Magazine article New Internationalist

[Repossessing Ernestine: The Search for a Lost Soul]

Magazine article New Internationalist

[Repossessing Ernestine: The Search for a Lost Soul]

Article excerpt

Maybe this book struck a strong chord because of my own attempts at retracing family history. My grandfather and his brothers were stonemasons who built the sandstone walls around this area. One of them, Tom, carved a block in the shape of a heart and set it into a wall, upside down. But not for love, and now, nobody knows why. Mystery also surrounded a distant cousin, a beautiful girl 'taken strange' in a conservatory, then shipped off to Australia.

All families have secrets but it's hard to accept that sometimes we cannot know the truth. Marsha Hunt thought her grandmother, the subject of her book Repossessing Ernestine, had spent her life in a Tennessee mental institution from the time when her three sons were young children. Ernestine was said to have been retarded, to be delusional, to have turned violent, to be a vegetable; her mental instability was believed to be hereditary.

Learning that she could be alive, the author sets off on a quest to find her and to uncover the history of a family already bowed down by tragedy. Her father, the eldest son, killed himself at 37. Marsha felt he might have taken up psychiatry in the hope of helping to cure his mother, but her parents being divorced she knew little about him or his family. She discovers that he remarried and his second wife, Roberta, is one new acquaintance who proves to be supportive.

Ernestine received no visitors in 11 years at a Memphis nursing home, but her grand-daughter cannot bring herself to question her family's reasons for neglect: Guilt? Shame? Fear? Equally, she cannot be deterred in her concern for her grandmother, her need to find out more.

Ernestine must have suffered in a place built for 1,000 patients which housed 2,400; all her teeth had been removed when she was only 30. The horror of it strikes home when Marsha realizes that her cousin Will. a man in the prime of his life, has not yet lived as long as their grandmother spent in an institution: 52 years.

No bigger than a ten year old, Ernestine has withdrawn virtually to the point where she was 'a deserted house'. She herself can provide no explanations. She says little, though in one poignant scene, she recites the Twenty-third Psalm. Yet she insists she is a white girl, which is also on her admission records. Her generation took pride in being light-skinned, though it is an inescapable reminder of racial miscegenation and slavery; the author even wonders whether her grandmother might reject her because of her own darker skin. …

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