Norwich State Hospital and My Family, Part 7: Family Secrets

Grandma Beatrice, ca. 1944
Grandma Beatrice, ca. 1944

[This is Part 7, the last of a series on Norwich State Hospital and its effect on my family. To start at the beginning, go to Part 1.]

In 1931, the delicatessen failed. Mom always said that it had failed due to the Great Depression, but Beatrice’s patient record from Norwich State Hospital told a different story.

Beatrice told the hospital social workers that while she was living with her aunt’s family,  her uncle by marriage forced her into a sexual relationship. She claimed, “He said it was nothing as we were relations and I felt it was the only way out.”

The timing of this relationship raised my suspicions about whether the uncle was my mother’s father rather than Frank. I believe that’s why Beatrice was set up in the delicatessen when she got pregnant in 1924. She was reunited with her husband in order to deflect suspicion that anyone else might be Mom’s father.

Beatrice kept quiet about the relationship, but it seems to me that the psychotic symptoms she began to display in 1928 could very well have been triggered by the trauma of unwanted sex and the stress of trying to keep this a secret from her husband, Frank. In 1931, Beatrice told her uncle that she would not have sex with him any more.  That is when he closed down the delicatessen and threw Grandma and her family out.

After they left the deli, Beatrice and Frank returned to Danielson. She continued to accuse him of cheating on her. Beatrice’s delusions about his infidelity were symptoms of her paranoid schizophrenia. Frank was a disabled World War I veteran who suffered not only from the effects of mustard gas but also from shell-shock (now known as PTSD). He didn’t know how to handle her rantings or his own violent impulses, which is why their marriage devolved into physical abuse. In 1933, Beatrice told Frank about the relationship she’d had with her uncle, and so the violence only got worse from there.

Mom, I was sad to realize, had grown up in a household full of violence and secrets. As tragic as this story is, I was glad to learn the truth. Finally, the stories Mom told made sense. Of course she had to insist that Grandpa had been a wonderful father, and that it wasn’t his fault that the state wouldn’t let him raise her. To think otherwise would have meant acknowledging the pain of being abandoned by him. If she suspected that the uncle had been her father (which I think she may have), she was dealing with a second fatherly abandonment and a great deal of shame as well. This explained why she had been so rigid about the details of her story.

For Mom

My mother was remarkable in many ways. She remained a ward of the state until she turned 21, but she was able to go to college, thanks to the State of Connecticut and a dedicated social worker. She earned two degrees; one at the University of Connecticut and another at Catholic University. What Mom passed down to me was the importance of education — which had been her ticket out of poverty and family dysfunction. Even while raising six children, she was able to instill in me a love of books, gardening, nature, and music.

However, she was not a warm mother — not emotionally supportive — which was hard for me while I was growing up. But when I look at her family history, I ask myself, from whom did she learn how to be a parent?: from a schizophrenic mother; an absentee father; and an institution, the county home. She was the best mother she could have been under the circumstances. It’s sad that there was often tension between Mom and I — tension that might have been alleviated if she had been able to talk about the family trauma.

There’s more to the story.  I have a full-length manuscript of the entire story, called Secrets of the Asylum, just waiting for a publisher to pick it up.

11 thoughts on “Norwich State Hospital and My Family, Part 7: Family Secrets”

  1. What a remarkable story. I can only imagine how hard this must have been, each step of the way, to discover these details. Maybe this will encourage others to research their roots, and bring light and compassion to those who came before, and to ourselves.

  2. The entire saga is fascinating and it is amazing that you have discovered so much. I have enjoyed reading these stories very much.

  3. Julie, I’ve genuinely appreciated your writing and this story. I also agree with your observations. I look forward to your story being published.

  4. this story reminds me very much of the generational story of my mother, grandmother and great grandmother. So many commonalities.

  5. You do us a great service to insist on finding the truth in order to understand what went before. So very many families have kept their secrets do well that the confusion, shame, and dysfunction just go on from one generation to the next.

    Ther axiom that “The truth shall set you free” is well illustrated in your work of compassion; thank you for being faithful to the work.

  6. Thank you for being courageous enough to dig into and share your family’s past. Fascinating reading. I discovered your blog while researching my grandfather’s Norwich family. He spent a few of his childhood years in the orphanage there during the late teens / early 20s.
    Best of luck on getting the full work published!

  7. Thank you so much for this series. I found it fascinating and it really helped me to want to move forward in finding out more about my own mother who was in the Norwich State hospital. I appreciate your willingness to share your story and I do hope to read your work Secrets of the Asylum.

  8. Brilliant and moving writing. I started doing genealogy research for my family a few years ago and would run up against a ‘dead end’ when someone was found on a census living in a ‘state hospital’. I was instantly curious as to why and how they got there, and then astonished to find thousands and thousands of ‘patients’ living in these institutions. Thank you for your in depth and kind style of writing. It is inspiring. I hope to see Secrets of the Asylum in book stores all over the world.

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