Secrets of the Asylum: A Memoir of Madness and Family Trauma

Standing in the old St. James Cemetery (photo by Robert Cantor, Oct 2013)
Standing in the old St. James Cemetery (photo by Robert Cantor, Oct 2013)

Secrets of the Asylum is an unpublished manuscript.

Secrets of the Asylum: A Memoir of Madness and Family Secrets (106,000 words) is the story of dark family secrets and how the repercussions of suppressing the truth trickled down through the generations of my family. Readers will see American history through the eyes of my poor immigrant ancestors, following them from Quebec to Connecticut, and then into the darkness that was mental health care in the first half of the 20th century.

I am an independent researcher who writes and speaks publicly about local history, genealogy, and my own family story. In 2011, I retired from the federal government after 30 years of service in federal research libraries, including the Library of Congress and the National Agricultural Library. I have a Masters Degree in Library Science and a Bachelor of Arts in Music.

All I wanted to do was fact-check my mother’s perplexing stories about her family and perhaps get to the bottom of her curiously insensitive way of raising me. I requested Grandma’s record from the state hospital where she had been a patient for over a decade. Once I had it in my hands, the secrets just spilled out. Grandma wasn’t the only mentally ill woman on Mom’s side of the family — there were four others. Even more surprising, I learned that Grandpa might not be Mom’s biological father.

Eventually, I received the records of four family members who had been patients at the hospital. I spent the next several years tracking down the clues in their records — locating and visiting ancestral homes and graves, discovering cousins I never knew I had, and undergoing DNA testing. When I was done, I pieced together a Dickensian tale of immigration, poverty, mental illness, family betrayal, and ultimately, redemption.

Through the narrative arc of the family story, readers will follow me as I unravel the myths I was brought up with and observe my transformation from a reluctant genealogist into a relentless family historian. My emotions ranged from sadness at the suffering of my ancestors to relief that the family history finally made sense. At the same time, I gained empathy for my mother and grandmother, who were emotionally damaged by mental illness and the psychological defenses they mounted against the trauma in their lives. In the process, I became convinced that I needed to reveal their secrets so that the family trauma would not continue to be passed down to the next generation, as it had been to mine.

DNA testing is rapidly putting an end to family secrets regarding paternity. Readers who are grappling with their own family secrets and DNA surprises need to know that they are not alone. Stories such as mine can help them understand the benefits — and the consequences — of knowing the truth. Secrets of the Asylum is a testament to the potential of family history to empower people and heal old wounds.