Jamie Pastor Bolnicks Preface


Winnie: My Life in the Institution


Copyright © 1985, 2010 Jamie Pastor Bolnick


About This Book

Winnie Spockett was just six years old in 1938 when she was committed to a state institution for mentally retarded females. She was only mildly retarded—as an adult she had an I.Q. of about sixty-five, which roughly approximates a mental age of nine—and she acquired the equivalent of a fourth grade education (though her reading level was higher) in the institution school.

I first knew Winnie when I was twelve years old and she was in her early twenties. My family lived less than a mile from the institution, and we often drove by it on our way to town. The institution covered several square miles of well-landscaped grounds, dotted with at least fifteen yellow brick buildings. There were no bars or walls, only a tall hedge that encircled most of the area. On the far side of that hedge lay a world that fascinated me. I always had the feeling when we drove by that I was glimpsing an alien race.

In the warmer months I could see the women strolling around the grounds, sitting on park benches, or sprawled casually on the grass in small, congenial-looking groups. There were always a few posted along the hedge, staring out at my world just as I was staring in at theirs. Sometimes they’d wave at the passing cars. My sister and I always waved back.

On a sunny spring day when I was twelve I leashed up my little black dog, Gypsy, and headed for the institution. I wasn’t sure why I was going—hadn’t, in fact, even realized I was when I left the house. When I approached the hedge—and it was an extremely tentative approach—two of the women spotted us and rushed over. Within minutes a small crowd had gathered to gush and flutter over my dog. While I held Gypsy up so they could reach over the hedge to pet her, I studied these strange creatures closely.

They weren’t an attractive lot. They were all dressed in cheap house dresses—clean, but baggy and ill-fitting. Many had their hair cut short and square in classic institution style, through a few sported curls and ponytails. Their ages varied greatly. Several didn’t look much older than I was, and there were women who could have been grandmothers. Lots of them were missing teeth, and some spoke in a thick, slurred speech. But they were, without a doubt, human. They talked, they laughed, they loved my dog. And that’s what astonished me: these women were real people. They weren’t like me or the other people I knew, but they weren’t so terribly different either. The similarities surprised me most; I had expected the differences.

When the novelty of Gypsy wore off they turned their attention to me. They admired my clothes and hair and plied me with questions: Where did I live? Did I like the institution? Did I like them? Did I like television? Did I have a boyfriend? They were too friendly, obsequiously friendly; they seemed frantic to establish contact. Suddenly, I wanted to get away.

Before I left they begged me to promise to return, and I agreed. I would have agreed to anything just then—I wanted to go home. But I don’t think, at the time, I had any intention of returning. I’d satisfied my curiosity.

Why I went back a couple of Saturdays later, I don’t remember. But subsequently I fell into a regular pattern of visiting. I began to learn the women’s names, and they came to remember mine. By my third or fourth visit I had only to approach the hedge to draw an excited crowd. I loved the fuss. It made me feel like a visiting celebrity.

At first I didn’t venture past the hedge. But gradually I became certain I was in no danger—they would not harm me—and soon I was sitting inside on the front lawn with the women, chatting comfortably and experiencing the exceedingly curious sensation of seeing my world from their vantage point.

By early summer I knew dozens of the women, but there was a nucleus of six or seven who considered themselves my special friends, who were unabashedly possessive and sometimes literally hung onto me. One of them was Winnie. I have only vague memories of Winifred—as I knew her then—from those days: a tall, ungainly young woman with short permed hair, straight bangs, and thick glasses. I do remember I enjoyed her company and that of her friends. We had a lot in common: we watched the same TV shows, liked the same movie stars and pop singers. I giggled with them about boys, laughed at their jokes, and swapped comic books with white-haired old ladies.

They all had minor beefs about institution life. Some didn’t like the food, others resented the nine o’clock lights-out rule, and the biggest complaint was that “nobody ever comes to visit me.” But I was surprised to find that most were satisfied with their lot. They were intensely interested in every detail of my life—they were as curious about me as I was about them—but I detected no jealousy. They seemed grateful just to share the events of my life vicariously.

The women I came in contact with on those long ago Saturdays were the brighter, more responsible ones, the ones who had the privilege of moving freely about the grounds. I never saw the profoundly retarded or disturbed women; they were kept within the confines of their buildings.

In those days, the 1950s, there were many people in institutions throughout the country who, like Winnie, were only mildly retarded, who today would have been living on the outside, independently or in group homes, perhaps holding down simple jobs. And, chillingly, it wasn’t unusual back then to come across an older institution resident of normal intelligence who’d been committed thirty or forty years ago merely for running away from home, being caught in the hayloft with a boy, or transgressions far more minor. Winnie’s institution, like many others, had originally been established for the “feeble-minded and incorrigible”.

