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

Gennie Pilarski 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 Pilarski, “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 Pilarski 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?”

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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.

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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.

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.”

In the end, that was her crime.

Manteno

Pictures from “the Gennie Messages” courtesy of Kristyn Vinikour

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45 COMMENTS

  1. 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

    • 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 :(

  2. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

      • Thank you for this sad but true insight. As a Man with Schizophrenia I have seen to many people fall through the cracks. We need to generate more money for mental health

  3. 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.

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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 :)

  8. 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.

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