State Hospital at Goldsboro
“Eastern North Carolina Insane Asylum Negro”
Bettie Nora Boone – niece of James Henry, my great-great-grandfather – was institutionalized for a mental illness. My first thought is to consider other family members’ histories of mental health struggles – depression, bipolar disorder, and even a cousin’s psychopathic behaviors. One fact in a bloodline brings all the others into relief.
My second thought is that Goldsboro is where my aunt and uncle live – my white aunt and uncle – and I wonder how they will respond to learn that our aunt – our black aunt – had lived in a mental hospital just a few miles from their house.
I dig deeper and find her death certificate – she died in the hospital on October 9, 1941 of myocarditis – inflammation of the heart. I’ll read more and learn what that means – to die of an inflammed heart – but now, my medical knowledge absolutely lacking – I imagine her heart burning like her mind – hot, fierce, untameable.
Her death certificate also gives me her psychological diagnosis – dementia praecox – a term used to describe a form of insanity that was degenerative and then thought incurable. Today, she probably would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, she probably would have been medicated, and she probably would have been better – if not well.
I can barely contain my energy over all the story in Aunt Bettie’s life – what it must have been like to be mentally ill in the 1930s and 1940s, what it must have been like to be black and mentally ill in that time. I think of her parents, her aunts and uncles, her siblings, her cousins – I think of mine, her kin, and consider how we respond when we find that one of our own is not well. The great outpouring of care and the great distancing that happen almost in the same breath.
I realize – with some sense of sadness and a fair measure of relief – that she never married and never had children. The genetic of schizophrenia ended in her line? Or do they travel in my own? My cousins’?
I wonder what led her family to send her to the Hospital. Was it her own safety for which they were concerned? Their own? I wonder how they built their lives with someone who was ill. I know that schizophrenia usually begins in the teens or early 20s, and Bettie was not sent to Goldboro after 1920, when she was well into her 30s. How long had she been showing symptoms?
Her life in the hospital – I do not even know how to begin imagining that. Was she part of the “work therapy” program that used the African American “inmates” to pick cotton? (Just the idea of that makes my stomach turn.)
How must it have felt to her family when she died there? They did bring her home to be buried.
I took this journey into Bettie’s life because I was curious to see – and still am – whether or not any of my great-great-grandfather’s siblings had crossed the color line as he did. (So far, it does not appear they did). And here I find this story of family and illness and the way we care – or don’t? – for each other when we are kin.
I think about the ways that mental hospitals have always drawn me, of the book I began researching about the treatment of women in asylums, and I wonder if Bettie is calling to me through the years. After all, a haunting always carries a story.
I’m finally just listening to the stories that have followed me all my life long. And I’m enamored of them all.
If you were me, what would you want to know about in Bettie’s story? Any suggestions about how I might learn more?