Daughters and Mothers, Making Our Way
What I’ve learned from a long line of ‘non-compliant’ mothers about battling life’s headwinds
I don’t picture my mom as she was dying, her bottle blond hair gone short and gray, trailing around an oxygen tank like an extra appendage.
I see the face of a 40-year-old woman, wearing blue scrubs, smiling at my teenage self over dinner in the McCullough-Hyde Hospital cafeteria while on break from her shift in the ER. She always seemed happy and at home in the hospital, the domain where she exuded so much confidence. Her home away from home.
And lately I’ve been picturing my mom as a young girl. How she must have pined for her own mother, Virginia, three thousand miles away, out of touch, out of reach.
My mom was orphaned as a young girl and raised by relatives in Missouri and then Maryland, unhappy homes of last resort. The story goes that my grandmother had a nervous breakdown, then tried to kill her young toddler, my mother, by putting ground glass in her food. I don’t know if that’s true; there’s certainly no record of it. If so, today my grandmother Virginia would be one of the very small number of mothers — fewer than one-tenth of one percent — who develop postpartum psychosis. And the even smaller number of mothers with psychosis who attempt infanticide.
Whatever the cause, one thing is clear: my grandmother Virginia spent many years in mental institutions in the 1940s and 50s. While her time there is still shrouded in mystery, it was a brutal time for psychiatric care. And she didn’t escape the brutality.
My grandmother entered the former Norwalk State Mental Hospital in the 1940s as a young mother, 26 years old, a painter and pianist who completed several years of junior college.
Norwalk is famous for treating many Hollywood celebrities, including Bela Lugosi and Marilyn Monroe’s mother, Gladys. It’s also the subject of a 1970s documentary, Hurry Tomorrow, a disturbing look at how patients were treated at a time when many mental hospitals had too many patients, too few resources, and little oversight.
According to records, my grandmother’s illness was dementia praecox, a disused diagnosis that covered all sorts of at-the-time incurable conditions from manic depression to schizophrenia. Psychiatric medications including lithium were not in popular use; instead, treatments ranged from restraints to electric shock therapy to worse.
By the time she was discharged, Virginia had suffered the worst. She was one of the 20,000 people forcibly sterilized in California — an outcome of the raging eugenics movement in the United States that sought to stem the tide of so-called “defective” genes and inspired Hitler — and given a lobotomy.
Such clinical words, sterilization and lobotomy. And yet I don’t think of these as medical terms. They’re descriptions of violence. Violence perpetrated against a vulnerable young woman, afflicted with many demons, who was thrown scared and alone into an institution that sought compliance as its treatment goal.
As a woman, it doesn’t escape me that Norwalk was just another in a long line of institutions looking for women to be compliant.
Was my grandfather, Virginia’s husband, distraught about what happened to his young bride? Did he fight for her? I didn’t have a chance to ask him the one time we met. But I do know this: he signed off on my grandmother’s treatments. His signature is on the consent records I’ve obtained.
Whatever he felt, I know he couldn’t handle raising his daughter, my mom, on his own. Instead, he dropped my mom off with his clan of brothers and sisters, people he himself had fled when he left Missouri many years earlier on a bicycle, never to return. My grandmother and mom dispensed with, he continued with his Air Force career until he retired in Spain with a new wife.
I met Virginia years later. She was a senior citizen then, still living in Los Angeles where she had moved in the 1920s with her own mother, Ann, from a small farm in Minnesota. They were Swedish immigrants. For whatever reason, things didn’t work out for my great-grandmother in Minnesota. She divorced her husband and sought out a new life in sunny southern California, her young daughter in tow.
Fast forward many decades.
By the time I got to know my grandmother, she had moved into a nursing home in Downey, California. I remember her wearing the most elaborate hats, wrapped in organza, with flowers and buttons and whatnot tucked into the sash. A legacy from her own mother, a hatmaker.
The lobotomy had left her able to function but somewhat childlike. In that way, she was much luckier than others who died or were left incapacitated by the procedure (President Kennedy’s sister, Rosemary, is one famous example). But the lobotomy hadn’t killed my grandmother’s creative spirit. A painter in her younger days, Virginia was always drawing and painting on whatever she could get her hands on: cards, napkins, the back of cereal boxes. A talent she passed on to my mom.
Sometimes my mom and I would fly out to California together to see Virginia. We’d take my grandmother out for a long weekend at the Sea Sprite Motel, a little place on Hermosa Beach. Then we’d make breakfast in the kitchenette and walk out to the water. Mothers and daughters looking over the horizon together.
Looking back, I realize I come from a long line of headstrong women, each forging a different path than what was laid out for them. All non-compliant. Bringing their daughters along.
There’s Ann Merrill, my great-grandmother, a Swedish immigrant who made her way as a single mother in 1920s L.A., undeterred by societal expectations.
Virginia Charlotte, my grandmother, afflicted with mental illness, who had to abandon her daughter when she was abandoned to an unforgiving mental health system in the 1940s and 50s. But with a creative spirit that was undiminished. And the capacity to express joy.
Charlotte Ann, my mom, who eventually ran away from her punishing relatives. She found her home in nursing, a calling that allowed her to care for others in a way she was never cared for. And someone who had hope for the future, until her last breath.
And now I have my own daughter, who at 10 is perhaps the most headstrong and non-compliant of the lot. And thank god for that.
Ann, Virginia, Charlotte, my own little girl, and me. Daughters and their mothers, making our way.