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Winnie: My Life in the Institution is a newly-released softcover Second Edition. This fascinating little book was originally published in 1985, but despite being made into an NBC "Movie of the Week" staring Meredith Baxter (Birney), Winnie's story remained out-of-print for twenty-five years. It has been brought back to life here by author Jamie Pastor Bolnick and Book &rts Press.
Winnie is Winifred (actually Gywnna, as readers come to know later) Sprockett. In 1938, when she was just six years old, Winnie's foster mother, Mrs. Kruller, told her she was going away. She had Winnie pack her things, leaving behind her three older sisters and her dog, and she took Winnie on a very long car ride. When they arrived at their destination, Mrs. Kruller left Winnie with no explanation, causing Winnie to become confused and distraught. Eventually, Winnie began to understand that she had been left at "the institution" (a state institution for mentally retarded females). In the days that followed, Winnie was forced to share a room with many other children, wear ill-fitting clothes, take public baths, and have all of her hair cut off. Shortly thereafter, however, Winnie begins to adjust--not only does she make friends, but also she learns basic skills, such as how to dress herself and to brush her teeth. When she turns eight, Winnie also starts to attend the institution's school, where she studies hard in hopes of learning to read asks her teacher for extra help to improve her speech.
Sadly, visits from Winnie's family were few and far between, at least until her oldest sister, Gladys, was able to re-connect with Winnie on her own. And while life in the institution could be difficult--from the conflicts with the other girls to the lack of stimulation to the outright abuse by a few of the attendants--it was all Winnie knew, at least until she was about 30 years old. At that point, she was given a trial in a supervised nursing home placement, and although she briefly enjoyed this new-found freedom, she eventually became overwhelmed and requested to be returned to the institution. Ultimately, Winnie remained institutionalized for her entire life. Prior to her death, however, Winnie wrote a book about her experiences, which she originally titled My Growing Up in the Institution. Unfortunately, Winnie never got to see her book published: she passed away in 1976, at the young age of 44.
Winnie's original book was just 28 hand-written pages long. Just how, one might wonder, do 28 pages become a 220-page book? Author Jamie Pastor Bolnick, who first came to know Winnie as a young girl visiting the institution, explains in her introduction that she spent many hours interviewing Winnie. To write this book, Pastor combined these tape-recorded interviews with Winnie's actual written words (excerpts of which are reproduced at the start of each chapter) and then put everything in first-person, present-tense. The resulting pages printed here are, according to Pastor "Winnie's voice and Winnie's story." So, if this is the case, why no author's credit for Winnie? I would have liked to have seen the author's byline read "By Winnie Sprockett, as told to Jamie Pastor Bolnick," or perhaps "The Story of Winnie Sprockett, edited by Jamie Pastor Bolnick." Given that Winnie entrusted Bolnick to ensure that her book would be "in public," wouldn't she have wanted her full name to be on her book's cover?
One final note. Throughout Winnie's tale, there is the suggestion that she might be "retarded." In fact, in Winnie's own preface to her original work, she mentions that the reason she wrote her book was because of her brother-in-law, Willy, who called her mentally retarded to her face; she states that writing a book would make people see her as smart. Yet as Bolnick points out, Winnie documented IQ suggests that she did in fact have at least a mild mental retardation. Sadly, had she been born today, Winnie very likely could have lived at home as a child, attending special needs classes and perhaps moving to a group home placement as an adult. Even in her own day and age, the misfortune of her parents' early death (combined with her own nervous temperament) likely changed the course of her life. Does that make Winnie's story a tragic tale? Perhaps, or perhaps, as the dedication suggests, simply one of what might have been.
© 2010 Beth Cholette
Beth Cholette, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who provides psychotherapy to college students.