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Home > Americas, Creepy, Government, History, Medical > The Story of Gennie Pilarski

The Story of Gennie Pilarski

Gennie Pilarski

Genevieve “Gennie” Pilarski quietly passed away in her nursing home room one September day in 1998 at the age of 79.  Few noticed or cared as she had been a prisoner of Illinois state mental institutions for over 50 years.

Gennie’s parents had her committed to Manteno State Hospital in 1944 when she was only 25. But after being committed to Manteno, Gennie would never be the same. The state would take her freedom, and the doctors would take her sanity.

cover photo courtesy April Love Photography

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Gennie8

Gennie’s life before college is not well-documented, but we know she was gifted and suffered from bouts of depression.

She enrolled at the University of Illinois in 1941 with a major in chemistry, and would study for three years before a disagreement with her parents over where she would live resulted in her being sent to Manteno State Hospital in 1944.

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“No signs of active pathology”

Gennie9Records from the early years are incomplete, but we know in Gennie’s initial evaluation physicians noted she was neat, clean, and tidy. Doctors also noted she was extremely quiet, but friendly and agreeable. Her initial evaluation resulted with the verdict: “No signs of active pathology.

Another early account has Gennie questioned by a therapist if life was worth living. Replied Gennie, “What I have of it is.” Gennie asserted she felt normal except for the stigma of insanity that comes with being a patient in an “insane asylum.”

Gennie deliberately used that phrase with little attempt to hide her displeasure for the circumstances of how she came to be there. The therapist noted that Gennie kept repeating a statement during the examination: “A person that is 25 years old should be away from family entanglements.”

When asked what she would do if she were released, Gennie said she would like to have a job, get some new clothes, and some books. She also indicated she would buy powder, rouge, and other makeup – typical fare for a 25 year old female of the time.

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“Is life a farce?”

Several months later Gennie was given an experimental version of hydrotherapy at Manteno State Hospital. The hydrotherapy used at the time involved plunging the patients into bathtubs filled with extremely hot and cold water back to back for extended periods of time.

Not understanding her crime, Gennie’s only words: “Is life a farce?”

msh-11-8

Remains of a hydrotherapy room at Manteno State Hospital

By August of 1945, Gennie had been given 40 insulin coma treatments and she was nearing her fifteenth session of electric shock therapy – all in addition to her hydrotherapy routine.

Her second evaluation wasn’t nearly as positive as the first. A physician wrote that Gennie was “Idle. Rather unfriendly, does not mingle. Occasionally talks in a very disagreeable way to the other patients.”

He then added “. . . and she is not especially neat or clean.

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Failed Lobotomy

lobotomyBy the middle of 1953 Gennie had already received 187 electric shock therapies, averaging treatment twice a week. She was transferred to the research ward at Manteno State Hospital, where medical experimentation took place on mostly involuntary patients.

One procedure that was beginning to spread across the country at the time was a form of psychosurgery known as the lobotomy.

For reasons unknown, Gennie was the subject for a lobotomy procedure in early 1955. According to records she had “extensive neurosurgery with bilateral extirpation of most of the frontal and temporal lobes.”

Post-operation, the chart also noted Gennie was

now mute, totally dependent on commands for functioning of everything from toilet urges on up. To be given an experimental course of (electric convulsive therapy) to see if any affective change can be brought about.

By all accounts, the lobotomy was a complete failure. Gennie was largely unresponsive, and subjected to yet another seven sessions of shock therapy.

Gennie’s evaluation the following year highlights her deterioration:

Confused. Unresponsive. Needs supervision because of wandering. Has to be led and helped. Unsuitable for further research.

Gennie3

*

Wasted Life

For the next 45 years Gennie was the failed experiment, left as a mumbling woman who stares at walls. She would be moved between state institutions and homes, treated as a legacy responsibility no one wanted.  The state had turned Gennie into an incoherent and soulless shell, plagued by demons only she could understand.

For the last 20 years of her life doctors reported she was “incapable of any kind of human interaction” and she was reported to have spent her final days “buried under her bedclothes or roaming the halls of her nursing home, drooling and babbling.

(Click thumbnails to enlarge)

Gennie7 Gennie5 Gennie4

Sadly, for the time much of what happened to Gennie was not considered unusual or cruel; our reactions today are fueled by medical knowledge far beyond what doctors of the era knew.  Fortunately advances in medicine have made the process more humane, if not morally acceptable.

In the beginning Gennie just wanted to be “free from family entanglements at age 25.”

And in the end, that was her crime.