When I was thirteen we moved to another state, and the women were really sorry to say good-bye. I’d been the only visitor many of them had had. There were hugs and cries of “Now don’t you forget me!” and several who could read and write, including Winnie, wrote down their full names and the names of their buildings so we could correspond. I kept in touch for about half a year, and they always wrote back promptly in large, childish handwriting. But as I became involved with my new friends and new school I gradually stopped writing.

Fifteen years passed before I saw Winnie Sprockett again. I was spending the summer in the town where I’d lived as a child, and a friend, now a psychologist at the institution, helped me get a summer job there in the Children’s Cottage. I was one of four “recreation assistants,” and our function was to supervise playtime and organize games and crafts. Most of the other summer workers were graduate students in psychology and were trained to keep an emotional distance, but nothing had prepared me for children like these—the seizures, the tantrums, the way they clung to me and everyone else within clinging distance, desperate for a scrap of attention. Some days I went home and cried. I considered quitting but it was July, and I knew I’d never find another summer job. So I hung in there.

During a lunch break on a sticky August day, I overheard a group of summer workers talking about an institution resident who’d written her autobiography. A few of them had read it. A week or so later, she came into the canteen where I was having coffee with my co-workers and they pointed her out to me. Though I hadn’t yet heard her name, something clicked in my memory and I thought, instantly, “Winifred…”

Fifteen years. Wonderful years for me, crammed full of living. And there was Winifred Sprockett, in exactly the same place and looking almost exactly as she had when I was thirteen. The only difference I could see was that she now wore her hair in a stubby ponytail. It seemed incredible that we’d both lived through the same fifteen years.

She came over to say hello to the group and someone introduced us. I didn’t bother to tell her I’d known her because I was sure she’d never remember. But I did tell her I’d heard about her book, and that I’d like to read it. “Could you get it published for me?” she asked, promptly.

Winnie had written the book in several spurts during the early and mid-1960s. Word of it got around the institution and, in time, most of the professional staff had read it. One of the psychiatrists used it in a lecture, and it was duplicated for graduate students in social work at the state university. Suddenly Winnie, who’d been raised by state-paid attendants in an institution with 1700 females, stood out. Winnie, who’d always craved attention, who’d always ached to be noticed, was special. She had an identity. She was, “Winifred, the girl who wrote the book.” And she made sure everybody knew it.

For a while there was even talk in the institution’s Psychology Department of having the book published in a psychiatric journal. The plan never materialized, but Winnie latched onto the idea and it became an obsession. She was determined to get her book published. Then it would be in bookstores and libraries, and the whole world—especially her indifferent family—would know how smart and important she was.

Winnie became a walking advertisement. She talked about her book to anyone who’d stand still long enough to listen, and was even known to approach complete strangers on the grounds to ask if they could help her get it published.

All this I learned later. That summer day in the canteen I told Winnie I didn’t think I could get her book published, but that I’d like to read it anyway. She went back to her building to get it, and that night I took it home with me.

Winnie’s book was written in pencil, in longhand, in a child’s black copybook. On the cover, in the space next to “Subject,” she’d written the title, “My Growing Up in the Institution.” The book was short, a little more than twenty pages of writing divided into twenty-four choppy chapters. More than half of it dealt with her progress in the institution school, describing at great length her lessons and how hard she worked at them. She also touched on the behavior problems she’d had in her childhood and adolescence, the “troubles” she was always getting into (though she wasn’t specific) and gave much praise to the institution authorities for punishing her and making her behave. It seemed to me the book was mostly intended to please and flatter the institution personnel and put a shine on Winnie’s image. It was interesting simply because she’d written it, but I couldn’t help wondering what she’d left out, what it had really been like for her.

A week later my job in the Children’s Cottage ended. I returned the book to Winnie on my last day and, in early September, moved back to the city. Winnie and I kept in touch, though, and in her letters she frequently brought up her book, always asking if I could think of a way to get it published.

Later in the year, Winnie was released from the institution through a social service agency and placed in a nursing home—in those days the only available means of moving more competent inmates out into the community and, at the same time, making room in overcrowded institutions. This was Winnie’s second nursing home placement; an earlier one, detailed in this book, had failed. And so, in time, did this.

One day I went to visit Winnie. I brought a small tape recorder and showed her how it worked, let her listen to her voice, then asked if we could do some interviews. I wanted to know what wasn’t in Winnie’s book, wanted to try to understand how the fifteen years I’d lived so fully had passed for Winnie—or passed by Winnie.

