Friday, April 20, 2012

The Family Secret

Recently I read Eustacia Cutler (Temple Grandin's mother)'s memoir, A Thorn in My Pocket. The most striking thing about the family story is the extent to which Mrs. Cutler bucked the common wisdom of the time: in an era when children with "childhood schizophrenia" or "retardation" were routinely institutionalized and isolated, Cutler kept Temple at home and taught her to socialize.

In discussing the book with my parents, I learned a shocking story from my own family's history - one that I find it hard to believe never came up in conversation at any time over the last 36 years.

My grandfather's younger sister, Molly, had Down Syndrome. As was the custom in the early 1900s, the family had her institutionalized. At age 10 Molly was sent to Letchworth Village in Rockland County, NY. The family would visit her once or twice a year, take her out for ice cream, and trek back to Brooklyn. After every visit, Molly's mother would spend days in deep despair, wondering if it would be better to bring her youngest child home, and the rest of the family would assure her that Letchworth was the best possible place for a girl like Molly. According to my father, the family's biggest fear was that a young "Mongoloid" woman would be easy sexual prey at home, and institutionalization was the only way to protect her from being raped.


Letchworth Village for the Feebleminded and Epileptic was established in 1909 to care for individuals with developmental disabilities. The facility was proud of its dedication to training the less-handicapped residents to perform farm labor on the premises - this was progressive stuff at the time.

Letchworth was over-crowded and under-funded; residents were often malnourished and left naked for lack of food and clothes. The residents were also the subjects of medical experiments - eugenics studies and vaccination trials. Male and female patients were kept segregated to prevent bringing more Idiots into the world, but despite my family's best intentions, Letchworth was not immune to sexual abuse.

 Many who died at Letchworth were buried near the premises in graves marked by numbers, not names; their families had been too ashamed of the stigma of mental illness to want those names displayed in public. I am pleased to report that when Molly died (from choking on food - as my father notes, this was before the Heimlich Maneuver had been invented), she was buried near her mother, with her name on her headstone.

I never heard my grandfather mention his sister Molly. My father thinks she was a tremendous source of shame and embarrassment to him. And for whatever reason my dad never told me about her before today. He says that when he was a child and saw his grandmother in distress after a visit with Molly, he was convinced his aunt was better off at Letchworth than she would have been in Brooklyn.

In the early 1900s, a child like Ryan would have been locked away in an institution like Letchworth. He would have been lumped in with the Imbecils, presumed to be incapable of learning to do anything more than yard work, and likely would not have received much of an education. He would have been left to wait out his days without love or human dignity.

What a long way we have come in the last century.

And what a long way we still have to go before the Feebleminded are able to be fully integrated into our society.

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