Secrets of the Asylum

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

Mom’s stories never completely made sense to me, even when I was a child. Her mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and committed to a state hospital. Mom, only seven years old at the time, was sent to live in a county home for neglected children. Grandpa divorced Grandma while she was in the hospital, and he never tried to get Mom out of the county home. Yet Mom always insisted that Grandpa had been a wonderful father, and would get testy if I pointed out this contradiction.

In 2012, when I was in my mid-fifties, I decided it was time to get to the bottom of this mystery.  I requested a copy of Grandma’s patient record from Norwich State Hospital, hoping to find out what really happened to her and to Mom.  I felt sure that my mother must have experienced something traumatic that she hadn’t told me, something which might explain her need to defend Grandpa, not to mention her lack of emotional sensitivity toward me. I was surprised to discover that three other women in Grandma’s family had been patients at the same state hospital: her mother, her aunt, and one of her sisters. What I learned from poring through their patient records was enough to knock a branch off the family tree and upend almost everything Mom had ever told me about her family history.

A memoir of uncovering family secrets

Secrets of the Asylum (an unpublished manuscript) is the story of dark family secrets, and how the repercussions of suppressing the truth trickled down through the generations of my family. After five years of dogged research — following the clues in Grandma’s patient record, locating ancestral homes and graves, discovering cousins I never knew I had, and using DNA testing — I unraveled a Dickensian tale of immigration, poverty, sexual violation, family betrayal, and ultimately, redemption.

Secrets of the Asylum is also a captivating view of American history from the point of view of a poor French-Canadian family that immigrated to the U.S. to work in a textile mill in Danielson, Connecticut, under grueling conditions. It is a heartbreaking story 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. It is also 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. It was no wonder that Mom had difficulty summoning up the kind of emotional nurturing for which I had craved all my life. But I also realized that unless I revealed their secrets, the family trauma would 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.

Writer