I drive all morning to the hometown of my friend Alice to learn about a childhood that circumstances forced her to abandon. Alice is 80 and because she is blind, and what was said to be “slow,” Alice spent most of her life many miles away from home in a state institution built in the 1930s for the “feeble-minded.”
“Daddy didn’t know what to do after Mama died,” Alice once told when I asked about her family. “My Daddy didn’t want to. He had to.”
Alice’s Daddy had very few choices for his daughter 70 years ago during the peak of institutional building for people we wanted out from society.
We called them feeble minded and cripples and hid them away. We isolated them, sterilized them, and essentially stole their lives. We shamed families into believing that’s where these children belong.
We did this in the good name of moral hygiene. Institutions set up in isolated places, such as the gravel beds in central Utah, hastened the clean up of people judged amoral or degenerate or weak.
I believe it was a terribly wrong thing to do.
Institutions represent a failure of compassion. Instead of creating programs that would help people, we cast them into desolation. Our chosen direction wasted lives and severely hindered the progress we could have made toward acceptance and inclusion.
Alice left the institution at age 62 during what advocates from our state call the first out movement. The transition meant teaching Alice skills she had never learned. It meant introducing Alice to a world outside the walls she had entered 50 years earlier.
Today Alice navigates by touch, sound and familiarity. She arranges and folds a weekly newsletter at a senior center. She crafts footstools from juice cans and fabric and gives them to friends as presents. She listens to television and, on Sunday, catches a bus that takes her to church. A caseworker stops by daily to keep her life and home running smoothly.
Once, when I asked about the institution, Alice told me, “I was there for a long time and now I am out.”
Alice might ask me about my trip and whether I talked to her brother Roy, who stayed on the family farm in the center of a town growing around it. He has since moved to a senior center where, I am told, he likes to reminisce about people, including the older sister Alice he barely knows.
Alice may also ask if I stopped by the city cemetery where her Mama and Daddy are buried.
I will, on both counts, since Roy and their graves are reasons I make this trip.
I drive to learn more about Alice and the life left behind. I want to know more about a past stolen, and the choices that drive me so many miles away from home.
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