I met the real life Anna Olson only once although I was briefed extensively on her background and test results by my staff. There are some basic facts that my staff and I knew about the real Anna. She spent over 40 years in various institutions in Minnesota, she scored exactly 100 (normal) on two separate intelligence tests, and she was able to independently care for all her day to day self care needs. Apparently, somewhere in her past, she had experienced some seizures, which were probably the main reason for her admission to an institution although there were no seizures noted in her file. I did not make note of any specific dates at that time, but I assume from what we did know, that Anna probably was committed (admitted) somewhere around the early 1930’s as a teenager and at the time of her discharge in the mid 1970’s, she was in her mid to late fifties.
For all these years since I met her, I have assumed that Anna’s story was unique and presented unique issues. But as I research her story, I have discovered there were likely tens of thousands of people all across the US who were put into institutions at that time, for many reasons we would now consider entirely inappropriate. Many of these people remained in institutions for their entire lives despite the fact that they could have easily been discharged.
The main question I carry away from my encounter with Anna is how could she have been institutionalized for all that time? Why didn’t someone ever bother to evaluate her before we did, or talk to her, or realize there was no reason for her to remain in an institution? After spending her entire adult life experiencing the degradation and at times the horrors of institutional life, I wonder what kind of freedom she experienced once she was discharged? My goal then, is to write a fictional account of what her life might have like before, during, and after her institutionalization.
THE YOUNG WOMAN FROM IOWA
The second story I have carried with me all this time, is that of a very severely handicapped girl who lived in Iowa. She was so handicapped by Cerebral Palsy that when I first met her, she could not control any of her muscles. This young lady grew up in a loving family and was cared for mainly by her mother until her mother began to develop health problems and could no longer lift her. She was then placed in a nursing home, her parents being unaware of any other options other than the State of Iowa institution for developmentally disabled people at Woodward, Iowa. A placement the parents wanted to avoid at all costs.
We admitted her to the organization I directed at the time, Winnebago Handicapped Services, on a last resort, desperate appeal from her parents. When I met her, this young lady was most likely around 16 and was just barely clinging to life. She appeared to have “failing to thrive” syndrome, a rare condition seen mostly in abandoned or neglected babies, her vital signs were gradually weakening for no apparent reason. After months and months of caring, touching, holding, and physical therapy, she came back to life, she put on much needed weight, and the color returned to her skin.
One day, in what seemed like a miraculous discovery, a staff member noticed what she thought was a very slight head nod in answer to a question she had been asked. She had finally broken through to the outside world! What we soon found was that this young lady knew how to spell, count, and the answer countless questions even though she had never been to school. In many respects, she was a “Helen Keller”. We considered her progress as an affirmation of our treatment philosophy that even the most handicapped individual can benefit from therapy, nurturing and good care.
I have often wondered what it would be like to be her, to understand everything, but have no way to interact with the outside world, no way to smile, blink your eyes, sign, or tap your finger to answer questions or make comments. What would it be like to live in a world where everyone assumed that your mind didn’t work just because your body didn’t work? And finally, what must it feel like to one day find you can communicate? Hopefully, after finishing the story of Anna Olson, I will write her story and try to answer some of these questions.
WEST VIRGINIA PLAINTIFF
The third woman is actually another young girl. She was well-known in West Virginia by all types of social services agencies for two reasons, she was a notoriously difficult to serve troubled teenager, and she served as the lead plaintiff in a “failure to provide appropriate services” Federal class action lawsuit.
If you met her, she would most likely impress you as a rough around the edges teenager, and she had a big smile, which hid a world of hurt. She swore like a sailor and had either run away from or wrecked havoc in every foster home, school, or state institution she had ever been in, and it was a very long list of places. At every place and at every turn, people said they could not help her. No one seemed to be able to get her settled down and under control, she just didn’t fit in anywhere.
A county judge somewhere in West Virginia sent her to my facility simply because she had not been admitted there before. The State of West Virginia told the judge they were out of all other options. It may help you to know that my facility, the Greenbrier Center, served severely and profoundly retarded (the language of the day) individuals and she was anything but that, so there was no reason she should have been sent to me. When a sheriffs car pulled into the driveway with her in the back seat, it was followed by a car carrying staff members from a West Virginia advocacy group. In my right hand I had a court order to admit this young lady, in my left hand was a letter saying that if I admitted her, there would be a class action law suit against the State of West Virginia and possibly, myself. The judge’s order won out, and besides, the lawsuit was going to happen anyway.
I have always wondered what terrible things had transpired in what we knew to be her X-rated past, and how they had shaped her into the very complex person she had become. But I have thought more about the fact that this is more the story of a complete breakdown in the State of West Virginia’s social services system. She was a victim, first of psychological and physical abuse in her home, then from neglect and ineptitude on the part of the people appointed to help her. I would like to someday explore the back stories of this young lady’s life and the system which failed her, finally leading to the lawsuit which changed the entire system of institutions and many social services in West Virginia.
My next post will be an excerpt from the first chapter of the story of Anna Olson.