Disability History Museum: We Committed Our Child

25 Oct

This story was discussed online a few years ago. It has haunted me ever since. The story can be found online in Google Books (which carries The Rotarian) or at the Disability History Museum as “We Committed Our Child“.

The image says it all: a happy 1940’s family with a baby of their dreams:

At about 20 months, things changed:

By that time another baby was on the way, for we believed that she should have a companion. Those were happy months as we planned for the second child and tried to prepare Mary Lou for the newcomer, but then came a cloud. One evening when Mary Lou was 20 months old, she became violently ill, having shown signs of only a slight cold. Developing a high fever, she was lethargic and “loppy” for three days. We were frantic. The doctor prescribed rest, and Mary Lou, who loved her bed, cooperated nicely. Within a few days she was trotting about again.

It wasn’t like old times, however, for she tired quickly and was nervous and touchy. She seemed on occasion to be “out of this world” and was upset more and more often by the books that previously had brought hours of delight.

By the time our boy was born, three months later, we were deeply worried. Mary Lou’s nervousness increased; she went into screaming spells with no apparent cause, cast aside her books and toys, gradually stopped talking, became choosy about her foods, and refused to feed herself.

The parents faced 5 options:

1. Keep Mary Lou at home.
2. Place her with some relative or friend willing to assume the burden of her care.
3. Place her in a private institution.
4. Place her in a State institution.

Yes, that’s only 4. The fifth option they considered in theory (and rejected, thankfully): euthanasia.

They discuss the life they expected for their child at home, impact they felt their child had on them and their community:

Also, having witnessed the ridicule and ill treatment which residents of our home town turned on the “village half-wit” and his family, we understood what keeping her with us would mean to our family.

We decided we must look further, in justice to Mary Lou, her brother, ourselves, and the community.

And chose an institution:

So it was that we decided in favor of a State hospital. Taking Mary Lou to it was a heartbreaking experience, but we were fortified with the conviction that in this move lay the sole hope for happiness for all four of us. And we were greatly heartened by the appearance of the place. It resembled a college campus, with pretty brick buildings set amid sweeping grounds. There were no walls, no guards. Patients strolled, played, or rested outside their homelike cottages. In this community, we saw also, there were no thoughtless neighbors gossiping about the unfortunates and jeering at them and their families.

They kept contact with their child, and kept questioning their decision:

More than a year has passed since that day. We have kept in close touch with the hospital by mail and telephone and have made the 100-mile trip to visit our daughter at least once a month. The simple routine of good food, sunshine, and fresh air have done wonders for Mary Lou’s physical health. She is calmer and again is feeding herself. We still do not know what potentialities Mary Lou possesses, but we feel confident that whatever they are, the skilled, hard-working staff will labor earnestly to develop them.

And so tragedy came into a family that barely knew the word. We think, we pray, we have faced it wisely.

The full story can be found at the Disability History Museum. It isn’t very long.

That story was written 66 years ago.

2 Responses to “Disability History Museum: We Committed Our Child”

  1. farmwifetwo October 25, 2011 at 13:28 #

    Children are still committed to institutions.

    We just pretend they aren’t.

  2. Roger Kulp October 26, 2011 at 00:36 #

    Regression after an acute illness,with high fever.So common,and exactly what happened to me,although I was younger than this.

    The symbolism in that second illustration is not to be believed.It’s like Oz at the end of the Yellow Brick Road.You can all but see G*d smiling down on them.Disgusting.

    I have said before,I grew up just down the road from Rosewood Center.


    On more than one occasion,while I was in elementary school,the schools I went to came very close to putting me there.My mother had to pull a lot of strings to keep me out.This was in the late 0s,and early 70s.

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