‘Lovely Girls’: a grim tale of one woman’s life in an institution

‘Lovely Girls is not lovely at all. Described by one person as ‘wonderful, inasmuch as something so crushing can be wonderful‘, and by another as ‘richly conceived and … harrowing’, it is a fictional account of the life of one woman in an institution for ‘the mentally handicapped’. I worked in such places in the mid 1970s and early 1980s. I was part of the closure programme when people were moved from this awfulness to more humane environments, and I saw how the attitudes of both public and ex-patients changed. Service users gained skills and self-respect, our neighbours learned how to communicate with someone with Down’s Syndrome and not patronise them, and the locals discovered that people with learning disabilities liked much the same things as everyone else.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Some people – staff and service users – found it hard to adjust. One group of men refused the opportunity to cook their own meals, because that had always been done for them by ward orderlies. They would not clean their toilets because orderlies and ‘low grades’ did that sort of work. They considered themselves high grades, having been part of the institution’s fire service, engineering department, or trusted to remove the bodies of patients who had died. Now they were unemployed, displaced, and depressed, and it took a lot of reflection on the part of our services to see how we had been a part of that, so that we could set about finding new and valuable roles for them.

Amy, in this story, is subject to a regime that permits, by default, institutional abuse and neglect. I have witnessed such conditions, recoiled from the stinking air in wards full of incontinent adults, and observed the pervasive helplessness of otherwise benign staff, warehoused into passivity by a system that did not care. Mostly, we have improved. Mostly, we are able to bring our humanity to the fore and to think empathically about the vulnerable people in our care. But not always, as cases such as Winterbourne demonstrate. With all the protections and enlightenments of our 21st century approaches to care, staff had still somehow become so out of touch with their own concepts of decency that they were able to perceive their abuse as justifiable and ‘normal’.

‘Lovely Girls‘ is fiction, but only just. First published by The Other Room Journal, August 19th, 2011. TORJ is no longer available.

13 thoughts on “‘Lovely Girls’: a grim tale of one woman’s life in an institution

  1. That was soul-shattering. I was going to reference my “favorite” lines, but somehow, I feel that will take away the power. There were many.

    1. Thank you, Cathryn. A colleague told me that, sadly, she could picture this place. We are of an age, we’ve seen the same things, and we probably both have our Amys. Writing this, I really wanted to do those histories justice.

    2. Maybe shattering isn’t the right word. It was heart-breaking, moving, hard to take, grim, and so well-written. I felt I lived in Amy’s shoes for few moments.

        1. That’s an enormous compliment. Outrage is right, so if I’ve been able to generate the empathy that leads to that, I’m very very happy as a writer. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Alannah. These are awful things to see, and it’s arrogant to assume that a bit of fiction might have a positive impact, but I’m really heartened by the comments I am seeing here. If it feels real to people, then I can hope that I got something right.

  2. Harowing Suzanne….all too real for the time in which it’s set….well done, but disturbing.

    1. Thank you, Mike. I know these kinds of stories have been done before – ‘Skallagrig’ for instance, but I don’t think re-telling and re-focusing harms. So if it disturbs, maybe that inches us towards never letting it happen again. The horrific caveat, of course, is Winterbourne.

  3. This is such a powerful piece of writing. Unfortunately, I could smell and feel the place so clearly. My heart goes out to Amy and the others and I think ‘never again’ but know that these and other crimes against humanity continue.

    1. Thank you, Natasha. I think fiction is a way of bringing some things to mind when others are not so generally accessible. If this tale does that a little, I will be really pleased. I really appreciate your comments.

  4. I read your story of Amy’s life in the Institution, Suzanne. Such a harrowing, yet necessary, piece of writing. It deserves to have a much wider audience. Although we may like to think such thins no longer happen since Care in the Community became the buzzword, it is obvious that they still do happen, all too frequently.

    1. Thank you, it’s quite an old story published online a few years ago in a journal that folded. It’s one of those tales that comes out of spending time with people in large institutions, you see how they dehumanise everyone in them and how people just slip into their role, taking their pleasures where they can, and numbing themselves to their situation. I still have the smell of those places way back in my nose.

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