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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The patient records from Willowbrook burned in a fire decades ago, but I also had the name and address of the facility that David lived in at the time of his death. The staff was sympathetic, but not exactly encouraging. They didn’t keep patient records for more than a handful of years, so it was doubtful that any of my uncle’s medical information was still on file, they said.

Up to that point, I had kept quiet about my search. My sister and parents knew that I was interested in learning about David, but the years of silence had proved effective at keeping questions to a minimum. Now, though, it looked like I was going to have to reach out to the few relatives that knew about David to see if they could provide any help.

I called my great-aunt, who married my grandmother’s brother. She was just as gentle as I remembered from my few visits to her house when I was a child, where a massive family tree dominated one wall. The gold-and-brown tree had special notations for the family members who died in the Holocaust and those who served in the Israeli army. As we talked, I wondered if it had a leaf for David.

When I asked her what she knew about David, she said she never questioned the situation; she married my great- uncle four years after David was sent to Willowbrook, and since no one in the family talked about him — my great-uncle was just as close-mouthed as his sister — my great-aunt didn’t think that she should, either. In fact, she told me, she’d had the impression that David lived in a crib all his life, even as a grown man, though she knew that couldn’t be right.

My father’s cousin didn’t know much, either; she said that my grandmother, with whom she grew quite close late in life, never let on what had happened. But both she and my great-aunt offered some new information about what might have been wrong with David. My father always thought that his brother had suffered brain damage at birth because the umbilical cord had wrapped around his neck and deprived him of oxygen. But now I learned that David may had been dropped during delivery; or there was a genetic defect; or the doctor was drunk and made an awful mistake; or maybe it was the cord, after all. But amid the disparate speculations, there was one truth that my relatives repeated again and again: My grandmother wanted David to stay at home, but agreed to send him away to save her marriage.

This revelation about my grandparents’ marriage seemed out of character for them; the memories I have of my grandfather do not hint at a man that would make his wife choose between her husband and child. But maybe that explanation is too simple. Both of my grandparents placed a high premium on not only assimilating into, but also succeeding in, a society that viewed them with distrust because of their religion. How afraid they must have felt when they realized that their oldest son could never do that; and what impossible pressures they must have faced, a young couple without much money or family support.

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