Genevieve Pilarski, affectionately known as Gennie, quietly passed away in her nursing home chamber one September day in 1998, at the age of 79. Genevieve Pilarski departure went unnoticed and unremarked, for she had spent over 50 years confined within the walls of various mental institutions in Illinois.
Genevieve Pilarski life prior to college remains shrouded in mystery, yet we know that she possessed a great intellect and grappled with episodes of melancholy.
In 1941, Gennie Pilarski embarked on her academic journey at the University of Illinois, pursuing a major in chemistry. However, after three years, a disagreement with her parents regarding her place of residence led to her involuntary admission to Manteno State Hospital in 1944.
The early records pertaining to Genevieve Pilarski are incomplete, but her initial evaluation indicated that she presented as orderly, immaculate, and organized. The physicians also observed her remarkable reticence, while affirming her friendly and agreeable nature. Consequently, their assessment concluded with the verdict: “No signs of active pathology.”
During one of her early sessions with a therapist, Genevieve Pilarski was asked about her perspective on life’s worth. In response, she declared, “What I have of it is.” Genevieve Pilarski maintained that, apart from the burden of being labeled as mentally deranged due to her institutionalization, she felt perfectly normal.
Genevieve Pilarski unabashedly employed the phrase “insane asylum” when referring to her circumstances, expressing her dissatisfaction with how she ended up there. The therapist documented Gennie’s repetitive statement during the examination: “A person who is 25 years old should be liberated from familial entanglementsThe therapist recorded Gennie’s recurring declaration during the evaluation: “A 25-year-old individual should be emancipated from familial entanglements.”
When queried about her aspirations upon release, Gennie expressed her desire for employment, new attire, and books. She also mentioned her intent to acquire cosmetics like powder, rouge, and other beauty products—typical preferences for a young woman in her twenties during that era.
Several months later, Gennie Pilarski became subjected to an experimental hydrotherapy treatment at Manteno State Hospital. This procedure involved immersing patients alternately in scalding hot and freezing cold baths for prolonged durations. Utterly bewildered by her plight, Gennie could only inquire, “Is life a farce?”
By August 1945, Genevieve Pilarski had undergone 40 insulin coma treatments and was approaching her fifteenth session of electroconvulsive therapy, in addition to her hydrotherapy regimen. Unfortunately, her second evaluation was far less favorable than the initial one. A physician noted her idleness, unfriendliness, and her tendency to respond disagreeably to fellow patients.
The physician went on to remark:
“. . . AND SHE DOES NOT MAINTAIN PARTICULAR CLEANLINESS OR NEATNESS.”
In the mid-1950s, after enduring 187 electroconvulsive therapy sessions at a rate of twice a week, Gennie was transferred to the research ward at Manteno State Hospital. This facility served as a site for medical experiments predominantly conducted on involuntary patients. During this period, a psychosurgical method called lobotomy gained popularity across the nation.
For reasons unbeknownst to us, Gennie became the subject of a lobotomy procedure in early 1955. Medical records indicate that she underwent an extensive neurosurgery, involving the removal of a significant portion of her frontal and temporal lobes.
Following the operation, the medical chart documented Genevieve Pilarski present condition as:
NOW UNABLE TO SPEAK, COMPLETELY DEPENDENT ON COMMANDS FOR EVERY FUNCTION, INCLUDING BASIC BODILY URGES. TO UNDERGO AN EXPERIMENTAL COURSE OF ELECTROCONVULSIVE THERAPY TO DETERMINE IF
ANY AFFECTIVE CHANGES CAN BE INDUCED.
Unfortunately, the lobotomy proved to be a complete failure. Gennie remained largely unresponsive and subsequently underwent an additional seven rounds of shock therapy.
Her evaluation the following year underscored her deteriorating state:
CONFUSED. UNRESPONSIVE. REQUIRES CONSTANT SUPERVISION DUE TO AIMLESS WANDERING. NEEDS GUIDANCE AND ASSISTANCE. UNSUITABLE FOR FURTHER RESEARCH.
Thus, for the next 45 years, Gennie became a failed experiment—a mumbling woman fixated on the walls surrounding her. She was shuffled between state institutions and homes, regarded as a burdensome obligation no one wished to bear. The state had reduced Genevieve Pilarski to a fragmented and soulless existence, tormented by demons known only to her.
During the last two decades of her life, medical professionals reported that she was “incapable of any form of human interaction.” They recounted her final days spent either huddled beneath her bedclothes or aimlessly wandering the corridors of her nursing home, in a state of drooling and babbling.
Regrettably, during that era, much of what happened to Genevieve Pilarski was perceived as ordinary and not considered cruel. Our present-day reactions stem from a wealth of medical knowledge far surpassing that available to the doctors of that time. Fortunately, advancements in medicine have rendered the process more compassionate, if not entirely ethically sound.
At the outset, all Gennie desired was freedom from entanglements with her family at the age of 25.
In the end, that became her unforgivable transgression.
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