Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

I Was Number 87: A Deaf Woman’s Ordeal of Misdiagnosis, Institutionalization, and Abuse

Posted by nliakos on November 12, 2014

by Anne M. Bolander and Adair N. Renning ( Gallaudet University Press 2000)

The title says it all. Anne Bolander’s mother died when she was three, and her father remarried. Anne’s stepmother was either wicked, or mentally deranged, or both. She sent five-year-old Anne to an institution in Virginia called the Stoutamyer School, but it was not a school in any sense of the word, as there were no classes, no books, and no learning outside of the constant need to follow unarticulated and unpredictable rules which, if broken, caused the child to be beaten, isolated, or otherwise punished. Margie, the director of this evil place, seemed to take pleasure in administering the punishments, and would fire any staff who dared to be kind to the children. The children were not allowed to own anything (toys and teddy bears were confiscated and destroyed), speak to anyone, touch anyone, or witness another child’s punishment, even inadvertently. Punishment for infractions was swift and long and calculated to do damage. Several children died during the five years that Anne spent there. It was a living hell–kind of a combination of maximum security prison and the worst kind of slavery, but really more like your worst nightmare.

Occasionally, Anne was taken home to her family, where the abuse continued, her stepmother seeming to take the same pleasure in punishment that Margie did, her father going along with it and her six brothers turning a blind eye to it.

When she was about eleven, Anne spent some time at a convent-run school for children with special needs where for the first time, she experienced kindness and love, and her hearing problem was finally diagnosed. However, her parents refused to believe that she was hard of hearing (for some reasons preferring the diagnosis of mental retardation) and would not let her use her hearing aid at home. The blissful months at St. Mary’s soon over, the family moved to another state and Anne was re-institutionalized. And so went her childhood and adolescence–a combination of special “schools” and living at home in a dysfunctional, loveless family. She eventually learned to lipread, sign, speak and get along well enough in the world to make her living (amazing), but her starvation for love and friendship led her to overlook warning signs that her “friends” were only using her. Not until her forties (with the support of therapy) was she able to muster the self-esteem to assert herself, and writing the book is one of the ways that she has done this.

One would guess that the injustice, abuse, and cruelty described in this book had taken place in some distant time, but no; it was here in America, in the second half of the 20th century.

Everyone should read this book.

(Intermediate to advanced English language learners could probably understand the book without much trouble, as the language is simple and straightforward. (The co-author “translated” Anne’s deaf-English into standard English.)

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