Tonight on “Who Do You Think You Are” Australian actress Susie Porter traced her family tree on her father’s side as she wanted to know more about her paternal grandparents and beyond, Susie got more than she bargained for. It was a very poignant story as Susie discovered that both her grandmother and her great-grandmother spent a number of years in insane asylums.
Back in the 1920s when her great-grandmother was institutionalised insane asylums housed not only criminals, but also those who were intellectually or physically disabled, those suffering from depression and psychoses, and epileptics. The conditions were truly horrific, no-one who went in could ever come out the better for their experience.
Things were only marginally better in the 1950s when Susie’s grandmother was institutionalised, straight-jackets, electric shock treatment, and lobotomies were all common place.
This terribly sad story struck a nerve with me as my maternal grandmother’s sister was institutionalised in her teens after the death of her mother and her father’s remarriage. The reason, Great Auntie Betty was an epileptic and her new stepmother could not deal with it. I suppose you could not really blame her, the times were very different and anyone who was not quite “normal” was ostracised.
The family story goes that there was supposed to be a home for epileptics built after World War 2, it did not happen and Great Auntie Betty remained in the Glenside insane asylum for forty or so years until her passing.
What I find particularly sad is that if Great Auntie Betty had been born today her condition could have been treated with medication and she could have gone on to lead a happy and fulfilling life, she could have married and had children. A very sad part of my family’s history.