Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Book review: A closer look at mental health care reform in Minnesota from 1946-1954 September 19, 2019

AS A WRITER, hearing other writers share insights into their work always interests me. That includes listening to Susan Bartlett Foote talk about her book, The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954, at the Owatonna Public Library on Tuesday evening. Foote’s book won the 2019 Minnesota Book Award in nonfiction. It’s a well-deserved honor for a book which shares the powerful, and previously untold, story of reform in Minnesota’s mental health care system some 70 years ago.

Despite the four years Foote invested in researching and writing, she is quick to credit another woman for this story. Engla Schey. Foote dedicated her Minnesota Book Award to this activist and aspiring writer whom she calls the first mental health advocate in Minnesota. Schey worked initially as an attendant in several state mental health hospitals, or “insane asylums” as they were called back in the day. She witnessed first-hand the neglect, abuse, inhumane treatment, poor living and working conditions…all documented in her diaries. Foote read those diaries, in the possession of Schey’s great great niece.

The result is a deeply personal story about one ordinary woman’s efforts to change “a cynical and secretive system.” Schey’s insider perspective, Foote notes, allowed her to upend the whole structure. At the time, some 15,000 people lived in the state’s seven mental health hospitals with 80 percent of them committed and 35 percent senile/elderly. Half suffered from mental illnesses with stays of sometimes 20 years. The statistics are startling. But it is the stories Foote shares that make the most impact. Read this book and you will find yourself in tears.

As Foote related in her Tuesday evening talk, Schey quickly recognized that she needed help—of liberal churches, unions and writers—if she was to effect change within the system. She cared deeply. And personally. Her father voluntarily committed himself to the state hospital in Fergus Falls.

Eventually, the Minnesota Unitarian Church got involved, taking the approach of responsible study and analysis rather than jumping in and demanding immediate reform. The Rev. Arthur Foote (Susan Foote’s former father-in-law) led those efforts along with activist Genevieve Steefel and others.

Soon those initial reformers recognized the need to engage the press and political leadership and to build popular support, Foote said. Investigative news stories published. And some politicians, like then Minnesota Governor Luther Youngdahl, set aside partisan politics to make mental health care reform a top issue. Foote praised Youngdahl, referencing his stand that all mentally ill Minnesotans were entitled to fundamental human guarantees (dignity) and his goal to build a patient-centered mental health care system. A photo of Youngdahl burning a pile of straightjackets (and published in the book) signaled that change was going to happen, Foote said. And it did. Conditions improved both for patients and staff.

Like anything, though, change did not come easily nor is it always permanent. I experienced a deep sense of disappointment and frustration as I read in detail about all the politicking, untruths and denials. I can only imagine how those deeply involved in reform efforts felt. Youngdahls’s biggest disappointment, Foote shared with us in Owatonna on Tuesday, was that Minnesota churches (other than the Unitarians) wanted nothing to do with the issue of mental health. Has that changed much?

Youngdahl, in the ever-evolving political environment, suffered another disappointment in his failure to open a state hospital in Brainerd. One eventually opened there and my brother-in-law Brian became a resident after suffering incapacitating permanent brain damage. I knew him only briefly before his passing in 1984 at the age of 23.

At Tuesday’s talk in Owatonna, an audience member shared afterwards that a family member died of tuberculosis while hospitalized in a state hospital. Another attendee told me privately of staff intentionally breaking the legs of a man who lived at a state hospital in Faribault. For every story spoken, I expect many more remain unspoken. The hurt runs deep even all these decades later.

Although politicians and the public moved on and times changed and cuts began in the state hospital system by the early 1950s with Minnesota falling back to “average” in mental health care, Foote said, “I maintain this story is an inspiration, not a failure.”

She closed with a quote from Governor Luther Youngdahl: “Protection of the patient depends on our eternal vigilance.”

I agree. And I contend that we can all be Engla Scheys. We have within us—within our families, our circles of friends, our churches, our schools, our communities—the ability to make a difference in the lives of those dealing with mental illnesses and those who love them. Through our compassion, care, understanding, love and support. On multiple levels.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My award-winning water story publishes April 8, 2017

 

 

“Water Stories from a Minnesota Prairie Perspective” has published in southern Minnesota based River Valley Woman’s April issue. My story won the nonfiction category in the “We Are Water” writing contest sponsored by Plum Creek Initiative with the support of The League of Women Voters and River Valley Woman. That honor includes a $250 prize.

