I hope you will take the time to read this review of Secrets of the Asylum published in Severance, an online publication which calls itself “a magazine and community for people who’ve been separated from biological family.”
Severance gives a voice to people who were adopted, or donor conceived, or who found out that one or both of their parents aren’t related to them biologically. In this age of genetic genealogy, more and more people are discovering unexpected things in their family trees, upending their sense of identity. Severance allows people to share how these circumstances have affected them. In addition to validating their emotional truths, the essays in the magazine lend support to others in similar situations. Severance also helps identity seekers by pointing them to resources to help them on their journey to discover the truth about their beginnings.
Although the story I tell in Secrets of the Asylum isn’t typical of those told in Severance, it touches on themes that come up whenever DNA surprises are uncovered: intergenerational trauma and the consequences of family secrets.
Retired librarian Julianne Mangin was a reluctant genealogist — at first. But after acquiring her ailing mother’s genealogy files, something drew her into the family history. Maybe it was years of listening to her mother’s cryptic stories of her childhood which featured a delicatessen, a state hospital, a county home for neglected children, and a father who disappeared. Even though Grandpa divorced her mother and never got her out of the county home, Mangin’s mother defended her father’s absence and called him a wonderful father. At first, all Mangin meant to do was organize her mother’s files so that they could be stored more compactly. But it wasn’t long before she began noticing errors, omissions, and discrepancies in her mother’s research that cast doubt on the family stories. Thus began her transformation from reluctant genealogist to relentless family historian. She acquired her grandmother’s patient record from Norwich State Hospital and the secrets just spilled out. There were four other women in her mother’s family who were patients at state hospitals, three of them at Norwich State Hospital. And there was evidence that Grandpa might not be her mother’s father. Reading the transcripts of her grandmother’s interviews with hospital staff, Mangin unearthed a dark secret at the heart of her mother’s childhood. Through her research, Mangin uncovered her French Canadian heritage and delved into the history of the care of the mentally ill in the early 20th century. She learned how poverty and mental illness loomed over the family’s fortunes. Using patient records, genealogical methods, and DNA testing, Mangin has pieced together a family story that reads like a Dickens novel. Weaving in what she learned about intergenerational trauma and the consequences of family secrets, Mangin has created a testament to the power of family history to empower people and heal old wounds.
Dinorah Metthe, Grandma’s sister, was one of five women on my mother’s side of the family who were mentally ill and had been committed to a state hospital. Mom had a letter (which I presume she found among Grandpa’s papers) from Kings Park State Hospital in New York. Dated October 11, 1954, it was addressed to Beatrice, with a memo line that read: “RE: Dinorah Metthe: deceased.” The hospital acknowledged the receipt of Dinorah’s divorce papers and some personal correspondence that Beatrice had sent them. How I wish Grandma hadn’t done this! These documents, which were subsequently filed in her patient record, would have revealed Dinorah’s state of mind, and perhaps provided additional details to the family story.
In 1953, two people from different worlds met in Ken-Gar. Will Adams was an elderly African American man from Ken-Gar, a predominantly Black neighborhood wedged between Kensington and Garrett Park in Montgomery County, Maryland. Mike Seeger was a young White man from upscale Chevy Chase, the son of two prominent music scholars. His older half-brother was Pete Seeger, the famous folk singer and banjo player. Mike Seeger made field recordings of Will Adams playing the fiddle, and old-time music history was made.
I wanted to know more about Adams, where he came from, and how he might have learned his music. While doing this research, I realized that his ancestry offers a glimpse into African American life in Montgomery County from the final years of slavery into the mid-twentieth century. In addition, the musical legacies of both men – Will Adams and Mike Seeger – live on to this day. Continue reading Will Adams, Fiddler of Ken-Gar→
Commonwealth Farm was a 119-acre property in Colesville that was owned by a women’s commune formed in the 1870s in Belton, Texas. They were called the Sanctified Sisters or Sanctificationists at first, but eventually became known as the Woman’s Commonwealth. Their beliefs were based on divine revelations received by their leader which espoused sanctification, non-sectarianism, and celibacy. They were economically self-sustaining, pooling their financial resources and living communally. In 1898, the commune moved from Texas to Washington, D.C. In 1903, they purchased the Colesville farm, where they raised dairy cattle, chickens, and pigs, and grew vegetables, fruit trees, corn, and wheat. For over four decades, the commune ran the Commonwealth Farm Inn and restaurant on the property, which became a popular spot for members of high-society and influential Washingtonians.
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Late last year, stuck at home, my activities hampered by the pandemic, I found myself intrigued by a posting in a Facebook group. Someone asked if anyone knew the history behind a stone retaining wall he’d seen on the east side New Hampshire Avenue, while heading north toward Good Hope Road. I didn’t know, but having nothing better to do, I set about to find the answer. I knew I had the research skills; for the past few years, I have scoured photograph archives, land records, digital newspapers, and maps to write the history of the Aspin Hill Pet Cemetery. Even so, when it comes to historical research there are times when, no matter how hard one looks, there’s nothing to go on. But this time, I was in luck. Continue reading Commonwealth Farm, Colesville, Maryland→
An article I’ve written, a micro-memoir, appears in Severance Magazine, which features stories and essays about people who are on a similar journey as mine. The story I tell is of my family history journey, which includes the history of mental illness in my family. It is also about finding out that my grandfather wasn’t Mom’s biological father, finding out who was, and pondering whether Mom knew. Severance Magazine is the perfect place for my story. I hope you will read the article I wrote and then explore the other content.
Genealogists sometimes come across cousins they didn’t know they had. The person maybe helpful and friendly or maybe they won’t. In my case, by finding my cousin, Rita Hoadley, I hit the cousin jackpot. She had photographs, stories, and even knew some of the family secrets. And to top it off, she was a delightful person, beloved by her entire family. Here’s the story of how we met and what she meant to me. Continue reading Cousin Jackpot!→
In 1935, at the age of ten, Mom was sent to live the New London County Temporary Home. Grandma had been committed to Norwich State Hospital and Grandpa was not considered suitable for raising Mom on her own. When writing my family story, I couldn’t find much about this institution which she always referred to as “the county home.”
Fortunately, there is now a resource for genealogists who want to know more about their ancestors who were residents of the New London County Temporary Home. Cheryl and Chris Klemmer have compiled their research about the county home in the form of a reference book available at the Connecticut State Library in Hartford and the Otis Library in Norwich. New London County Temporary Home: History, Residents and References contains a history of home and the names of residents that were found in records. While they are not selling their book, Cheryl and Chris are willing to provide guidance about searching for former county home residents if you contact them at CTCountyHomes@gmail.com.
On May 9th, I gave a virtual talk for the Enoch Pratt Free Library called, “Family Myth Busting.” In it, I traced the steps I took to resolve the discrepancies in the stories my mother had always told me about her family. I share my strategies, in which I used maps, newspapers, and patient records from Norwich State Hospital to stitch together a narrative of my family story which was more connected than the one my mother told. I also share my thoughts on the benefits of knowing one’s family history and how it has the potential to empower and to heal old wounds.