Searching for Uncle a Family Lost to Willowbrook

Link to Infamous Mental Health Facility Was Too Much for Kin

‘Snake Pit’: The writer’s uncle was housed for decades at the Willowbrook State School for the disabled in Staten Island, which was famously described as a ‘snake pit’ by Senator Robert F. Kennedy because of its poor conditions.
Archives & Special Collections, Department of the Library, College of Staten Island, CUNY
‘Snake Pit’: The writer’s uncle was housed for decades at the Willowbrook State School for the disabled in Staten Island, which was famously described as a ‘snake pit’ by Senator Robert F. Kennedy because of its poor conditions.

By Sarah Erdreich

Published September 24, 2013, issue of September 27, 2013.
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My father saw his older brother, David, only once in his life. He was 10 years old, and David, then 13, was living at the Willowbrook State School for the intellectually disabled in Staten Island. This brief visit occurred shortly before my grandfather’s military career took his family overseas for several years. Maybe the visit was a chance for my grandparents to introduce David to his brothers before they left Long Island. Or perhaps it was a rare opportunity for my grandmother to see her firstborn again, the child that she had agreed to send away to save her marriage.

My father told me about David, and the visit — the only time that the three brothers were together — when I was 11. He didn’t know exactly what was wrong with David, just that he had been in one facility after another for as long as my father could remember.

We never talked about David much after that initial conversation; rather, my father and I followed the lead of my grandparents, who for decades had lived as if they had only two sons. I thought about my uncle a lot, though, and the silence surrounding his circumstances only made him more intriguing. I knew that it was ridiculous to feel any responsibility for this state of affairs; after all, the decision to obscure David’s existence was made long before I was born. But I felt guilty that David never met my sister, my mother and me. As I got older, adhering to the apparent code of silence became more difficult.

On a visit to my grandparents’ house when I was in college, my grandfather and I went through his photo albums. Those thick books haphazardly depicted both his personal and professional life, including his time stationed in Germany and Korea. My father’s baby pictures were mixed in with shots of somber-looking Koreans.

Oldest Son: The writer’s uncle David as a baby.
Courtesy of Sarah Erdreich
Oldest Son: The writer’s uncle David as a baby.

On one page, there was a picture of my grandmother with a little boy. That’s David, my grandfather said, his voice steady and matter-of-fact. And that’s his birth announcement, he added, pointing to a yellow piece of paper. I hardly had time to read the words before he turned the page. When I told my parents, the name “David” catching in my throat, my father said he had never seen the birth announcement, either.

Seeing my grandparents’ small acknowledgment of their secret son was what made me decide to look for David. At one time he had been their firstborn, cherished and photographed and announced to the world. I knew that learning more about David would not change any of the facts of his present life, any more than it would undo the difficulties of the past. But he had been a part of my family once, and I hoped that finding out everything I could about him now could make him a part of the family again.


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