Manteno

Pictures from “the Gennie Messages” courtesy of Kristyn Vinikour

**

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  1. Cathy
    April 24, 2013 at 17:54

    that was incredibly sad :(

  2. Liz
    April 24, 2013 at 18:08

    Awful. My god, what we did to that poor woman.

    • December 17, 2013 at 08:19

      what do you mean “we” did to that poor woman, liz?

      • enoughisenough
        March 7, 2014 at 23:33

        I think what Liz meant was “we” as a society

        • March 28, 2014 at 21:28

          I think what Liz meant was “we” as a Human species, as one person, as you and I, and understanding we are the same, and that the doctors and Humans involved in this incident were missing compassion and love for one another.

          • James
            March 28, 2014 at 23:29

            As I and I.

  3. Shelli
    April 24, 2013 at 20:02

    One of the saddest things I have ever read…

  4. April 25, 2013 at 06:04

    some hospital scenes in Halloween 1978 the moviw were shot here at Manteno State Hospital.

  5. shelley
    April 25, 2013 at 07:23

    I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but perhaps it doesn’t amount to a frontal lobotomy but the treatment of our elderly today is an experiment to say the least I thought perhaps over the years that I had been out of the field it would have gotten better ,well guess what I’m as disappointed in it as I ever was only now nursing homes are called Assited living homes and we as Americans have a tendience to just drop our family off in them

    • cici
      March 22, 2014 at 15:24

      I work in a nursing home, aka assisted living, and I feel bad for most of the residents because their family don’t come visit.. As if they dropped them off and just left with no further contact… it’s truly sad.. I love my job though, because I know I may be all they have as far as a friend, family, or someone who cares for them.. This story was truly sad and awful :(

      • March 24, 2014 at 20:08

        Thank you for what you do, cici. I am sure you brighten the lives of more people each day than most of us. :)

  6. April 25, 2013 at 07:53

    Extremely disturbing. For all modern society’s faults, at least we’ve made progress in the area of mental health care – perhaps not nearly enough, but we’re far advanced from where we were 60 years ago. It’s important to recognize how far we’ve come.

    • September 27, 2013 at 17:08

      How far we’ve come… is a joke unto itself. We no longer torture and experiment upon these people. Instead, we now take the higher moral ground– of “free range” mental health care. We emptied out and closed the facilities, gutting the budgets or just outright defunding of the programs, and pushed them untreated and unassisted into the streets, where they can self-medicate with hard drugs that only fuel their psychoses, allow the dangerous ones to prey upon victims at their leisure, the helpless ones to be preyed upon by the more sociopathic elements of our culture, and over all to allow them to continue to deteriorate into further instability. Oh yes, we have come so far, so humanely.

      • September 29, 2013 at 10:25

        I didn’t say things were perfect or anywhere near perfect – but they are better than they were even 30 years ago. I hope you don’t think we should return to large-scale institutionalization, with its inherent risk of individuals being lost in the system for years and even decades, and failing to receive needed help.

  7. Infidel
    April 25, 2013 at 14:51

    Poor woman. So sad and so wronge.. ;(

  8. April 25, 2013 at 18:11

    so sad ><

  9. April 25, 2013 at 18:45

    Wow, as everyone else has said – very sad.
    I wonder if this was part of the inspiration for the character of River in Firefly/Serenity.

  10. April 26, 2013 at 08:27

    Utterly heart wrenching, to think we ever thought it was acceptable to treat another human being this way. . .

  11. Brian
    April 30, 2013 at 11:51

    In that era this was a story that was all too common. Today it is different, psychiatric patients are often left in rooming houses with very little treatment, but that is somewhat better than being made a vegetable by brutal experiments.
    The accompanying photographs (reenactments – of what?) are over the top and add nothing to the story.

    • L
      November 19, 2013 at 21:37

      The pics are from an art project done about the story.
      They don’t really add to the story, though, you are right.

  12. Tim
    May 4, 2013 at 22:26

    Incredibly disturbing, important to realize that we haven’t come any further morally. People are just as capable of committing atrocities as they were 60 years ago the only advances have been in medical science.

  13. Mary
    May 28, 2013 at 15:57

    For more reading on patients in another “insane asylum,” see “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic” at http://www.suitcaseexhibit.org. Another touching story that was a traveling exhibit a few years ago.

  14. T. Angel
    August 11, 2013 at 19:46

    Republicou isso em T. Angele comentado:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  15. November 6, 2013 at 01:19

    Things have not improved much since the 1940s. Instead of committing people, now they end up on the streets due to lack of funds. There are less state hospitals but just as many, if not more, mentally ill in this country now. Jails and prisons have become the defacto asylums in many places.

