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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Another regret to add to the list: that I never acknowledged how difficult their decision to put away David must have been. That I never told them I wished David’s life — all of their lives — could have been different.

And one more regret that only grows as the months pass: the trail to finding out what was wrong with David, why he had to be sent to Willowbrook, might not just be cold, it may not even exist. What my father told me all those years ago might be the beginning and end of the story.

Several months after I began my search in earnest, I became pregnant. Even though every test and exam yielded perfectly normal results, I was never able to fully let go of the fear that something horrible could happen. My mother supported my decision to forgo a baby shower, pointing out that in the Jewish faith — or at least the particular brand of Alabama Judaism that she was raised with — you don’t celebrate something that hasn’t yet happened. I found her reasoning surprisingly reassuring, as it so neatly lined up with my own outlook and anxieties.

The delivery was normal at first. But after five and a half hours of labor, the nurse looked at the fetal monitor and said that the baby was having trouble breathing. It looks like the cord is wrapped around her neck, the nurse said. One word flashed through my mind: David. The nurse put an oxygen mask over my mouth in an effort to increase the amount of air the baby was receiving, and the doctor said that the baby needed to be delivered immediately. All I could think about was my grandmother, how she must have thought her child was going to be perfectly healthy, until all of a sudden he wasn’t. How helpless she must have felt, how many unanswered questions haunted her from that moment forward.

The cord was wrapped around my daughter’s neck when she was born. The doctor instantly flipped her tiny body, freeing her to yell and cry and start her life as a healthy child.

She’ll know about her great-uncle; she’ll visit his grave, the same one where her great-grandparents lay. I might not be able to tell her anything more than I know right now, but that is the least I can do for her. And for David.

Sarah Erdreich is the author of “Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement” (Seven Stories Press, 2013). She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband, daughter and dog.


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