I don’t have a hard copy yet, but I viewed the story online. And so can you by clicking here and advancing to page 50 of the April issue. The piece is lengthy per submission guidelines requiring 5 – 12 pages of copy.

No matter how many times I’ve been published, I still thrill in seeing my words out there for others to read and perhaps appreciate. You can find print copies of the magazine in many locations like Mankato, St. Peter, New Ulm, Redwood Falls and surrounding smaller communities. Click here for a complete list.

In reading my story, you will learn of my growing up years on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm, the place that shaped me into the person, writer and photographer I’ve become. Farm life as I remember it from the 1960s – 1970s no longer exists. So this story, while written for a competition, was also written for me and my family. There’s an importance in reclaiming memories through written words, in telling the stories that define a place, in sharing my roots with you, my readers.

FYI: Click here to read my first blog post about winning this writing competition.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Weaving memories and thoughts into a winning water story March 2, 2017

AS SOON AS I READ the first six words of the email—I am so pleased to announce—from Plum Creek Initiative, I knew I had won.

I finished reading the good news, then burst out the kitchen door into the garage. “I won! I won! I won!” I shouted. My husband gave me a questioning look. “I won the contest.”

 

From the Plum Creek Initiative Facebook page.

From the Plum Creek Initiative Facebook page.

 

And then I explained. My nearly six-page “Water Stories from a Minnesota Prairie Perspective,” was selected as the winning entry in the nonfiction division of a contest sponsored by Plum Creek Initiative and the League of Women Voters. The placing earned me a $250 prize and publication in a New Ulm-based magazine, River Valley Woman.

 

I photographed these"We Are Water MN" pins in a jar at an exhibit last summer at the Treaty Site History Center in St. Peter.

I photographed these pins in a jar at an exhibit last summer at the Treaty Site History Center in St. Peter. “We Are Water MN,” telling the story of Minnesota water, accompanied a “Water/Ways” exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street Program. I participated in a “When Water Dreams: A Celebration” by reading my poem, “In which Autumn searches for Water.” Mankato photographer Kay Herbst Helms invited me and other poets to read our water poems, connecting with her photo exhibit, “Water Rights.” Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Tasked to write on the theme of “We are Water,” I tapped into my growing up years for water memories, weaving in my relationship with water and the importance of water. It worked. I felt really good about the story when I submitted it. But when I read that the sponsors were “overwhelmed with the participation and quality of the submissions,” I doubted myself. I shouldn’t have.

 

The Straight River churns at the Morehouse Park dam in Owatonna.

The Straight River churns at the Morehouse Park dam in Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Here’s what nonfiction judge Renee Wendinger wrote in part about my story: …noted your ability to “retain a balance of idea, craft, and theme resonant to water…[she] reminds us that water is an integral component, making the processes of life possible, a resource we too often take for granted.”

As a writer, I appreciate such specific feedback. This judge, herself a noted author of orphan train fiction and historical nonfiction books, understood and valued my story. That’s reaffirming.

 

Water rushes over limestone ledges in Wanamingo's Shingle Creek.

Water rushes over limestone ledges in Wanamingo’s Shingle Creek. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Writing about water proved much easier than I expected. My stories flowed one into the other, including a reference to Plum Creek. I grew up only 20 miles from Walnut Grove, where author Laura Ingalls Wilder lived along the banks of that rural waterway. I’ve waded in that creek to the Ingalls’ dugout site.

 

The water runs clear in the North Branch of the Zumbro River in Pine Island. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The water runs clear in the North Branch of the Zumbro River in Pine Island. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

 

Plum Creek Initiative, a long-term water quality improvement and women’s leadership program focusing on water quality in southern Minnesota, draws its name from Plum Creek. The organization has launched a pilot program in my native Redwood County to address water quality issues. That pleases me.

 

The Zumbro River in Pine Island. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The Zumbro River in Pine Island. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I am pleased, too, with this opportunity to write on the subject of water in a way that will perhaps make a difference. Two North Mankato residents won the other divisions—Holly Ahlbrecht with her fictional “Weaving the Water” (selected by judge Nicole Helget) and Laura K. Murray with a collection of poetry (selected by judge Gwen Westerman).

