Jump to content

The Sequelae: A Mother’s Trauma and the Discovery of a Forgotten Magdalen Refuge in Manhattan

Recommended Posts


Like many people watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony on September 27, 2018, I found myself crying at her description of the assault she had experienced and the psychological aftermath—what she called the sequelae—of that attack. Many women reported reliving their own traumatic experiences as they listened to Dr. Ford. I am fortunate enough not to have experienced sexual assault or rape; the person I cried for as I heard Dr. Ford describe the claustrophobia, panic attacks, and anxiety that she experienced for years was my mother.

My mother slept with the light on her entire life. She shook when I took her to the doctor and had such bad claustrophobia that she needed to have the door to the examining room left open while we waited. I’d lived with my mother’s anxiety all my life but, only in her later years, when the anxiety worsened and she had trouble sleeping, did I realize she had an anxiety disorder. Even then I didn’t identify it as PTSD from a sexual assault.

My mother, after all, had survived many traumas, as I learned listening to her stories of her Depression-era childhood. The eldest of six siblings, and the only girl, she grew up in cold-water tenement flats in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Her family was so poor they often had nothing to eat but bread and milk, but her father would cut up the crusts, soak them in milk and sugar, and call it a “treat.” Her father dug ditches for the WPA and she was grateful he had work and didn’t come home drunk like some of the other fathers on their street. There were tragedies—two baby brothers who died in infancy—but she felt loved and cared for. She didn’t think of herself as poor because “everybody was in the same boat.” Everyone wore the same uniform at her Catholic school and her mother starched and bleached her shirt so it was stiff and white. There were no books in her home, but she went to the library and read every book on the reading lists the nuns gave her. She was a good student. Her eighth-grade English teacher, Sister Agatha Dorothy (called Sister Aggie Dot by the children secretly) said she had a flair for writing.

The relative comfort and safety of my mother’s childhood ended abruptly in April 1941 when she was seventeen. Her mother, who had had rheumatic fever as a child, collapsed on the kitchen floor and died in front of my mother. “I felt so helpless,” my mother would always say when she told this story, “I’ve always wanted to know what to do in an emergency since then.” After the funeral, her father sat in her mother’s rocking chair and it collapsed beneath him, providing an apt metaphor for what happened to the family. Her father, who had been sober through her childhood, began drinking and was unable to care for his children. Her brothers were placed in St. Vincent’s Home for Boys. She was sent to her aunts in Coney Island, who, she told me, were not kind to her. She thought it might have been because they were jealous of how pretty she was. By the time she was eighteen she was living in a boardinghouse by herself, making her living as a stenographer. She didn’t earn a high school degree until she got her GED in 1969 at the age of forty-five.

Coney Island, only a few miles from Bay Ridge, was another world. She’d never met Jewish people before and laughed when she overheard someone ask in a deli for “sour cream.” The shopkeepers called her shayna maidelah—pretty girl. There were mobsters, too, organized crime syndicates like Murder Inc., with its notorious hit man Abe Reles, known as Kid Twist for his preferred method of execution by strangling. And my mother knew Evelyn Mittelman, the notorious Kiss-of-Death Girl. “She wasn’t much to look at by then,” she told me. “None of those girls were after they went with the wrong sort.”

The fate of pretty girls who went with the wrong sort became a persistent theme as I entered my teens and started dating. “You had to stay on the right side of the tracks,” my mother warned me, “or men would take advantage of you.” One of the mobsters would walk her home from the subway station, but he never tried anything because he knew she wasn’t that kind of girl. She wouldn’t try drugs, either, although heroin was rampant in Coney Island (a cousin of my father’s later died of an overdose), and she was careful never to leave a drink unattended lest someone slipped a mickey in it. Meanwhile, her brothers were being recruited by local mobsters from the St. Vincent’s playground to do their errands. My mother often found herself going down to the police station or courthouse to speak on their behalf.

“Why did you turn out all right?” a police sergeant once asked her.

“I had a strong survival instinct,” she told me years later.

It wasn’t until I was much older that she told me she was sexually assaulted when she was eighteen. The incident occurred when she’d gone into the hospital to have her tonsils removed. During the night a nurse came onto the ward and took her to a darkened examining room. The doctor told her to take off all her clothes. Then, she told me, she started shaking all over. “He must have gotten frightened by how much I shook,” she told me, “because he let me go.”

I asked her if she reported him; she told me no. Who would believe her? He was a doctor. Afterward, she said, she couldn’t walk on a street with a hospital on it without shaking. For over sixty years she kept this secret. Until she told me.

