The Story of 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



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.


“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.


“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?”

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.


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.



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.


Pictures from “the Gennie Messages” courtesy of Kristyn Vinikour



    • Genie was a beautiful “normal”, whatever that really means, young woman that sounds like the parents wanted Control over her life but decided to torture and abandon their daughter instead of letting her have a self efficient life. The criminals here are the parents then the doctors and staffs’ ignorance and stigma of the society of that era. Whenever I read or hear of these kind of stories it baffles me that the people attending to the Ill and weak does not have the humanity or compassion to care and see that these people are human beings, its heartbreaking. May Gennie Rest in Peace…

  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 🙁

    • @shelley Yeah, it wasn’t the lobotomy. Nah, cutting random bits of her brain up with absolutely no knowledge about what they were doing certainly didn’t ruin this woman’s life. I do like your lobotomy apologist run-on sentence of a post though. Or, in words you might understand, you’re either a lobotomy patient yourself or else you were this incoherent and wrong without help.

      • @notyylobotomyy She wasn’t saying that the lobotomy wasn’t responsible for Gennie’s condition. She was simply making a statement about how it may not be comparable to a frontal lobotomy, but the current conditions of nursing homes and treatment of their residents may be just as inhumane. Good job trying to insult her intelligence, when in turn it was you who sounded like an idiot and made yourself look like a dick. Congrats.

  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 🙂

    • Spot on. Every word. Everyone is mentally ill in some form. How does one human have the power over another based on prognosis and imagined scenarios… what an absolutely corruptible position that must be. Sadly I suppose many set out to help before big pharma turns them into the pimps of declared patients. Awful stuff happens when there is such money involved in the practice. There is no one answer. Every case needs to be taken on it’s own. Our priorities as a society and our interests attended to are what should be farce. Damn I feel so much sorrow for this woman’s plight and suffering. I will never forget this story.

    • Psychiatrists should be eliminated in our society and become real needed doctors.A pill to wake up,one to keep you going all for sadness,one for for unwanted for sleep.etc.Eventually a person cannot function without them…..Money and insurance.even better.Elvis is gone at 41 years old.Michael Jackson is gone at 51 and my best friend is gone at 51.Is it murder? Is it suicide? Ask the DOCTOR who was in control of these precious human beings.

  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.

  9. 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.

    • 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

  10. 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

  11. 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.

  12. We have come a long way people. It’s funny that the state treated people like they weren’t humans because the state be up our asses when they come to do inspection at the nursing homes. Am the Director of the recreation dept in a nursing home and if it wasn’t for me some of the residents would have nothing to do but just sit around and look at the walls. Many family’s drop there family off and never come back to see them. I do everything possible to make they feel good and comfortbel. If they need something and they don’t have money I buy it with my own money. I love my job and I have loved every resident that I worked with for the last 26 years. They are humans not animals. They are your parents,grandparents, aunts,uncles,cousins, daughters, sons etc so be there for them.

  13. I like the art project photos. I think they add another dimension to the article. Such an incredibly sad and terrifying story of torture. My mother threatened to toss me in a mental institution whenever I acted disagreeable as a child. My mother had a severe mental illness. But she probably could have had me or my brother successfully committed because she put on a good face to society. She drove the sane people around her crazy. I thank goodness I managed to escape.

  14. My Mother worked at Manteno State Hospital for years . I was there almost every weekend giving social activity for the patients . My Foster Sister Pam Wagner & our friend Johnny Walters and my self David Nolf and some others would bring home made Cookies made by Pams Mother Thelma Wagner we took a record player and all the new albums of the time . The patients had a great time dancing and just having fun that was around 1967- 1971 we all learned how to treat people the way they deserved to be treated . One patient has stuck in my mind all these many years her name was Pearl ! I’m sure she spent here days out locked up and abused . All in the name of depression !

  15. A truly horrific and cruel story, very disturbing and upsetting. Shame of those people who subjected that poor woman to such an horrendous ordeal.

  16. #1 – Shame on her parents.
    #2 – Maybe they should have been locked up.
    #3 – So the institution collected their monthly payment, I’m sure. For what?…

  17. Committed on the advice of the Catholic Church, incredible but not surprising, some screwed up priest exacting the “will” of the church. My heaven will that evil ever end? The “crusades”, religious wars, Native American’s children stolen from them for “schooling”, thousands of children’s lives ruined, raped by priests, endless religious cleansing throughout history, all smoke and mirrors used in the pursuit of power and treasures for the church. This poor woman tortured for life by these heathen, there’s a special place in Hell for these demons.

