Telling my family's stories
This is my Great Grandmother. Her name was Cora Moorehead.
She was born October 14, 1896 in Hanover, Illinois – a tiny town southwest of Galena, which is in the part of Illinois none of you have ever been to and would not recognize as Illinois if you saw a picture of it. She also spent most of her life in a mental institution, and died there in 1974.
She was the daughter of Irish immigrants, Albert Moorehead and his Wife Ellen Golden. They were a large clan of people who lived out in the country and kept to themselves mostly. They had a clean farm with not much machinery (avoiding the trap of crop-liens). They were quick-witted, laughed a lot, had little use for religion or politics.
In 1920, she married a man named Earl Ritenour, who was from down river in Savanna. I don’t know how they met. I don’t think anybody left alive does, maybe. I assume that it must have been at the Army Depot, since that’s the only place people from the two distant communities would both end up at.
Earl was a tall, silent, hard man who had fought in the 132nd infantry in WWI, earning the rank of Corporal. He’d been gassed, been in Alsace-Lorraine, seen the trenches. After the war, he worked for the Milwaukee Railroad, doing everything from crane operation to engineer. He lived most of his later life on a raft in the river, eating frogs. His grandmother, Martha George, was the last official “indian” in my family. She died a few miles away in Wacker (Hickory Grove), Illinois in 1909, when Earl was 17.
About 1940, after they’d had four children (and one lost), they moved out to a homestead in the country. It was a building with no electricity, no plumbing, no nothing.
Cora’s mother Ellen died in 1939 and her father Albert died in 1942. The farm passed to what remained of their children at home.
It was about that time that Cora started talking to the devil and God in the night. She said that there was a worm burrowing into her, that she was fighting. She was apparently in hysterics from time to time. It was 1941, and her youngest son was 11 years old – my grandfather, Elmer.
Like today, the 40s were not an era of compassion or understanding for people who struggled like Cora did. Earl and his sister Elizabeth Douglas called the sheriff, signed the papers, and Cora was taken away to the asylum down in the Quad Cities. As far as I know, nobody bothered to contact her own family up in Hanover.
She never managed to leave the asylum for very long. They tried a few times, to send her home, but it never took and she was always re-committed. Her psychiatric reports say that she was calm, good-natured, and intelligent, but that she would grow very upset if nobody came to visit her on visiting days, that she had “strange behavior,” and that any attempt to put her back with the family lead to hysterics.
Her two daughters decided to rent an apartment in town in the 40s. Only Elmer and John lived out with Earl at the house. John went off to war (Navy), and then it was only Elmer.
Cora died in the mental hospital in 1974, 3 years before I was born. She’s buried with her husband in the Savanna cemetery. My mother remembers her, from a few visits, as a large-boned woman with wild black hair and a grey streak in it.
Cora and my perspective
When it came time to pick a name for my daughter, I settled on Cora. I always thought Cora hadn’t had a good chance, as a name or as a person. I thought maybe she could get a better one a second time.
I think of Cora when people talk about “schizophrenia” or “mental illness” with assurance and simplicity. I know exactly how I would have talked to Cora about her struggles with the devil. I know because I’m cut from exactly the same cloth she was. I’m okay, largely because I learned how to talk to myself about these things. Cora did not learn – and so Cora went to the institution, where they imprisoned her, shocked her, drowned her, tried whatever the latest cruel fad was to “cure” these miserable people. Today, they’d put her on crushing “medication” that would make her stumble, drool, repetitively jerk her head and hands, and lose the whole world. You know – make her look like a crazy person.
If I could go back in time, I would like to tell Cora that it’s okay – the devil talks to everybody. The only difference is in what people think of it. “Normal” people think it’s their own voice. We usually call them politicians, activists, bankers, journalists, businesspeople, and such. No problems with reality there – it’s just them being “themselves.” “Crazy” people identify the voice as coming from somewhere else, fight with it, resist it. Since they don’t “own” the voice as their own production, they raise questions about “objective reality.” The general population would much rather lock someone to a chair in a psych ward for 45 years, or repeatedly drown them in a box full of holes, or blast their brain with so much electricity that it causes convulsions that break their pelvis, or stick metal needles into their eye sockets to scramble their brains, or put them on a chair and spin them until they have brain damage, or do just about ANYTHING, really – rather than ask too many questions about “objective reality.”
If you think I’m kidding, go look at twitter for five minutes. Then tell me which is worse – fighting with the devil that talks to you, or helping the devil talk to everyone else. Maybe Cora, by fighting it, was the only sane one around. Maybe that’s the exact definition of insanity.