I remained noncommittal whenever Winnie spoke of getting her book published, but I was beginning to think about giving this project a try. I knew the original book would need to be greatly expanded, that it could only be used as a jumping-off point for Winnie’s real life story, and I wasn’t sure what, if anything, would develop from the interviews. I approached the whole thing tentatively, as I’d once approached the institution hedge; but very quickly, like that other time, I was drawn in.

Winnie was a great subject. She loved being interviewed and was talkative and animated from the start. She was nearly forty then, but had the innocence and enthusiasms of a clever nine year old. She possessed an intuitive awareness of herself and other people, and a memory an elephant would envy. She also had a wonderful sense of the dramatic. Often, while telling me about an event, she became so caught up she appeared to be reliving rather than recalling it. She even acted out dialogue. She frequently spoke in the present tense, as if events were unfolding as she talked. I was completely charmed by her and, without ever making a conscious decision, I was hooked on her story.

There were difficulties, too. Winnie had a short attention span, so thirty minutes was about the longest I could interview her at a time, though we sometimes did several sessions a day. She was also inconsistent. In the morning she might speak with clarity and insight, even eloquence. Several hours later her conversation would be disjointed and she’d be off on a tangent, not always making sense, sometimes skewing language so badly I wasn’t always sure what she was talking about. Even at her best, she rambled a lot. I don’t know what medications she was on and, at the time, never thought to ask, but perhaps her daily meds were to blame or were, at least, a contributing factor

Although Winnie had a brilliant memory for dates and facts, she had a hazy sense of time in general. Incidents such as her trips out of the institution, as well as some of her escapades and adventures, were not always easy to place in time. In putting the book together I arranged events in the order I felt was most logical and accurate. Sometimes, when recalling an incident or acting out a conversation, Winnie gave slightly different versions at different times. Obviously, she couldn’t have remembered all the actual dialogue of a lifetime, and there’s no way to corroborate the exact words spoken in a conversation thirty years ago. I’ve done my best to reconstruct these conversations in the way that seemed most appropriate, and corresponded most faithfully to the facts as I knew them. In a few instances, I combined parts from different versions.

In order to be true to Winnie’s wonderfully distinctive voice I’ve chosen to retain her use of the present tense throughout much of the book. For the sake of readability I’ve eliminated some repetitious or irrelevant material and, in several places, have made narrative of dialogue and vice versa. All names of people (including Winnie’s) and places have been changed to ensure privacy, as have certain identifying details.

During later conversations with Winnie’s social worker and lengthy interviews with institution personnel (excerpted at the end of this book), I was able to verify much of what Winnie told me. Anecdotes that couldn’t be corroborated are, nevertheless, presented here as Winnie perceived them. If she sometimes recalled an event or conversation to her own advantage, that was still Winnie’s reality, and so I considered it valid.

At the core of this book is Winnie’s original, “My Growing Up in the Institution”. But most of Winnie is the result of the tape recorded interviews I conducted with her throughout that spring and summer, our many conversations, and the notes I took when we were together. Although I’ve arranged and edited this material and chosen its form and structure, the words are Winnie’s. This is Winnie’s voice and Winnie’s story.

One afternoon, about a month into the interviews, Winnie and I were in a luncheonette. We’d both just polished off pieces of strawberry shortcake, her favorite treat at the time, and her upper lip was still lined with whipped cream as she started in on her root beer.

“You know, Winnie,” I said, “I knew you a long time ago.”

“I thought you looked familiar to me,” she replied, obligingly.

“No, I’m talking about a very long time ago—nearly sixteen years. I used to go over to the institution to visit the women and I remember you. You were one of the ones I used to go see.”

“I remember you, too.”

“It would be awfully hard for you to remember me, Winnie. I was a little girl then.”

She set down her empty root beer glass and screwed up her face in hard thought. “I sure do remember you. Didn’t you used to come on a bike?”

My turn to think. I’d had a blue Schwinn and, yes, I’d often ridden over to the institution on it. I’d forgotten that.

“And didn’t you sometimes bring a littler girl with you?” Another thing I’d forgotten: sometimes my younger sister had tagged along.

“You’re right, Winnie,” I told her, “on both counts.” Perhaps other neighborhood youngsters had visited the women, too; perhaps she was confusing me with someone from a more recent time. Or maybe she really did remember.

She licked the rest of the whipped cream from her lip and beamed at me. “Well, I sure am glad to see you again!” she said.