The Lost Girls of Willowbrook
In the early- to mid-20th century, a state school named Willowbrook was located in Staten Island, New York. During this time, children and adults with emotional and physical disabilities were placed in this facility.
Sixteen-year-old Sage Winters, living in town with her stepfather Alan Tern, learns her twin sister Rosemary had not died from pneumonia six years prior but was actually confined in Willowbrook. Though Rosemary was different from Sara, having strange outbursts and hard to control, the two were identical twins. Alan is a callous alcoholic and slouch and cannot be bothered with Sage, especially since her mother's death. While highly intoxicated with his friend Larry, Sara overhears him saying Willowbrook called to notify him Rosemary is missing. Shocked and full of anger, Sara confronts Alan demanding to know the truth. He begrudgingly admits because she was so young when Rosemary was taken away, her mother thought Sara should be told she died rather than institutionalized.
Since Sara was little, rumors about Willowbrook—a terrifying fenced-in and crumbling complex on 375 acres ran rampant. It was alleged a killer named Cropsey hunted kids to abduct and kill, and several children had gone missing.
Beyond rage, Sara is determined to go to the school to search for Rosemary. The date is December 1971, and Sara pilfers money from Alan's room and heads out of their apartment to the bus station to take her to Willowbrook. The weather is freezing with sleet, but Sara only thinks of finding her sister and doesn't worry about not being dressed appropriately. On top of this, she is hungover after spending the previous night drinking with her friends, Heather and Dawn. She considers calling them to explain her situation, but she is in a hurry to get to her destination.
The storm picks up, and her fuzzy mind is in a stupor. She doesn't realize her purse is gone until she is at her stop. The last one on the bus, she asks the driver to help her find her wallet, containing her identification and money, so that she can return home. Unable to locate it, he takes her information stating the company will call if her possessions turn up but sadly admits it's most likely gone for good.
As Sara walks up the long driveway, she is mistaken for Rosemary and immediately hauled inside, where she is restrained and sedated. Several hours later, she awakens to a nightmare when confronted by Dr. Baldwin, addressing her as Rosemary, asking where she's been. She explains she is not Rosemary but her twin, Sara, and has come there to find Rosemary. All her arguing with the doctor makes things worse. He believes she is Rosemary and suffering from delusions. Without her identification, she cannot prove her identity.
In a panic, Sara thinks: "This couldn't be happening. It couldn't be real. It just couldn't be. Maybe she was having a horrible dream. Maybe she was safe in her bed at home, having nightmares fueled by stress and alcohol. For the first time ever, she wished she'd been brave enough to pierce her ears or get a tattoo, anything that would prove she wasn't Rosemary. She pinched the skin on her arm, hard to wake herself up. It didn't work."
Another needle sting pierces her as she is again sedated and then dragged through damp and moldy tunnels up to Ward Six, filled with the stench of urine, feces, and vomit, and the underlying heavy scent of Pine-Sol.
"Young girls, ranging in age from children to gangly teenagers, lined each side of the hallway. They were crowded together by two and threes in beds and chairs and wheelchairs. Some of the beds were more like carts, with large wheels and handles for pushing, and several of the wheelchairs were made of wood, with rusting wheels and thin armrests, as if they'd been pulled from a Victorian museum. Many of the wheelchairs had long wooden boxes in place of seats, like coffins without lids, in which girls lay crumpled on grimy sheets, their pale, thin limbs pulled into fetal positions, their wrists and hands curled up to their chests.
"Most of the girls were either wearing cloth diapers, in various stages of undress, or naked; all were thin, their spines like pale ridges, their shoulder blades sticking out like sharp wings. Bruises and scrapes covered their skin, and a few had what looked like cigarette burns. At first, Sage thought some of them were dead, their features and limbs were so cadaverous, but then she realized they were sleeping or unable—or unwilling—to move. Several tossed their heads around, blind eyes searching and searching while others looked at Sage with haunted eyes, reflecting all the horror she felt. . . .
. . . ."A black terror grew inside Sage's chest, choking her, closing her throat. The rumors were true. This was no school. It was a nightmare, a dumping ground for the broken and insane and unwanted."
Trapped in this horrific situation, Sara can only think about finding Rosemary and getting out. Everyone considers her Rosemary, including the patients (who are called "residents"). Sage is administered drugs, which she spits out, unknown to the nurse. She finds reality challenging to cling to as she witnesses the despicable misery encountered around her, from the suffering patients to the treacherous staff.
Though she tries everything to convince the doctors, nurses, and other staff of her true identity, she is, in fact, in a mental institution and is an identical twin to Rosemary, an actual "resident," who is going to believe her? But one young janitor named Eddie believes her. He befriends her, mentioning he and Rosemary are close, and he can see the difference between them. He tries to protect her against Wayne, a malevolent orderly who derives pleasure from hurting the residents. The two begin to believe he is the one responsible for brutalities toward residents. But will Eddie can help her find Rosemary and make her escape?
As Sara suffers horrors no one could even fathom, she proves to be resilient and forceful in her pursuit to find her sister. Her journey describes the unimaginable acts executed on the innocent and disabled who were thought of as nothing more than throwaways warehoused away from society.
Though The Lost Girls of Willowbrook is fiction, the incidents are factual and disturbing. Willowbrook did exist as a facility where mistreatment, overcrowding, neglect, and medical experiments had been performed on residents. In 1972, journalist Geraldo Rivera reported the atrocious abuse in a powerful television exposé. However, 15 years passed before this despicable facility was permanently closed. A heartbreaking yet insightful read, this novel will open one's eyes to the evil in this world.