FYI: Click here to learn more about Plum Creek Initiative. Read the official contest winners’ announcement on the Plum Creek Facebook page.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

For the love of reading April 20, 2011

I’VE ALWAYS LOVED to read.

And I’ve passed that love of reading on to my three children, two of whom are now adults and one who is 17. They are all readers.

Even before my girls started school, I read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder to them.

Every summer, the folks of Walnut Grove, Minnesota, produce an outdoor pageant based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. Many pageant attendees arrive at the show site dressed in period attire and then climb aboard a covered wagon prop there.

Then I read the Betsy-Tacy book series by Maud Hart Lovelace to my girls. I even nicknamed my second daughter Tib, after the curly-haired, fun-loving Tib in Lovelace’s books. To this day, our family occasionally, fondly, calls her Tib.

A snippet of a mural by artist Marian Anderson in the Maud Hart Lovelace Children's Wing at the Blue Earth County Library in Mankato, Minnesota. The painting depicts the main characters in Lovelace's books, from left, friends Tib, Tacy and Betsy.

Now that I think back on those days of snuggling on the couch with my two girls and later with my son, I am impressed that these preschoolers would sit still for long chapter books. But they did. Of course, I also read picture books and easy-reader books to them.

Long after my trio stopped sitting on my lap or leaning into my shoulders, listening to the stories I read, they continued reading.

Even my boy, my teen. This surprises me. At 17, he still pops out the leg rest on the reclining couch, stretches out his lanky body, grabs a book and reads. For hours. He also reads in bed when he should be sleeping.

There was a time, during his elementary and middle school years, when I checked under his bed for a flashlight and books. He got smart to that and simply hid them elsewhere. So I stopped searching, not wanting to squelch his love of reading even if it meant he wasn’t getting enough sleep.

Today he still reads when he should be sleeping. While I encourage him not to read into the wee hours of the morning, I can’t exactly stop him.

Right now he has two dozen science fiction books stacked in the middle of his bedroom floor: I, Robot and Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, Ringworld by Larry Niven, 1984 by George Orwell, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein…

Science fiction books stacked on my teen's bedroom floor.

Some of the books have copyrights nearly as old as me.

My son found these books at a used book sale sponsored by the local branch of the American Association of University Women. The AAUW holds the sale annually to raise funds for local reading projects. It’s a worthy cause.

Well, Saturday, we “donated” $25 to the cause, dropping that amount for a box full of two dozen science fiction books, a Star Wars video, two Bach CDs, a nonfiction book about Iowa and a vintage elementary school textbook. The last two items on that list were my selections. I seldom buy books for myself, preferring to check them out from the library because I’ll read a book only once. My teen will read a volume multiple times.

I picked up a 1951 edition of this children's textbook at the used book sale. One of the women working the sale said she used it in her classroom and really liked the book. So did I. But I purchased it for the beautiful vintage art.

I found this brand new book for my niece, who will graduate from high school in about a month. She will attend an Iowa university. I thought she might enjoy this children's nonfiction book that will introduce her to her new home state. Either that or she'll think her aunt (me) is crazy for giving her such an unusual gift. If anyone else wants an Iowa book, you'll find a box full at the sale.

Typically I would not pay $25 for nearly 30 used books, some of them well-used. But how could I deny these books to my teen, who said he can’t even find some of the older books in the library system? Yes, he has a well-used library card.

The older women working the book sale seemed impressed with my gangly teen who managed to fill an entire cardboard box with books. They even offered him a several-dollar discount when I told him he would need to pay half the cost of the books. I only thought it fair. I’ve never been the type of mom to buy my kids something simply because they want it. The son didn’t argue.

I had to restrain myself from buying an armful of children’s picture books. For years I bought used books for the library at the Christian day school my children attended. After I stopped volunteering a dozen years later, breaking that buying habit took a bit of resolve.

Since I passed on the many fabulous children’s books, I did the next best thing. I e-mailed two friends with young children and encouraged them to shop at the sale.

HOW ABOUT YOU, do you buy books at used book sales, garage or rummage sales or elsewhere? Have you always loved to read? And, if you have children, do they also love being read to or reading on their own?

FOR ANYONE WHO lives in the Faribault area, today, April 20, is the final day of the book sale, which runs from 3 p.m. – 7 p.m. in the old Hallmark store at the Faribo West Mall. I’m pretty certain you’ll find plenty of deals on books as the AAUW will just want “to get rid of” their remaining inventory.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling