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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 4 of 4)

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.