    • Yes, there are cases where family members just didn’t want to deal with the problems, and there are cases where someone just didn’t get a fair shake. I wonder if the public could handle hearing the tale of every abused and neglected person? I don’t think I could, the tip of the iceberg is horrible enough.

  18. The real truth behind this story is not how mentally challenged people are treated. The truth and scary part of this story is it’s unvarnished look at when we are as a human race. Her family put her here, sentenced her to hell while still living. What is done now with the elderly and sick has not changed. This has nothing to do with a “higher power” or “God”. This is the result of human rejection of anything else but the selfish fulfillment of their own personal lusts and not TRULY caring about anyone else at all.

    I speak for person knowledge and what I have observed in my lifetime. It is not a pretty place to be.

  19. This is so sad, but I agree with Dawn Answers. Shame on her parents. It doesn’t appear to me that she needed to be placed in a mental facility, but at that time I don’t know what types of drugs were available for her problems.

    • I am a 19 year old girl with anxiety and major depression who often talks to spirits. I also have eyes that dilate solid black (though they are a normal green-gray around the two or three people like me that I trust). I have a laugh like a spooky Halloween clown and seldom show any other emotions. At the same time, I am one of the most loving, caring people you will ever meet. I have taken care of people even if they absolutely hated me. I also got high grades all through school, though there was one year that I slumped a little because I was being treated like a mindless beast.

      I escaped my parent’s house after turning 18 because being stuck in one place where I was abused for 18 years was truly driving me insane. At the time I escaped, I had a nasty nervous twitch, was a masochist, and would attack anyone who came too close without warning me. This resulted in me being forced to see a counselor and nearly resulted in getting me put on meds or put in an asylum (aka “assisted living facility”). I was wise to keep quiet about the voices, not all of which were kind and sweet.

      I talked to a friend who also heard spirits and had the same eyes. I was kicked out for the communication in the middle of the night. Fortunately, I had a black cat with me who gave me the will to survive. I hitchhiked to the nearest city and was placed in a youth shelter. My cat went to the lady I hitchhiked with.

      I knew I would be put on meds if anybody knew about the spirits. I also kept my mouth shut about the anxiety and depression. I failed to hide the depression completely, but I made it clear that if I was forced to take even one dose of antidepressants, I would leave and join the street community.

      I learned to keep my emotions under control and to hide my masochism and knowledge of spirits except among people like myself. I am now a sweet little nursing student.

      As for the spirits… someone exorcised the more aggressive ones. I still hear the others and am significantly more functional.

      Interesting Note: I know when someone is like me. I also can sense whether they are dangerous or not.

  20. I Am Trying To Find Out Why My Mother Was At Manteno Hospital And Who Put Her There . She Was There The Same Time This Young Girl Was . I Would Like To Know What She Had To Go Through .

  21. Just read a bunch of these comments. Clearly, none of the commenters has any experience with psychiatry as a profession. Unless some, maybe as patients. I worked in a psych hospital and witnessed ECT, knew patients who had frontal lobotomys, and witnessed things that you lay people would call miracles. I saw first hand the effects of psychiatric drugs – good and bad – benefits and side effects. I also saw and worked with catatonics, schizophrenics, severely depressed people, sociopaths, suicides, obsessive compulsives, psychotics, behavior disorders, victims of trauma and abuse (mental and sexual). I did it for 10 years. I’ve sat and protected people who were actively trying to hurt themselves through burning and cutting. I’ve also been assaulted a few times by those who were out of control. I’ve participated in calming and controlling rioting. All of your emotional commentary is understandable but sadly mistaken. Luckily, none of you can act on your impulses, so, there’s that to be thankful for. My only addition is that we were better off when we had more psychiatric hospitals. At least there was someone caring in some way for those who need help. The way it is today, they’re homeless, preyed upon in the street jungle, incarcerated by police who have no sophistication in these matters. At least in the hospitals, some good and some bad, you knew where to look to see how people were being treated and could do something about it. Today, you’re left going from incident to incident, street person to street person, trying to ‘help’ in some way. And always after a crisis. What a bunch of ignorant fools.

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