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

Norwich State Hospital, Administration Building, April 2016
Norwich State Hospital, Administration Building, April 2016

Secrets of the Asylum is a manuscript in search of a publisher.

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 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 four others.

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. Through my search, my academic approach frequently gave way to waves of emotion about my troubled family history. 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 Secrets (103,000 words) is the story of dark family secrets and how the repercussions of suppressing the truth trickled down through the generations of my family. It is more than just a memoir about getting to the truth about my family. It’s a captivating view of American history from the point of view of my grandmother’s French-Canadian family, who were part of a mass migration of poor farmers leaving Quebec for New England to work in textile mills. It is also a heartbreaking tale of the women in the family who ended up in an overcrowded state hospital during the first half of the 20th century, subjected to therapies that ranged from dubiously effective to outright abusive. Finally, it’s an inspiring story of both Grandma’s and Mom’s determination to overcome their unfortunate circumstances and strive for a better life for themselves and their children.

The reader follows me along as I unravel the family saga and observes my transformation from a reluctant genealogist into a relentless family historian. 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. 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.

The narrative style of the memoir will appeal to fiction readers. Non-fiction readers will enjoy the way events of 20th century American history are woven into the story. The memoir will also appeal to the burgeoning genealogy community, especially now that DNA testing has been readily available to the general public. Readers interested in human behavior will be drawn to a story that exemplifies the long-lasting effects trauma and secrets can have on a family.