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.
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.
Norwich State Hospital, by Christine Rockledge. Introduction by Steve DePolito. Mt. Pleasant: SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2018. Images of America series.
I was happy to see this book come out because I have spent the last six years researching Norwich State Hospital from a different angle than this author did. Four of my ancestors were patients there. Using their records (which I acquired from the Connecticut State Library) and supplementing them with historical background, I have tried to show what life was like for my family members during the years 1908-1958. Although my research didn’t take me into Norwich State Hospital’s more recent history, I can say that what is in this book about the first fifty years of the hospital is congruent with what I found in my own research. Continue reading Norwich State Hospital: Book Review→
In 1935, when my mother was ten years old, she was taken from her parents and placed in what she called “the county home.” Its full name was the New London County Temporary Home, a facility for neglected and uncared for children. The county home was not an orphanage, because the goal was not to put the children up for adoption, but to eventually return them to their own families. In Mom’s case, she had been taken away from her parents because her mother had been admitted to Norwich State Hospital and her father was deemed physically and mentally unfit to raise her on his own. Continue reading New London County Temporary Home→
In 1939, the Connecticut state legislature discussed the formation of a commission to investigate the care of disabled people in Connecticut. During the debate over the bill, State Senator Joseph B. Downes leveled serious charges against Norwich State Hospital: food and clothing for the patients were inadequate, the doctors were incompetent, and there were not enough nurses or attendants to handle the number of patients in the hospital. Conditions at Norwich State Hospital, in his words, “stink to high heaven.”
Because Norwich State Hospital has played such a significant role in my family’s history, I am interested in what is happening to it in the present and what will happen in the future. The hospital, renamed Norwich Hospital in the early 1960s, was permanently closed in 1996. Remaining patients were moved to other hospitals in the state. The property was then transferred to the State Department of Public Works. The town of Preston, in which most of the hospital grounds lie, purchased 390 acres from the state in 2009 and began demolishing the buildings in 2011. Millions of dollars were spent on environmental cleanup associated with the demolition, including the removal of lead-based paint, asbestos, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
When I heard of the demolition of the hospital where so much of my family history transpired, I wondered if any of the buildings would be saved, or if every trace of the hospital’s existence would be erased. I knew that the buildings would just sit there rotting unless the town could make use of the land. I hoped that they were Continue reading Cleansing the Spirits at Norwich State Hospital→
In December of 1941, the United States entered into World War II. This military undertaking affected every level of American society, including state hospitals. Staffing at Norwich State Hospital had always been a challenge. Even in the best of times, there were never as many attendants as there should have been. It was particularly hard to recruit male attendants, since they were usually paid less than what they could make as tradesmen such as carpenters, electricians or auto mechanics. The pool of potential attendants was drained further after the war effort began, as men joined the military service or took better-paying jobs in the defense industry. The Superintendent of Norwich State Hospital, Dr. William A. Bryan, resorted to two unusual sources to fill his many vacant attendant positions. Continue reading Norwich State Hospital During World War II→
In 1908, when my great-grandmother Graziella Metthe was brought to Norwich State Hospital, she was confronted with five imposing buildings spread out on a broad, 100-acre plateau overlooking the Thames River. Closest to the road was the Administration Building, a three-and-a-half-story red brick structure in French neo-Gothic style, trimmed with Indiana limestone and terracotta. Set back on either side of the Administration Building were the North and South A ward buildings, which were only two stories high, and meant to house fifty-two patients each. The North and South B wards were set back yet farther on either side of the A wards, and turned at forty-five degree angles. The B wards were three stories high and meant to house one hundred and fifty patients each. Ward buildings to the north of the Administration Building were designated for female patients and those to the south, for male patients. Continue reading Architecture of Norwich State Hospital→