions. ~Georgia
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