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September 21, 2022

The Lost Girls of Willowbrook by Ellen Marie Wiseman ~ a Review

by Susan Roberts

"People still search the woods for remains of lost children."
(p 1)

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

book cover of historical fiction novel The Lost Girls of Willowbrook by Ellen Marie Wiseman
August 2022; Kensington; 978-1496715883
audio, ebook, print (384 pages); historical fiction

This well-written and well-researched novel looks at the true horrors in institutions for people with mental disabilities and the way that they were treated in these institutions.  It's difficult to read in parts because of the abuse of these people but I think it's a very important story that needs to be read so that we can all make sure that facilities like this never exist again.

It's 1971 when sixteen-year-old Sage overhears her stepfather discussing the phone call that he'd just received from Willowbook School and the report that his stepdaughter Rosemary was missing.  Sage demanded information from him and found out that her mother had lied to her six years earlier when she was told that her twin sister had died.  She's shocked that Rosemary is in an institution and that she hadn't been told because she knew that she would have visited so that Rosemary knew she was loved.  

After a night out with friends, she decides to go to Willowbrook to help in the search for her sister.  Her purse gets stolen from the bus and she has no way to prove her identity. When she shows up at the school, the administrators were sure that she was Rosemary and put her back into her room.  Even though she tried to explain, they didn't know that Rosemary had a twin plus Sage had no identification so no one paid any attention to her explanations.  Her life in the institution is terrible.  At first, she thinks that because this is a school, she will have classes to attend and is shocked when she finds out that Willowbrook is just a dumping ground for people with mental disabilities.  Sage finds out that the school is overcrowded and filled with neglected, over-medicated people who are fed and treated horribly by a staff that just doesn't care about the patients.   Will Sage find someone she can trust who will believe that she is not Rosemary?

The Lost Girls of Willowbrook was a tough book to read about how people in this institution were treated.  The most interesting part of the story was seeing the changes in Sage.  When she first went to try to find her sister, she was a party girl - more interested in spending time with her friends and having a few drinks.   Her time in Willowbrook made her a strong and resilient young woman determined to help the residents of the school.

I watched the 1972 expose of Willowbrook school done by Geraldo Rivera and it was a horrific look at the way mentally disabled people were treated at this so-called school.  We need to make sure that we learn from our pasts and that nothing like this is allowed to happen again.

Information about Willowbrook  

Willowbrook State School was a state-supported institution for children with intellectual disabilities located in the Willowbrook neighborhood on Staten Island in New York City from 1947 until 1987.
The school was designed for 4,000, but by 1965 it had a population of 6,000. At the time, it was the biggest state-run institution for people with mental disabilities in the United States. Conditions and questionable medical practices and experiments prompted Senator Robert F. Kennedy to call it a "snake pit". The institution gained national infamy in 1972, when Geraldo Rivera did an exposé on the conditions there. Public outcry led to its closure in 1987, and to federal civil rights legislation protecting people with disabilities. 

Susan Roberts grew up in Michigan but loves the laid-back life at her home in the Piedmont area of North Carolina where she is two hours from the beach to the east and the mountains in the west.  She reads almost anything but her favorite genres are Southern Fiction and Historical Fiction.  You can connect with her on Facebook.

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