Thoughts on the “admission photo” taken when my sister was placed in a state institution
In the spring of 2004 I was startled to find my sister’s mug shot. Forgetting I was in a room full of people, I blurted out loud “Oh, my god!” The man working the desk at the Indiana State Archives frowned and asked me if something was the matter. “My sister’s mug shot,” I answered. He looked at the large black and white photo stapled into the brown board cover of the file. “Oh, no, that was her admission photo to Muscatatuck, not a mug shot.”
It looked like a mug shot to me. Suzy was photographed, poked, prodded, and all her details recorded as more than 40 years ago she was admitted to Indiana’s Muscatatuck State Hospital, a place she’d never asked to go; a place that our parents, their doctors, and state experts recommended so she would be kept away from society for “everyone’s best interest.”
In this place she was watched over constantly, only ate at fixed times, and was taken to and from activities and examinations without warning, and certainly no choice in the matter. She slept in a large room with strangers and was cared for by a revolving staff of attendants hired and paid by the state. She had no privacy and only temporary possession of any personal things. If she wanted more cake, she had to steal from her neighbor in the dining room. If she wanted attention, she found it more useful to throw something than be nice, as nice girls were ignored.
Suzy rarely got out of her institution to see the outside world. There were locks on doors and wire covering the windows. No one imagined then that Suzy should have contact with anyone outside, even with her family.
This was incarceration in what the writer and activist Harriet McBryde Johnson calls the “disability gulag.” The mug shot reminded me that because my sister was labeled mentally retarded, she was taken away and shut up in Muscatatuck State Hospital, a place that had more characteristics in common with a prison than a home.
According to the Indiana Commission on Public records Web site, the facility, formerly Muscatatuck State School and Indiana Farm Colony for Feeble Minded Youth, was founded in 1920. “Initially, the Indiana Farm Colony, a work farm and residential facility, accepted only developmentally disabled men over the age of sixteen. In 1925, with the transfer of the Colony’s administrative authority to the School for Feebleminded Youth at Fort Wayne, the Epileptic Village focused less on work and more on education. In 1941, the Colony became the Muscatatuck State School and began to accept women.” Today, Muscatatuck is a homeland security training facility managed by the Indiana National Guard.
Every time I look at Suzy’s mug shot, I want to cry. Cry because my sister looks so defenseless and the place so lonely for her. Cry because I imagine those early days and nights she must have endured alone in a strange and unloving place, like a puppy grabbed from the litter and given to a new family. Did she cry herself to sleep the first nights? Was she frightened and lonely? Did she awake sobbing calling for her mother or her last caregiver? Or did she have nightmares of being abandoned?
Ironically, her mug shot is the best photo taken of Suzy as a child. It is also a rare one as our family took few pictures of her. The mug shot shows Suzy seated in a wooden wheelchair with a signboard placed in front of her. It says “Gray Suzy ’70.”
Suzy is not looking at the camera, but away to her left, perhaps looking at someone in the room she knows. Her shiny black hair is cut short, the bangs a bit uneven, but neatly brushed. She is wearing a short-sleeved top or dress with a big round collar and two rows of buttons can be seen starting down the front. Behind her the dark shadow thrown onto a tiled wall shows that the photographer’s lights were bright and the room bare. The look in her big dark eyes is uncertain or worried. She is smiling slightly, but tentatively.
The room around her looks stark and cold, and the chair and board appear rigid and uncomfortable. The straight lines and dark shadows suggest an institutional atmosphere.
In the mug shot, Suzy looks shy and a little uneasy; a small and vulnerable person caught deep in an impersonal institution. I have been to Muscat-atuck so I remember the tiled walls, long hallways, high ceilings, and large windows. This photo brings the memory of my visit back to me. Muscat-atuck looked to me like a combination prison, hospital, and college campus; its large yellow brick buildings set on a grassy hillside overlooking fields and woods.
Although my sister survived pretty well the years of incarceration—and inattention by our family—the experience left its marks on her personality and still affects her behavior today. But it did not destroy her. Now living in a group home in a neighborly little town in Minnesota and reunited with her family, Suzy has kept the same charmer’s smile and prankster’s sense of playfulness that I remember from her baby years. But when she refuses to say goodbye to anyone leaving her or when she howls with glee on outings around town, then I remember that 40 years of incarceration have left their mark.
Suzy’s mug shot reminds me of what she and many others of her generation endured. And it reminds me that many individuals still live in large, ugly institutions around this country who need their families to find and love them, and to oversee their transition into lives of dignity, independence, and community acceptance.