    As for Gennie, she died in a nursing home in Homewood, IL from “end stage dementia.” She is buried in an unmarked grave, as a ward of the state in Mt.Olivet Cemetery in Chicago, Il. She was one many others that suffered the same fate but with no press or media attention sadly.

  16. Geri
    November 19, 2013 at 19:38

    Where in the world were her parents when this was going on???

    • L
      November 19, 2013 at 21:35

      Her parents commited her!

  17. November 19, 2013 at 23:58

    Not to make excuses, but her parents were strict Catholic immigrants. This unfortunately was a common situation with state hospital admissions. Many were committed on “advice” from their church, and back then you didn’t disagree with the Catholic church, especially as a newcomer to this country.

  18. unknown x
    February 9, 2014 at 04:47

    Psychiatry is revealed and people are not aware of its reasons of creation , It’s nothing but a death machine for money , doctors and pharmaceutical companies wanted to invent new way to create money and they invented psychiatry industry of death.

    Slowly year after year Psychiatry industry will fail and all psychiatrists will be forced to loose their jobs and do something else because they are pathetic drug dealers ,probably should get death sentence for trying to give drugs to children now adays :)

  19. Sara
    March 28, 2014 at 21:07

    The real sad thing is that this girl, for all account and purposes, seemed to have no mental issues. having a bit of depression during those college years, especially if you aren’t on the best terms with your parents, is normal. but the article reads like “her parents sent her to a mental hospital for disagreeing with them about where she was going to live” and that’s just… insane. if disagreeing with one’s parents was a credible reason to be institutionalized, everyone would have been in an asylum. she was a normal, friendly girl. until they messed up her life.

  20. March 28, 2014 at 22:36

    Reblogged this on unusuallyquiet and commented:
    This is why I believe the psychiatric industry is a sham at best and an oppressive force that harms the ones they purport to help at worst.

  21. randy
    March 28, 2014 at 23:19

    operation paperclip… need i say more?

  22. Al
    March 29, 2014 at 01:33

    This is confirms to me a benevolent god does not exist.

  23. April 4, 2014 at 17:25

    Wow. Just wow….

  24. April 12, 2014 at 19:57

    Wow, that was truly disturbing. I wonder if her parents ever regretted their decision? My aunt suffered from schizophrenia. She lived in an institution back in the 60’s. I have one memory of picking her up and all the disturbed patients on Thorazine roaming the halls. Incredibly scary and tragic.

  25. Cozmo2
    April 22, 2014 at 02:50

    Electric Convulsive Therapy (ECT) still happens they need to bring lobotomy back.

    • April 27, 2014 at 09:10

      Lobotomy should only be used in cases such as you, where you feel it’s justifiable and not excessively cruel. That part of your brain needs to be removed Cozmo2, so you cannot not think or contribute opinion anymore. You think it’s ok to wipe out someone’s identity? To remove their existence and ability to function as an individual? You are SICK

  26. April 27, 2014 at 09:07

    OMG, so very sad. How can a parent, any parent, allow this to happen to their child? Or watch a child deteriorate? It seems like she was surrounded by cruelty, from family and then these low life’s that experimented on her unnecessarily. Her depression under the circumstances was normal. How does that warrant the hydrotherapy, shock therapy, lobotomy? If ever a place existed for the people who did this to her and robbed her of her life, I sincerely hope those monsters are languishing there now and forever

  27. Rhon Catalina
    June 2, 2014 at 15:18

    When I was in high school the health class that I was in went for a tour of the Manteno State Mental Heath Facility during 1975-76 school year. The Manteno facility at one tine held 8,000 patients, but at the time the health class toured through it only a few 100 patients were at the facility. The patients that remained were mostly drug and alcohol abuse patients, and patients that had pleaded insanity in horrible crime cases. When touring through most of the buildings that we were allowed to go in to you could feel a sense of emotional void lingering in the hallways that we traveled through. One of the buildings towards the end of the tour was a museum of mental health practices, tools, and devices. Once inside of the museum and seeing the items that were inside on display seemed barbaric to say the least. There are certain words that could never be use to describe anything in the museum. Words like caring, understanding, or humane. The only words that come to mind are torture and inhumanity.

  28. Kelly
    June 7, 2014 at 18:10

    My Grandmother and many more were treated just like her.

  1. March 28, 2014 at 18:28
  2. March 29, 2014 at 04:32

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