Excerpt from Incorrigible by Velma Demerson
As the car turns into the driveway, I see the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Females as a dark formidable fortress pencilled black against the white sky. The enormous structure with its jutting turrets appears to stretch an entire city block. It casts a shadow over the grassy exterior extending to a wide spiked iron fence and onto the street beyond. The tall steeple gives a church-like appearance but the numerous iron-barred windows embedded in the dark stone exterior frighten me.
The building is distant from the street but as we draw near I can see the women who were at the Belmont Home with me leave the other car and move toward, then up the stairs. They are partly hidden by the hulking figures of two men.
During the drive from the Home, we three girls squeezed into the back seat sat unmoving, still absorbing the shock of sudden removal from our restrictive but reasonably safe haven. Only Adelaide’s sniffling could be heard. Her tears weren’t allayed when Miss Pollack assured us of well-being in our new quarters. The foreboding appearance of the reformatory seems to justify Adelaide’s apprehension. She has stopped crying and is staring at the looming reformatory that awaits us.
The car stops and the two plainclothes guards sitting in the front seat get out. One of the men opens the door. As we emerge from the back seat, we’re aware that the two men are within arm’s length, watching us warily. The small pale-faced girl who had been sitting next to me is practically lifted off her feet by one overzealous guard. The other seizes my arm in a tight vise. Satisfied with having contained his prey, he reaches out with his other hand and fastens his grip onto Adelaide. Her eyes are still glued to the stark prison confronting us. I want to shake her out of her trance but can’t get my arms to move. My limbs feel leaden and my body as inert as the stone edifice we’re about to enter.
Adding to my feeling of helplessness is some obscure premonition, an instinct that something dreadful could occur in such a sinister place. My throat feels taut. I feel isolated, apart. Fear envelops me. I feel totally alone.
The two men remain crushingly close as they direct us up the stone steps, through the gothic arch of the entrance to the door, and ring the bell. Without delay, as if watching from the window, a woman with greying hair and wearing a brown dress with a broach opens the door. Her appearance suggests she’s the superintendent and is expecting us. Her attention is directed towards the men who have escorted us and with whom she will conduct the business of our transfer. This time I’m not entering the office or being greeted by the superintendent as I was at the Home. This time I’m entering an institution where all personal recognition has been dispensed with. This sudden realization triggers an immediate identification with all the women who preceded me and stood on this very spot. It’s becoming horribly clear that my life is forfeit to a still unknown but punitive monster—the state. All movement, all time, even my very thoughts are being consumed. I feel naked, shamed, and defenceless.
The entrance hall is immense with shining hardwood floors. From it extends a spiral stairway with strong banisters. I envision the steps extending all the way up to a high-raftered ceiling—a tower.
There’s a wide doorway to the right. To the left is a hallway. There are no furnishings, not a clock or a chair. The absence of a clock disturbs me as I contemplate timeless, meaningless days. The enormous space diminishes me. I imagine the warmth and comfort I’ve known being replaced with rigid austerity. A sinking feeling overwhelms me as I envisage every bit of control over my life being taken away.
Aside from low voices engaged in the solemn rite of conveying human cargo, there are no sounds. We stand in the hall outside the open door of the office under the men’s watchful eye, brutally aware that talking may not be tolerated. Having completed their task, our escorts are impatient to leave and eager to turn us over to a tall older woman in a white uniform, who says tersely, “Come with me.”
She leads us to a room, holds the door open, and bids us enter. We are surprised to hear the door click locked behind us.
My mind spins back to try and pinpoint the exact moment that this nightmare began.
It’s 1939 and I am eighteen years old.