I sit in my office, on the extra chair I inherited after my husband and I bought two chairs to replace it. My feet are propped on an ottoman, reupholstered in green and white houndstooth, also banished to my office when something better came along.
The smell of fresh coffee has weakened, but the lukewarm liquid is still sweet. I love the taste of coffee, the bitter mixed with cream. I like drinking it best from one of my favorite mugs—the white porcelain one I bought in Seattle, Washington at an original Starbucks.
I have a sunny yellow mug my kids bought me for Mother’s Day one year, and a tall alabaster one with black lettering saying “Time for Latte and a good book” that my friend Kerry sent me for my birthday.
Today, I drink from a cup featuring a caricature of five women. Their backs are towards me, their arms intertwined, each with one with a sister’s name underneath. Apparently, I am the second woman from the left. “Life is Better with Sisters” the cup reads on the opposite side. I treasure this cup, a gift from my sister, Jen.
Life is better with sisters, and a cup of coffee, sitting on a chair with my feet up, having the luxury of jotting down my thoughts. I am fortunate. I am free. I can look out my window, see the purple Oquirrh (pronounced Oak-er) Mountains in the west, hear the slight hum of traffic in between coos of pigeons nearby, and write.
I can think how I want to. Say what I want to, and be who I am. I am lucky. I suspect that my Great-aunt Glenna was not. Was she ever?
Did Glenna have any rituals, little things that made her smile, comforted her? For the fifteen years spent in State Hospital South, in Blackfoot, Idaho, had she the luxury of sipping coffee, thinking through the morning hours, or daydreaming? What made up her day-to-day? What happened to her while inside those walls? I don’t know, and I worry.
Glenna was born in Idaho in 1916. By then, harrowing attitudes towards people deemed undesirable were rampant. Eugenics, the idea of creating the perfect human by breeding out unwanted traits, was prevalent in America even before Adolf Hitler tweaked it into the fair-haired people elite.
Eugenics led to forced sterilizations targeting the mentally ill, the disabled, the poor, and immigrants.
In 1927 the Supreme Court ruled forced sterilization was fine and didn’t violate the Constitution.
“…three generations of imbeciles are enough,” said Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes (Editors. “Eugenics.” This Day in History. Updated Oct. 28, 2019. history.com).
Sterilization was overturned in 1942, but thousands of people had already been made sterile. Was Glenna? She never married or had children. Was it her schizophrenia to blame, or was she opted out of future gene pools by force or even by consent? I don’t know.
During Glenna’s stay in State Hospital South, from 1940-1955, health care and treatments were abominable.
Treatments on people considered insane (referred to as inmates rather than patients) included Insulin Coma therapy or injecting insulin to force a person into a coma to alter their brain functions. There was Metrazol therapy that induced severe and violent seizures resulting in broken backbones and amnesia.
Electroshock treatments were done several times a day on a patient. Hydrotherapy resembled waterboarding rather than a nice relaxing soak in a tub. Of course, there were the restraints, cuffs slapped over necks, on wrists and ankles undone with a key, patients tied down to their mattress or a chair and left, and don’t forget straitjackets! But the ‘big cure’ happening during the time Glenna lived inside the hospital was the Lobotomy.
In 1949, Portuguese neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz received the Nobel Prize for his work in lobotomizing the ‘feeble-minded.’ However, American doctor Walter Freeman “improved” severing connections of the prefrontal cortex, turning people into zombies and calling them cured.
Freeman’s new procedure led to two things, Antonio Egas Moniz’s Nobel Prize and twenty-thousand lobotomies performed on people. Is that what happened to Glenna?
I read an account told from the head nurse who worked in State Hospital South from 1940 into the 1950s where she felt lobotomies were a kindness, a better alternative to restraints, beatings, and back-breaking seizures. She believed that lobotomies made the patient calmer, more able to leave the facility and work among society.
Articles about Insane Asylum history and patient treatments seem to have asterisks of ‘don’t judge what we did in the past through present-day standards’—as if no one understood cruelty then! As if medical experimentation on the living was not torture written down and studied!
What happened to my Great-aunt? Did she experience moments of happiness, moments of calm, moments of her own? Did she have friendships? Relationships? Love?
What were Glenna’s rituals? Were her days kicked off by a favorite coffee mug or by restraints? Had she found any resemblance of peace, of life beyond existence inside those hospital walls? Or was she banished to a room somewhere and only released once she wasn’t human anymore?