Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

There’s an interesting article up at CNN today regarding families who have “lost” loved ones in mental institutions over the years. One in particular is making a movie about the little sister he thought was gone.

One day in 1957, when Jeff Daly was 6 years old, his little sister, Molly, disappeared.

Jeff Daly’s efforts to find his sister, Molly, led to a new Oregon law about records for institutions for the disabled.

Every night at dinner, he would ask his parents the same question, “Where’s Molly?”

Every night, he says, he received the same answer: “Stop asking about Molly.”

Decades later, Daly learned that his parents had sent Molly to a state institution nine days before her third birthday. Nearly 50 years later, Daly found his sister and made a documentary about his search.

“Since the movie, literally hundreds of people have come up to us and said, ‘I had a [relative] that I remember my family talking about that was sent away. Do you know how we can find out about that person?'” says Daly.

In response, ARC, an advocate group for developmentally disabled people, has created a national registry to search for family in the system (the FindFamily Registry.) People searching for info will be screened to prevent abuse.

In the article I was blown away by the statistic that, in the last century about 100,000 children have been housed in an estimated 162 institutions. Reasons for institutionalization ranged from Downs syndrome to being wheelchair-bound to being able-bodied but the family was unable to support them financially. The conditions sounded just awful:

Residents were sometimes restrained in leather cuffs or straitjackets, overly sedated, isolated for long periods of time, and in many cases, sterilized. Many had little or no contact with their families.

Luckily a series of lawsuits in the 1970s pushed for more patient rights and an overhaul of the systems.


  1. #1 Warren
    August 1, 2007

    “Stop asking about Molly.”

    That single response says everything there is to know about the conformism of the 1950s; about what might happen to anyone who did not fall perfectly into the role of Ward, June or the Beaver; and why we must never, ever allow ourselves to return to that time.

    As badly stigmatized as mental health problems are today, it’s horrid to think that there was a time — in the living memory of many adult Americans — when things were incalculably worse.

  2. #2 Alison
    August 2, 2007

    There’s still a long way to go, too. There are plenty of nursing homes in which elderly people are treated the same way. Plus, rather than improve the conditions of institutions, many mentally ill were released into the community, as if somehow they would magically be able to fend for themselves. When I see homeless living in boxes, pushing around shopping carts filled with junk, wearing multiple layers of torn and filty clothing in all kinds of weather, I don’t think so much about what a burden it is to the public that we have to see them there as much as I mourn the lack of a place where they can be housed, clothed, cleaned, and fed, and spared this kind of existence. They are still stigmatized, and they still suffer, just in a different way.

  3. #3 Kristen
    August 4, 2007

    50 YEARS later?

    BS. I don’t believe he was trying that hard.

    There are lawyers and PI’S who could have found his sister for him years before.

    What you have here is an Urban Legend in the making.

  4. #4 doctorgoo
    August 24, 2007

    Kristen, you didn’t read the article carefully enough:

    Daly says his own search for Molly, which he recounts in the documentary “Where’s Molly?” was relatively easy. Even though his parents wouldn’t talk about Molly after she left, his father kept meticulous records. In 2004, after his parents had died, Daly found the phone number for the group home where Molly was sent after Fairview closed in 2000.

    It didn’t take 50 years to find out, it’s just that he started to try to find out 50 years later.

New comments have been disabled.