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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For all the determination I felt, however, reality soon intruded. The logical place to begin my search would have been with my grandparents, but seeing their son’s picture and name in an album was one thing; saying that name to them was quite another. I had seen them turn cold and condemning when my father did something that they disapproved of, and I didn’t want to experience that myself. I didn’t know how to broach the subject with my father without upsetting him, either.

And then, within the span of seven years, they all passed away — first my grandfather, then David, then my grandmother. My grandfather’s military service had earned him the right to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and he had arranged for his wife and oldest son to be buried there as well. I suspect that my grandparents saved this honored spot for David because they recognized that he would have no other family to make preparations for his death. At my grandmother’s funeral, I stared at the simple headstone that bore all three names and sets of dates. A Star of David was etched into the stone, and I wondered if David knew that he was Jewish.

After my grandmother died when I was 29, I told myself that my window of opportunity had slammed shut and it was best to forget about David. After all, what good would come of poking around the past now? I couldn’t change anything, couldn’t make David a part of our family anymore. I had waited too long, been too passive.

Yet I never stopped thinking of him, and regretting all that I had not done. Finally, two years ago, at the age of 33, I decided to pursue information about him; at the very least, it was a chance to assuage my guilt, as well as fulfill the nobler goal of sharing what I found with my father.

Mother and Father: Doris and Carl Flint, the writer’s grandparents, made the difficult decision to send their son away.
Courtesy of Sarah Erdreich
Mother and Father: Doris and Carl Flint, the writer’s grandparents, made the difficult decision to send their son away.

Since I live in Washington, D.C., I have an excellent research institution at my disposal — the Library of Congress. I began with the first place that David lived: the Willowbrook State School. My understanding was that David was sent there in the early 1950s, when he was 6 or 7, and stayed until the state shut down the facility in the 1980s. Willowbrook was famously described as a “snake pit” by Senator Robert F. Kennedy because of the overcrowding and mistreatment of patients. In the 1960s it housed some 6,000 children when it was built for just 4,000. There were numerous hepatitis outbreaks, and researchers used sick patients in controversial studies on the disease. Geraldo Rivera exposed the conditions at Willowbrook in a 1972 report for WABC-TV in New York City. The investigation garnered national attention, and helped lead to the school’s closure and the passage of federal protections for institutionalized people.

I pored over books about Willowbrook, not entirely sure what I was looking for but relieved to be finally doing something. I found a documentary about the facility; it featured black-and-white images of naked men huddled on the floor and vacant-eyed adults who stared as the camera swept over them. I wanted to freeze each frame and search for my uncle.


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