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1930s Woman from ND Who Was Committed


Excerpted from the play Retail Therapy, by Kathy Coudle-King


I remember her sitting quietly in a rocking chair, just rocking back and forth while she tatted. I never saw her when her hands weren’t busy. Tatting, peeling potatoes, whatever it was, those hands were always moving. That was the therapy the other women around her had assigned, see. My great-grandmother had been committed to Jamestown when her husband and sons – I think it was mostly the sons -- pestered my great-grandfather to do something about her. See, she cried, all the time. Or she’d yell. And then she’d cry. She had a lot to make her sad, several miscarriages, that was common back then, and of course, not talked about. A woman miscarried and she was expected to keep right on going about the business of the home. Just like nothing happened. Clean yourself up and make supper. Can you imagine keeping all that in? Well, my great-grandmother didn’t. She let it out and everything that upset her; she cried and screamed, and that was enough to get her locked up. I figure they must have given her electroshock; I don’t remember hearing about pills. But when she came home, she just sat and stared out vacantly. Was she seeing something in her head? Or was it all just a fuzzy screen? (shrugs) Can’t say. That’s when the women in the house said, give her something to do. So, they brought her tatting needles and thread. She sat and tatted and tatted and tatted and tatted . . .

The women would laugh at how long the thing was she was making, assuming it wasn’t anything functional. Poor thing. Then one day, she put down her needles and said, “You should frame it.” The women laughed some more. She repeated firmly, “You should frame it.” When they picked it up, they discovered she had woven the Lord’s Prayer into the piece. They framed it. One of my aunts has it on her wall.

I remember her sitting quietly in a rocking chair, just rocking back and forth while she tatted. I never saw her when her hands weren’t busy. Tatting, peeling potatoes, whatever it was, those hands were always moving. That was the therapy the other women around her had assigned, see. My great-grandmother had been committed to Jamestown when her husband and sons – I think it was mostly the sons -- pestered my great-grandfather to do something about her. See, she cried, all the time. Or she’d yell. And then she’d cry. She had a lot to make her sad, several miscarriages, that was common back then, and of course, not talked about. A woman miscarried and she was expected to keep right on going about the business of the home. Just like nothing happened. Clean yourself up and make supper. Can you imagine keeping all that in? Well, my great-grandmother didn’t. She let it out and everything that upset her; she cried and screamed, and that was enough to get her locked up. I figure they must have given her electroshock; I don’t remember hearing about pills. But when she came home, she just sat and stared out vacantly. Was she seeing something in her head? Or was it all just a fuzzy screen? (shrugs) Can’t say. That’s when the women in the house said, give her something to do. So, they brought her tatting needles and thread. She sat and tatted and tatted and tatted and tatted . . .

The women would laugh at how long the thing was she was making, assuming it wasn’t anything functional. Poor thing. Then one day, she put down her needles and said, “You should frame it.” The women laughed some more. She repeated firmly, “You should frame it.” When they picked it up, they discovered she had woven the Lord’s Prayer into the piece. They framed it. One of my aunts has it on her wall.

Jameston State Hospital for the Mentally Ill

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