When I go down the internet rabbit hole of my past, I’m not looking for exes or the girls who bullied me in eighth grade. Instead, I look for things that really hurt: the group home I was in my freshman year of high school that is now someone’s house; the residential campus near the beach that was closed in an abuse scandal; and DeJarnette, the state institution for children now listed as Virginia’s most haunted asylum.
I lived in DeJarnette as a stopover when I was 14, relatively new to the foster care system and waiting for a bed to open up in a long-term facility. A quick search of DeJarnette pulls up dozens of ghostbuster-type videos that show the usual fare: brave explorers with flashlights and ghost-tracking teams entering a looming abandoned brick building.
The two-story white columns at the front almost seem to glow in the dark. The rows of windows flanking the entrance are boarded up, giving the facade a strange appearance. Inside, someone insists they saw a shadow move. Someone else says they felt a cold draft. If you’ve seen an enchanted nighttime urban exploration video, you’ve seen them all.
The difference is, I walked those halls. I recognize the once grand arches that frame the doors. When the adventurers reach the corridor with the rooms and sweep their flashlights along the painted walls, I always wonder which one was mine.
The facility, originally known as the DeJarnette State Sanitarium, was founded in 1932 by Dr. Joseph DeJarnette. He had been in the sanatorium business since 1906, previously running a colony for epileptics and what he called the feeble-minded. In the 1920s, he petitioned the Virginia state government to pass a law allowing compulsory sterilization. Their lobbying worked. He targeted those he called “flawed” and the “weak-minded.”
In addition to people of color, he forcibly sterilized unmarried mothers, alcoholics, the mentally challenged and epileptic, the poor, and the incarcerated. He was reported to have close ties to Hitler and the Nazis. In 1938, the United States was said to have sterilized more than 27,000 people at his behest.
He was expelled from the center in the early 1940s. The building became a children’s mental hospital in 1975 when Virginia took over.
It is said that the evil spirit of Dr. Joe walks the halls. Some say they have heard children’s voices in the dark or moans and other noises from former patients who are reported to have died due to medical experiments.
I doubt the teenagers who lived there ever knew Dr. DeJarnette’s name. I wasn’t. However, the building’s links to eugenics were one of the first things new kids learned about the center.
“Why did they do that?” I asked the assigned girl to show me around on my first day after she told me the history of the building.
“They think your kids are going to end up like you,” she said. “If we don’t have babies, it will be less of us and more of us.” He wasn’t quite sure what more of them i meant but i got it less than us Lit’s from me.
Although DeJarnette has an imposing presence and a horrifying history, few memories of my time there match the building’s ghostly reputation.
Once a week, we made sandwiches to sell to the staff. I learned how to cook bacon for the BLTs that were on the menu. I was clumsy in the kitchen; I left home at 13 and hadn’t cooked much for myself except microwaveable food and things I could graze on. A DeJarnette advisor showed me how to get the flames on a gas stove just right and what to look for when the bacon is fully cooked.
The sandwiches were made assembly line style, with each child doing a single job dozens of times. The week I was on mayo duty, I learned that you should spread the condiments around the edges of the bread. I looked at the slice in my hand. Mayonnaise was an irregular glob. I spread it out evenly and proudly tidied up any mismatched slices.
I lived in DeJarnette during the winter. The holidays were approaching. It was my first Christmas in the system. He was learning the ropes, but he still had hope for Christmas presents, even if he didn’t know where they would come from.
A lady from a local church came to collect our Christmas wish lists.
“You can get whatever you want, as long as it’s under $10,” he told us.
My expectations were perpetually low back then. I noticed the sentence whatever you want There were endless possibilities at this price point. I started shoplifting shortly before I left home. I was well aware of the multitude of things for less than $10 that can easily fit in the pocket of a wide leg pants. However, I ordered a Def Leppard tape, thinking luxury. The tapes were hard to steal. Everything I had was left behind. I didn’t take into account that I no longer had my boom box either.
We celebrated Christmas in the day room after lunch. I was thrilled to receive my tape, even though I had no way to listen to it. I knew I would be leaving DeJarnette as soon as my social worker found a long-term arrangement for me. The tape symbolized the hope and belief that one day he would have a player again.
I have no children. I never wanted them, even when I was little. However, there is a great gulf between choosing not to have children and someone taking the choice away from you.
Although society began to condemn the ideology of Dr. Joe, was a vocal defender of the practice until his death in 1957. America was changing, and by the late 1970s, eugenics was considered discriminatory and offensive. Despite progressive attitudes, Virginia continued mandatory sterilization until 1979.
Eugenics allowed a stranger to decide what kind of person you were and what side you were on more of them i less than us you fell Most of us will agree that this is an offensive and disgusting concept. We like to believe that we have progressed beyond such beliefs. However, the fight for reproductive freedom continues today.
October can be a scary month. A few nights ago, I made a cup of tea and settled into my couch to watch DeJarnette’s latest Ghostbusters videos. I didn’t mind going down the rabbit hole as Halloween approaches. But I would never go there after dark. I am not afraid of the spirits of the lost children, of the many victims of Dr. Joe, and even from Dr. Joe, who roam the halls, according to the videos. Instead, I fear stepping on a nail or cutting myself with rusty metal. At my age I care about more practical things.
In the world of social service custody, some places focus on children who will age out of the system rather than never return home. I was one of those kids. I left DeJarnette in the spring when he opened a bed for me in a long-term residential facility.
I don’t have typical teenage memories of homecoming dances, first dates, sweet 16s, or getting a driver’s license. I like to think I have something better; I made it through the system and didn’t become a statistic. Today I am thriving, and that is worth much more than the girl I was then would have asked for.
Some people believe that decades of past experiences and emotions can leave residual energy in a place. Maybe that’s partly what ghostbusters are after. Because when you consider the collective traumas and experiences of all those who spent time in that cavernous state institution, there was a whole lot of restlessness. They weren’t ghosts, though. It was us.
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