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.
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.
I am pleased to have been asked to speak about my research at the Otis Library in Norwich, Connecticut. The talk will take place on Monday, October 28, 2019 at 6:00 p.m.
I regret that I have not been posting new material on this blog in the past few months. Developing this talk has taken up much of my writing time. In addition, I gave my first talk on my historical research into Aspin Hill Memorial Park, a.k.a Aspin Hill Pet Cemetery earlier this month. You can learn about this project at my other blog, Pet Cemetery Stories.
I hope to get back to blogging after I have delivered my talk at Norwich at the end of this month. Thanks for staying with me, and I hope some of my subscribers will be able to come hear me.
Lisa Louise Cooke is more than just a podcast host. She is an acclaimed expert in genealogy who travels extensively to teach research techniques at conferences, libraries, historical societies, etc. I consider it an honor to be asked to appear on her podcast more than once.
In Alice’s Story Part 2, I wrote about the Exeter School, formerly known as the Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded, where Alice spent the last twenty years of her life. In this final installment, I conclude the story which began in Alice’s Story Part 1.
When I think of my great-aunt Alice Tillotson’s story, I feel sad for her. She was abandoned at a state institution and forgotten by her family. But was she? Surely my grandfather, not yet ten years old when she was taken away, must have missed his sister and childhood companion. When Grandpa showed Mom, then only eight years old, the photograph of Alice, it might have been around the time she died in 1933. Perhaps he heard of her death somehow, and was motivated to find the photograph of the two of them together. If that is the case, then I think he never forgot his sister, and her death filled him with sadness and regret. Continue reading Alice’s Story, Part 3: Final Resting Place→