Motherhood, Interrupted: How a 1960s Debutante Lost Her Daughter for 44 Years

By Julie Mannix von Zerneck and Kathy Hatfield
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 4 | Posted May. 7, 2013

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I looked up. “I shouldn’t be here,” I said louder. “I’m not crazy. I’m pregnant. All I am is pregnant with a child.”

He scribbled some more.

“I think I am being punished,” I said even louder, needing him to hear me, desperate for him to hear me. “I think they must have put me here to punish me. Because I am not insane.” I spoke slowly and clearly, so each word I said was separate and individual and could not be misunderstood.

He kept scribbling.

“I am frightened. I am scared out of my mind here. I am afraid that one of the patients is going to hurt me. Do you understand? I am very fearful for my life here.”

He blinked his eyes. He shifted in his chair. He waited.

I felt my mouth stretch open wider than my head and my entire body began to quake again. I stood up, put both hands on his desk and leaned in toward him. “Help me. Please, help me,” I pleaded, tears of rage flowing from my eyes. “Can you hear me?” I began to roar. “Can you hear anything I am saying?”

He gave no response.

After that, I refused to utter a single word. I silently retreated inside myself—a condition that is, I would later find out, called elective mutism. If no one was going to listen to me, then what was the point of saying anything? I went where they told me, did what they said. But I was stiff and still and silent. Inside, though, I was hot with fury.

“Fuck that,” the giant woman in the back of the room called out. “Fuck that and that and that.” Then she took off all of her clothes and ran down the hall.

I eventually named her Mafia Whore. Theresa informed me she had been there the longest. “She never gets visitors,” Theresa explained, “but once she told me she has three children, all from different fathers who are all in the Mafia.”

It turned out Mafia Whore would make herself my protector in the months to come. She was my bodyguard, in fact. There were some very rough characters on the ward and never once while I was there did any one of them get within a foot of me without Mafia Whore appearing suddenly at my side from nowhere. She never talked to me, never even made eye contact with me, but she took care of me from the moment my baby and I entered that ward on November 22 until we were finally discharged. I never knew her real name and never understood why she chose to guard me.

She was the first of the patients on the ward to recognize I was with child. One morning in my fifth month, I saw her looking at my protruding belly and I sensed a very slight ray of light cross her dark eyes. In a blink, it was gone again.

Mafia Whore was clearly crazy-out-of-her-mind, what with her constant babbling and sudden massive outbursts, where she would scream out passionately in an unknown language and touch herself in inappropriate places. But she was also crazy-like-a-fox, because at the same time that she was carrying on like a wild banshee, sometimes stripping down stark naked and flinging her clothes wherever she went, she was also fully capable of overhearing a quiet conversation off in the corner of the no-sun-room, remembering it, and then using it as the subject of one of her babblings.

But there were others like Theresa, whose grief was hidden under the surface where no one could see until abruptly it appeared, bold and screaming. Another girl, Dora, seemed very normal and just fine until suddenly she would do some great damage to herself in a matter of seconds. It wasn’t necessary for patients like Theresa or Dora to disclose anything about themselves to the rest of us, because after a few days on the ward, any one of us could see they were in immense pain and could be a great threat to themselves, but usually not to others. Dora, for instance, went around with a smile on her face most of the time and talked about make-up and clothes and boyfriends like any normal twenty-year-old. But she did pluck at her hair a lot; so much so, in fact, that sometimes when she came out to breakfast, half of her scalp would be bald. She also plucked her arms and her pubic hair. Depending on the intensity of the plucking, there could also be a lot of blood. It was said that she had tried to kill herself once by spraying an entire can of hairspray down her throat.

Then there was the group of walking Zombies, whom you left alone but were always, and I mean always, aware of where they were so you could leap out of their way as they strode by at a very vigorous pace. Around and around they went, down the hallway where our rooms were, into the no-sun-room, through the dining room, making a U-turn, heading out of the dining room, back through the no-sun-room, down another hallway where another set of rooms were. They would continue back even further to where the two padded cells were, then down again and around again, back and forth, again and again, from the moment they woke up in the morning until they were given their medications after dinner and finally stopped walking and went into a sound sleep, snoring loudly.

