I’ve been hunting, reading until my eyes blur and my fingers scrolling across the mouse seize into a claw. I’m not sure what I’m looking for, a thread, a slight lift along the edges of some plane that when I pry up, I’ll find all the pieces fitting together and understand my Great-aunt Glenna. I can’t tell if it’s working or not.
I don’t know if the tidbits of information I find are worth anything at all to her story.
For instance, I learned that although Glenna’s hospital was named State Hospital South, the locals didn’t call it that. Instead, newspapers referred to it as the Blackfoot Asylum, or the Blackfoot Hospital, using the town of Blackfoot, its location, as its identifier.
In archived articles, a concerned editor, an outraged parent of a patient, and a disgruntled staff member all complained about the derelict place, but the accusations were general. “Something’s got to be done about the Blackfoot hospital,” they said. However, nothing seemed to happen.
And then there are the things that conjure images of medieval torture worthy of George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones writer), because who would do this? Who would let this happen in real life?
I discovered words like Eugenics, Sterilizations, and Lobotomies, devices created for the sole purpose of eradicating undesirable persons and traits for the growth of the desirable.
I found stories that made me scream at my computer screen, “You bastards!” Because I know it was not some novel fantasy series, it happened, and it happened all the time.
Indiana passed the Sterilization Act of 1907, a law to force vasectomies (the blocking of the vas deferens tube in men) and salpingectomies (the removal of one or both fallopian tubes in females) on people “proven” to be criminal, idiotic, imbecilic, delusionists, and rapists (because you have to bookend the vague things by two terrible things to really sell it).
Sterilization was born from Eugenics, a form of genetic weeding to allow the right kind of flower to flourish (out with the inherent bad and in with the human equivalent of designer dogs like the Teacup Poodle).
Besides the staggering similarity of future Nazi tactics (an Aryan Nation, or rather, today’s golden Labradoodle), Eugenics pooled people with mental illness, those who had a handicap or disability of some kind, those considered ethnic, immigrants, people with epilepsy, oh, and the poor! And the most significant number of procedures were done on women!
I suppose it was inappropriate to walk up to a person of color, a single mother with a slight limp, and shoot her. No, that would be murder, and society was above such things back then. See what I mean? Bastards!
The Sterilization Act didn’t take off until close to twenty years later when thirty states join in the fight against—what, precisely? Inclusion? Acceptance? A unified community? Love? Peace? What?
A scholarly paper from Western Oregon University studied two sisters sterilized in the Oregon State Hospital in the 1920s. The writer made some startling comparisons theorizing what happened to make sterilization a thing in the first place, and it makes sense!
According to the writer, the idea of Eugenics was a side effect of the steady rise of institutionalized people. The more mental hospitals became overcrowded, the less state funding they received. Sterilizations were a quick and cheap way to stop hereditary factors like poverty (like poverty?) from “plaguing future generations”—or something close to this sentiment.
What’s more, the most significant factor in society in the roaring twenties was how young people began to view sex.
Originally, sex was hog-tied (and probably clothed neck to toe in something shapeless and unflattering) to Religion for procreation purposes. Period. You weren’t supposed to enjoy it.
And then something happened—maybe it was the bobbed haircuts, dropped waistlines and raised hems, or the sexy saxophone of Jazz music—but something changed.
Suddenly, about half the population decided they enjoyed sex and that it was okay, even necessary for the health and happiness of said half (guess which half that was?)
Later, not far after, somebody (I have no idea who) decided that it was okay for women to like having sex too, but only with their husbands, and only to have babies. One step forward, right, ladies? Nope.
If it was okay to like having marital-baby-creating-relations, then it had to be okay for husbands to stray—because men needed sex to remain happy and healthy, remember? I mean, how many kids did his old lady need to stay happy? One perfect, bouncing baby boy should do it, right?
So, men, not getting enough sex to be the right kind of healthy or the right amount of happy at home, started going to prostitutes. They contracted venereal diseases (especially syphilis, it seemed) and brought it back to the happy home/baby maker.
Ten, eleven, even twenty years later, the elderly population went stark raving mad (because syphilis can do that). Without a cure (not until WWII), all anyone could do was throw Bertha Mason-types (you know, the secret, fire-starting wife locked in the attic from the novel Jane Eyre?) into State Hospital South and padlocked the doors to the outside world, forever.
Later, someone decided (again, I have no idea who made these decisions, but twenty-bucks they had a penis) that the craziness had to stop before it began. The solution was sterilization to control sexual deviancy, especially those pesky, promiscuous females. Surprisingly enough, selected sterilizations went from the 1920s up to the 1980s, although rare by the end.
Here’s how it went down—someone, usually a family member, would accuse their daughter, wife, or granddaughter, of promiscuity to a judge (having no psychological background but wielding all the power). He would refer her to a doctor who would accept his diagnosis. The doctor would then take the young woman to a board of doctors for an interview.
The board would ask the young woman very explicit, very pointed questions about her sexual exploits, including how old she was her first time and how many sexual partners she had after.
I stopped breathing altogether when I read how a nineteen-year-old girl (one of the original sisters of the study) explained that her first sexual experience happened when she was fifteen years old, and she was “seduced by a gun”and she had many sexual partners after.
I balled up my fists and sat back. I couldn’t believe it! Seduced by a gun? Seduced? By a gun? Many sexual partners afterward? How soon after? Right after the gun-seducer? Was she talking about a gang rape?
An asterisk on the page caught my attention. The author pointed out that “seduced” was used as a euphemism for rape in those days. It was probably unladylike to say rape, I suppose.
In this case, the board found the girl hit the criteria of being “feeble-minded” and “sexually immoral” and the perfect candidate to volunteer for sterilization. I mean, how dare she not recognize rape when there’s a gun to her head? And to have sex multiple times after (with or without her consent), of course, she was guilty!
The writer pointed out that often the person interviewed by the board was promised early “parole” from the institution if they consented to a sterilization procedure.
What’s more, doctors would send letters to the families of prospective patients asking for consent, even though it was legal to do one without a signature. They would also hide sterilizations behind a patient’s sudden appendectomy (even without evidence on record of an inflamed appendix).
So, what does this all have to do with Glenna? I believe she had a lobotomy before she was freed, but was she sterilized, too? I’m not sure, but I’m worried.
What if the family lore that she was in a car accident wasn’t true? What if the actual story was that she was an incurable flirt? Maybe Glenna liked staying out really late with men? What if she was involved with a married man? Or what if it was just perceived she was or did all those things?
Could she have been raped and started talking about it? What if she had been pregnant (there is not one story from my family that states this, just a societal history of unwedded pregnant women sent to the asylum to have babies), and she was sent away for a very, very long time?
According to family rumors, Glenna displayed certain criteria that a board of moral police would have arrested her for—she had tried to take her shirt off once in front of her brother’s friend. She was seeing fires that weren’t there and hearing voices not connected to anybody present. Glenna was also from an impoverished family. So, was the hospital punishment for something she had or had not done?
Besides the terror of what she might have gone through or witnessed, I’m also horrified because if Glenna was once considered inherently undesirable, what does that say about me?