|Nursing Staff In Front of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, about 1890|
Photo Credit - Archives.govt.nz
The show is Family Secret. It is a reality based TV programme where Journalist David Lomas goes around solving family mysteries. I was pleasantly surprised with how good the show was. Mind you, it started in an area of the country I am very familiar with, and the main character was a budding writer - it instantly made a connection with me. Squirt came in part way through and was captivated by the story as well.
In short, the programme focussed on a woman called Ada Green who was born in 1882. A distant relative of hers wondered what had happened to her - the family had heard stories but there were no official records about what had happened. The family had snippets of the poetry she once like to write, and recalled stories of how she had dreamed of becoming a writer and travelling the world. There were rumours that she had been committed to the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum and that perhaps she had died in a tragic fire there that had claimed 37 lives, in 1942. The family contacted the show to see if they could help solve the mystery.
Through his investigations, David uncovered the following:
- He could not find a grave site for her, or a headstone.
- Despite the fact she once had a family, she was not mentioned in her fathers obituary, but her 3 brothers were.
- She was not on the list of people who had died in the 1942 fire.
- She was not on any list in any of the death records in NZ.
The mystery deepened.
Squirt and I fantasised that perhaps she had married and left the country, changing her name and realising her dreams. Alas, this was just that - a fantasy.
David had previously written to Archives NZ and the Otago Health Board and from this discovered that she had indeed been sent to Seacliff when she was around 22. Seacliff was a notorious Mental Asylum with a very disturbing past, based near Dunedin. Seacliff used to house up to 500 psychiatric patients at any given time, open from the late 1800s to the early 1970s. Seacliff is perhaps best known in NZ history for the time the famous kiwi writer Janet Frame was 'staying' there, and narrowly escaped a frontal lobotomy. Horror stories of lobotomies, electric shock treatment and other frightening but accepted psychiatric treatments abound.
When David received her official file from her time at Seacliff, it was full of sadness. She spent the next 52 years locked up in a mental asylum where people referred to her as a lunatic. During that time she endured years of electric shock treatment, subjected to up to 28 treatments a day. There is no doubt, from the opinion of a modern psychiatrist, that she was admitted with significant psychiatric conditions, and I suspect the doctors and nurses at the time thought they were doing the right thing. Whichever way you look at it - 52 years locked away, subjected to all kinds of horrifying treatments, is not the life she once dreamed of. Not once did she hear from her family - if they had written to her, they would have been in her file. One of her relatives remarked 'they pushed the delete button on her..".
He further discovered that Ada had died in the Asylum hospital in 1957, at the age of 74. Her body, instead of being buried, had been sent to the Otago University of Anatomy, for 'anatomical experimentation', and her file remarked 'no certificate of burial required'. This explains why she was unable to be found on the death records. David contacted the University and they were able to tell him what happened to her body next. Once the students had finished with her body, she was sent to the crematorium, and her ashes were spread over the Anderson's Bay cemetery and Tomahawk Beach.
Her story struck a chord, and left me sadly mourning for the loss of a life unfulfilled. The suffering and anguish she must have faced, not to mention the loneliness and heartbreak from the abandonment of her family. To be forgotten, by her family and by the world - not even a record of burial. No one to mourn her passing or to be there when she died, or to say a few words about her as they scattered her ashes - at this point she was a nondescript 'anatomical being'. It is profoundly sad.
The sadness this evoked left me wondering how many other lost souls - artists and creative people - were locked away and forgotten. What artistic beauty did our world miss out on because of this kind of thing - both here and around the world? To be creative is not always going to be the status quo, and what is not the status quo, is not always understood by others.
To Ada Green - may your afterlife promise you the peace and serenity your actual life could not deliver, and rest easy knowing that the world has heard your story, and there are those in your family - and strangers - who mourn your lost potential and will not forget. xxx
Read more about the Asylum here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seacliff_Lunatic_Asylum
You can read more bout the show here, and catch up with the story I have written about Via On Demand (may only be available for NZ residents) - also via this link.