My mother’s life by the time I came along in 1959 was pretty nice. She met my father on the subway a few months before Pearl Harbor. She liked how clean and neat he looked and that he didn’t drink. He introduced her to his sister Leah before he shipped out to the South Pacific, “so we’d stay in touch while he was away.” They married when he returned and he went to City College while selling TV antennas at night to support her and my newborn brother, Larry. They lived in Sea Gate, a pretty gated community at the end of Coney Island, had my brother Bob, and then my father took a job at an electronics company in Philadelphia, where I was born. My mother, as she often told me, loved being a housewife and a mother. She resented the 1960s for crashing into that safe world, but she was progressive enough to take us to peace demonstrations and buy the first Ms. magazine in 1971. She still slept with the light on and “worried a lot.” She seemed to be always planning for a disaster—buying extra food, hoarding pennies in salt boxes, keeping candles in case of blackouts. She was the worrier, the pessimist; my father was the calm one, the optimist. They balanced each other.

When my father died in 1999 my mother grieved but seemed to manage all right. Because my father had traveled a lot she’d always been fairly self-sufficient and she had three grown children who lived nearby to help her. But during the next decade it became clear that her anxiety was growing worse. She became fearful that she was suffering some undiagnosed condition. I took her to a slew of specialists and noticed she would tremble in their offices. When they couldn’t find anything I took her to a psychiatrist, who prescribed antidepressants. She lost weight. She didn’t sleep more than a few hours a night.

“Mom,” I said, “maybe you should try turning out the light.”

“No,” she told me, “I can’t do that.”

In 2016, just a month shy of her ninety-third birthday, my mother died in her sleep with the light on. When I saw her the next morning she was curled on her side, one hand tucked beneath her cheek. She looked peaceful. I had thought I was ready to say goodbye. We’d been close. We knew we loved each other. She’d told me all her stories and I’d become the writer that Sister Aggie Dot had thought she could have become. I didn’t think she had anything more to tell me.

Then two years later I listened to Christine Blasey Ford recount the story of her sexual assault and wept. My mother’s anxiety, claustrophobia, and fear of the dark suddenly appeared clearly as the sequelae of that moment in the hospital, standing naked in a dark room at the order of someone she trusted. Why had I never realized that? Dr. Ford’s eloquent and brave testimony enabled many women around the world to tell their stories and reckon with the long-term trauma of their experiences. For me, it opened a window into my mother’s past. I learned from her brother, whom she hadn’t spoken to for many years, that he and his brothers hadn’t been sent right away to St. Vincent’s. “Margie quit school to take care of us,” he told me. He also told me that their father hadn’t been so sober during their childhood. In fact, he used to go drinking with Bill O’Dwyer, the future mayor of New York City, when he was just a beat cop in Brooklyn. My cousin sent me the intake form for one of our uncles who was imprisoned at Sing Sing, in which his childhood home was described as “one of abject poverty,” which sounded a lot different from the stories of bread and milk my mother had told. How much else, I wondered, had my mother left out?

Around that time, I also read an article about Michelle Thomas’s research on the history of women’s prisons in the United States. I was surprised to learn that there were Magdalen Refuges in this country, and even more surprised to learn that there had been one in Inwood, a neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan near where my husband grew up and where both my daughters now live. When I told my husband, he was surprised too. Although his mother had grown up in the neighborhood and he’d played in Inwood Park, exploring the caves and the foundations of the old Guggenheim estate, he’d never heard of there being a Magdalen Refuge where the park is now. Nor does it appear in Reverend William Tieck’s 1968 history of northern Manhattan. The existence of the Refuge seemed to have vanished from living memory for many years, as if it were an embarrassment. The few references I found were in a community website that led me to contemporary newspaper articles describing the Refuge’s architecture, riots, and ill-fated escape attempts. I found myself thinking that this was the kind of place my mother could have been sent to, as her brothers ended up in Catholic orphanages, if she hadn’t stayed on the right side of the tracks.

For the fictional world of The Stranger Behind You I resurrected the Refuge, kept it open until the early 1940s (the real building was demolished in the ’30s), and had the building restored into a fancy apartment house with a sweeping view of the Hudson River and a reputation for security—a place that offers safety but is haunted by the ghosts who found no refuge there. I sent my two female protagonists, Joan and Melissa, there to reckon with the trauma of assault and the fallout surrounding the exposure of a sexual predator. I wanted them to find the safety and peace that so eluded my mother, but only after they had reckoned with the truth. I wanted to tell this story because we can’t build a safe—or just or free—world by burying the secrets of the past or hiding injustices, or by telling only part of the story. We can only find true refuge by knowing the truth.



View the full article

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Replies 0
  • Created
  • Last Reply

Top Posters In This Topic

Popular Days

Top Posters In This Topic

Popular Days

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.



WTF is Wrong With Stephen King?

  • Create New...