Before Julie Mannix von Zerneck grew up and became a TV actress, she was a scared, pregnant Bryn Mawr teenager whose parents had her institutionalized till the baby could go away. Four decades later, that baby, Kathy Hatfield, would finally find her. Now the two women have co-written Secret Storms, a joint memoir of their unlikely family history. In this exclusive excerpt from the book, Julie tells the story of her unwilling maternal confinement.
The world will always remember the shots being fired on November 22, 1963, at 12:30 in the early afternoon. But Philadelphia is one hour ahead of Dallas, so for me the event took place at 1:30 p.m. I was in the middle of being transferred from a private hospital to the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute, or, as I got to know it, EPPI, “a state hospital and home to people ranging from mentally challenged to the criminally insane.”
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.
“Sit here,” I was told by a large man in a stark white nurse’s uniform. I wrapped myself tightly in my wrinkled camel’s hair coat and sat on an orange vinyl chair that had some peeling tape covering up slash marks. Peering out through my long veil of unwashed hair, I saw that the waiting room was small, the walls a grimy green. A few feet away, there was an open window smudged with fingerprints, behind which sat two admittance ladies dressed in street clothes.
An old black and white Philco television was hanging from the soiled wall in a corner of the waiting room. The picture was on, but the volume was turned down low. All four of us heard it, though—a mental patient, a male nurse and two admittance ladies. All four of us saw Walter Cronkite take off his glasses and state, “President Kennedy died at 1 p.m.… some 38 minutes ago.”
It was then that I felt a vague stirring in my stomach. Seconds later, a soft flutter, and then a definite trembling. I reached down and covered my belly with my hands and took a deep breath. Up until then it had just been something I had been told about. You are pregnant. You are expecting a baby. You are going to have a child. Unexpectedly, in this room that smelled of vomit and floor cleaner, surrounded by strangers, my baby had decided to announce itself for the first time. Suddenly it was real. Something warm burst through me, a kind of euphoria. I sat there in the tight little admittance room and closed my eyes.
This is really happening, I thought to myself. Oh my God, this is really happening.
The man behind the desk smiled at me for a split second and introduced himself. He was a doctor of psychology, he told me. I didn’t like the way he looked—all one color, with his beige teeth, lips, face, hair, shirt and tie, blending into the bare beige wall behind him, creating the impression that maybe he wasn’t there at all. I had to blink twice to focus in on him and when I caught his blank stare it made me so uncomfortable that I quickly looked down at the green linoleum floor.
“I’m told you would like to speak to someone,” the beige man, now holding a pencil poised to write, said. I looked down at my hands in my lap. I took a breath. I willed my trembling to stop.
“There is nothing wrong with me,” I whispered. “I shouldn’t be here.”
“I can’t hear you,” he said. “Can you look at me?”
“I don’t belong here,” I whispered a little louder as I forced myself to look up.
He blinked his eyes. He shifted in his chair. He waited.
“I’m not mentally challenged or criminally insane.”
He began to scribble.
“I shouldn’t be here. I should be someplace else.”
“Where should you be?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Home, maybe.” I looked down and hunched over. “Or a home. A home for unwed mothers, maybe,” I whispered, feeling great shame. A tear splashed onto the green linoleum below and I covered it up with my foot.
“I can’t hear you,” he said. “Please speak up.”
PW's Summer Guide 2015