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Secrets of the Asylum is an unpublished manuscript.

All through my childhood, at odd moments, my mother blurted out mystifying phrases about her upbringing. References to madness, a man named Napoleon, a delicatessen: words issued in fragments that made no sense, and which my mother refused to clarify.

As I began the research that led to this book, all I wanted to do was fact-check my mother’s perplexing stories about her family and get to the bottom of her curiously insensitive way of raising me. Setting out on my hunt, I requested Grandma’s record from Norwich 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 three others who had been patients at the same hospital. And there was evidence that Grandpa might not be Mom’s biological father.

It was 2012, and I had just retired from a career as a librarian at the Library of Congress. I spent the next five years following the clues in Grandma’s patient record — locating ancestral homes and graves, discovering cousins I never knew I had, and undergoing DNA testing. When I was done, I had pieced together a Dickensian tale of immigration, poverty, mental illness, family betrayal, and ultimately, redemption.

Secrets of the Asylum: A Memoir of Madness and Family Trauma is 105,000 words long and was professionally edited. It is the story of dark family secrets and how the repercussions of suppressing the truth trickled insidiously down through the generations of my family. More than simply a memoir of finding out the truth about my past, my family’s story sheds light on:

  • The psychology of inherited family trauma; how suppressing knowledge of a traumatic event tends to ensure that its effects will be passed down to subsequent generations;
  • Immigration history, in particular the mass migration of poor farmers leaving Quebec for New England to work in textile mills (900,000 between 1840 and 1930);
  • The history of state hospitals such as the one where four women in my family were committed during the first half of the 20th century, and a general history of psychiatric care and treatment methods that ranged from dubiously effective to outright abusive.

As the book unfolds, the reader follows me along as I unravel the family saga and observes my transformation from a reluctant genealogist into a relentless family historian. Throughout the search, my attempts at a rational and unbiased approach were sometimes rattled by the emotions that the story evoked in me. As I learned the tragic details of my ancestors’ lives, I welled up with empathy for my grandmother and my mother. They were both emotionally damaged, either by mental illness or by the psychological defenses they mounted against the trauma in their lives. As I delved further into my family’s past, 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. Secrets of the Asylum is a testament to the potential of family history to empower people and heal old wounds.

A note on the wide appeal of the book: The memoir is a gripping mystery surrounding insanity and long-held secrets and would likely appeal to fiction readers. History lovers will enjoy the way events of 20th century American history are woven into a family story. The memoir will also appeal to the genealogy community, especially now that DNA testing is readily available to the general public. Many users of DNA services are blind-sided by revelations of long-held family secrets, and I discuss some of the consequences I experienced. Readers interested in human behavior will be drawn to a story that shows the long-lasting effects trauma and secrets can have on a family.