There I was, standing silently by the thick meshed window in the no-sun-room and waiting, day in and day out, month after month, trying desperately to feel nothing but affection and love for the baby that was growing inside of me, because I knew that was what he or she needed. If I could give her or him nothing else, at least I could give her the feeling that she was loved. I thought up names. That’s what I did all day; I lay on my bed or stared out the window in the no-sun-room and thought up different names for my baby. Parish, from a movie by the same name, was one of them. Then there was Jo, from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women; Zelda, Scott Fitzgerald’s wife; and Juliana, as in Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. (Oh, yes: At a certain point, I did decide that my baby was a girl.)

I also thought about what I would do with her when she was born. I imagined holding her close and smelling her. I anticipated walking with her, holding her small hand in mine. I thought about what her voice would sound like and the questions she might ask. I began questioning what would happen when she was born and if I would have any say in the matter. No one had told me anything about how long I would be at EPPI. For all I knew, I could be incarcerated there forever. Theresa mentioned once that some of the women on the ward had been there for more than a decade.

I knew I could talk. I knew I could demand to talk to one of the doctors. They would talk to me happily. Every week I was taken to a different psychologist sitting behind a desk. Every week they waited for me to say something for them to write down. All I wanted to do, however, was take one of their pencils and direct it with all my might into one of their eyes. Yes, I could open my mouth and speak to them. I could insist on knowing when I would be released. I could order them to tell me what would happen when my baby was born. But I had already tried all that, and it certainly hadn’t worked.

I was strong enough not to have uttered a word for months. And I wasn’t going to give up now. Not after all this time. Damn them for putting me in this position and to hell with them all, my thoughts raced angrily. But anger is a poison. Holding it in can eat through your insides. Storms of rage began to well up within me. I began to question if that rage had always been there and whether I had somehow kept it hidden. Had these secret storms been burning wild inside me for years? I wanted to rip my clothes. I wanted to fling myself against walls. Sometimes, I thought about opening a vein in my arm and just letting the blood flow out, hoping that all the anger inside of me would flood out with it. A group of Zombies would go by and I’d take off after them. When I got too tired to follow them, I’d sit down on the couch and cover my face with my hands. I rocked myself from side to side. I rocked myself back and forth. Let them all rot in hell. Let them feel what it’s like to be disregarded, disrespected, ignored. I was no longer the child who needed to please and placate. I wasn’t interested in being perfect anymore.

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Comments 1 - 4 of 4
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1. Anonymous said... on May 9, 2013 at 07:54PM

“I was nineteen, blonde with blue eyes, five feet, four inches tall, 102 pounds, and a Philadelphia Main Line debutante. And I was three and a half months pregnant.

I was nineteen, blonde with blue eyes, five feet, four inches tall, 102 pounds, and a Philadelphia Main Line debutante. And I was three and a half months pregnant.

This is what passes for journalism today. What is it with "writers" today that they brag about themselves at the expense of what could be an interesting story.

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2. Erik said... on May 17, 2013 at 06:59PM

“Dear Anonymous,
Forgive me, but a book of non-fiction is NOT journalism. However, that the author was nineteen is a fact. That she was blonde and had blue eyes are facts.That she weighed 102 pounds is also a fact. She happened to be a Philadelphia Main Line debutante and she was, indeed, three and a half months pregnant. As someone who has actually read the book, I'd like to add that that is the only physical description of the author to be found in the entire story. As this is a memoir, I, for one, want to know who I'm reading about; therefore, was quite grateful for the information.”

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3. Marti Bodenheimer said... on Aug 31, 2013 at 09:15PM

“I just finished reading your book in 2 days. Awesome book and story. God Bless you and your family.”

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4. John C. said... on Dec 23, 2013 at 02:49PM

“Boy!! I had no idea how far your folks went to suppress what you were going through. I tried to help - after you broke my heart that Summer - but will always remember you - and Jupo, and Peter, and our time together. Hope you and FRank and your kids - and hrandkids - and new found daughter are happy.”


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