My grandmother was a recluse.
For much of her middle and later years, she lived in a dilapidated house with my grandfather, and then alone after he passed away. Months went by before she’d bathe or change her clothes, and then always under duress or threat of another hospitalization. She was deep in her illness by the time I became aware that she was different from what my friends’ Mom-Moms were like.
As you can imagine, visiting my grandparents was a disturbing experience. There were no warm hugs, offers of cookies, or questions about school. Each week my mother brought her food, and my sister and I, forced to accompany her, would try hard not to touch anything.
Every few years a family member, usually my mother, arrived at her doorstep with a few of Philadelphia’s finest and off my grandmother went, kicking and screaming, for “treatment.”
I admit to never having had a warm thought towards her back then. She was the “crazy” one. End of story. I can plead childhood ignorance, but the truth is, I believe I blamed her for her illness. Why didn’t she just take a shower, for God’s sake?
One of the books I am working on, All Her Days and Other Lies, uses the bones of Betty’s life to tell the story of one of the many people for whom the psychiatric community of that era failed. Thousands were harmed by brutal procedures, inappropriate diagnoses, and unnecessary surgeries. That the science behind most of these treatments was sorely lacking didn’t seem to stop their proliferation.
Bits of Betty’s history leaked out of my mother over the years and my disgust turned to empathy. Her story haunted me. For some reason, it wasn’t until my mother passed away and the best conduit of information gone, that I began writing a book based on Betty’s sad life.
It was the question “why” that sparked it. What caused this woman to become so ill that she was unable to leave the house? Family members supplied some of the story. Academic research brought reasonable suppositions. Suffice it to say that a despotic husband and a colluding doctor could do pretty much anything they wanted to a woman in the middle part of the twentieth century.
I can’t imagine the depths of her suffering. Not that I won’t. I do. Every time I immerse myself deep in her character (named Dorothy in my book) and I arise from the laptop with tears in my eyes. I grieve for a life spent without power or voice. I grieve for myself and my siblings who never had the joy of an attentive, loving grandmother. And I am angry with myself for not seeing it sooner. Those of you with mentally ill family members may understand. I never took the time to understand her. I was one of many who did not give her the time of day or a kind moment.
I am frankly angry that the medical profession has never been called to account for these travesties. Sure, people were helped and went on to live productive lives. Great. But this is the story of what happened when patient rights were stomped on. A lesson, I believe, we must continue to keep in our awareness.
As a writer, I am glad that I do not know all the details of Betty’s life. This is not a family memoir, but a work of fiction that depicts a tragic era and I hope it shall be read as such. What I do know convinces me that the illness that created the withdrawn, reclusive woman I knew as a teenager was primarily a consequence of her psychiatric treatments.
My grandmother recovered somewhat the last few years of her life. She spent them at a lovely nursing home, playing mah jongg with the ladies, and going on outings to the mall with my mother and me. It was a relief for my mother.
For me, the joys of having a grandmother had passed.
I am interested in connecting with other people who may have had similar experiences within their families. Please get in touch via my website if you’d like to share your story.