When one hears the name or perhaps the word “Pennhurst” cultivates powerful opinions, and deep-rooted feelings immediately fuel debates. Ostracized by today’s culture, and used as a tool to sell television shows, “Ghost Hunts,” and haunted attraction tickets, many fail to consider any narrative that perhaps contradicts the conjured stories of so-called “paranormal” experts, so-called psychics, and media personalities. Usually, those who hear of the word, associate the name with the famous “haunted attraction” and a variety of television shows such as Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters. In today’s era of quick mass media, it is difficult to uncover the layers of history that have in some case have been forever lost to the abyss of time. It is our goal with this special piece “My Pennhurst” to unveil a perhaps different side that differentiates the “sensational Pennhurst” from the historical entity, the infamous “Pennhurst State School.” We implore you as we embark on this very personal journey to remove any preconceived notions, remove the context of what has been engrained in your psyche by mass media and accept the society in which Pennhurst State School functioned as vastly different as the world we live in today. It is difficult often to separate time periods based on societal norms, as we always side with the notion that all of our decisions, our knowledge etc. is “correct” and that “mistakes” are simply the misguided work of a few “bad people.” The whole story of “Pennhurst” will always be defined by those who lived the experience, as well as those who on the outside bore witness to what was always presented to the public as “fact” which in fact at times was poisoned by “fiction.”
Society and culture are defined by the evolution and context of how mankind identifies, addresses and in the end, learns from its decisions and it is up to future generations to build off historical foundations regardless if they damaged. The story of “Pennhurst” will forever be defined by whose see it, from their perspective, from knowledge and expertise garnered on “Wikipedia”, or from “haunted artifacts” sold on eBay. Our goal, in this case, is to remove the barriers that interject between fact/fiction and allow a voice to tell their first-hand story of what “Pennhurst” was and is to them. We first met Ruth Himes several years ago on a visit to the “haunted attraction” and found her historical account from an academic, cultural and societal standpoint to be fascinating. Stripping away the myths, the legends, the impassioned voices from those whose opinions are formed by the ideals of others, Ruth told her story, was courageous in how she confronted others who promoted misconceptions and allowed us to understand that her “piece of history” needed to be added to the perplexing puzzle that is “Pennhurst.” What we are presenting to you is not a matter of debate, it is at times a reflection on society, and certainly is not related to anything “haunted.” What does haunt Ruth, however, are the stories that violate the “Pennhurst” she knew, the facility that provided for those who could not in a period in which culture would not accept any otherwise? We can sit now and believe we are a high and mighty society but if we take a moment and ask ourselves if we would support such institutions in this time period, based off of cultural context, maybe we would be less judgmental. As it stands this is Ruth’s story, her life’s work and an insight into the “real” Pennhurst from her first-hand vantage point. We are proud to present this look back into history and be allowed to present to you the first edition of My Pennhurst.
Ruth Himes began her journey at “Pennhurst State School and Hospital” in 1980, taking the PA State Civil Service test for the position of “Aide Trainee.” Ruth’s official start date was January 12th, 1981, and she was assigned to a rigorous training program. As “Aide Trainee” Ruth received six months of classroom training followed by a probationary period before she was promoted to the position of “Mental Retardation Aide 1.” A sign of the times and culture, the term for this position is obviously not politically correct or acceptable but was the Common Wealth of Pennsylvania’s Civil Service position at the time (the position today is titled “Residential Services Aide, M.R.”). Ruth worked at “Pennhurst” during the lengthy closure process, and as the population declined so did the staff. Ruth would work in various departments until her furlough to another State institution in April 1983.
Ruth expresses to this day that “Pennhurst” has played a central role in her life- “Pennhurst was and always will be extremely important to me. “Pennhurst” was and always will be extremely important to me. It is hard to explain, but “Pennhurst” wasn’t “just a job”, it was my life. My co-workers and the individuals on D-1, were family to one another. The work environment was one I’ve never experienced again. Working together as a team, seeing smiles, hearing laughter, helping someone that was unable to help themselves. The best memories from my career will always be from Pennhurst. Pennhurst also is where I met my husband Ken. I met Ken in 1981 when he worked at Pennhurst, we were married in 1983.” Ruth would later return to Pennhurst many years later to help manage the “historic” tour presented as an addition to the popular haunted attraction.
Looking back in the context of time, we asked Ruth to describe what “impact” Pennhurst had on its residents during her period working at the institution. According to Ruth, “Pennhurst had a lot of positive. For many, it was the only home they ever knew or could remember. We had two ladies on D-1 that were born with Cerebral Palsy. They were given a language board for trays on their wheelchairs. That was the first they were able to communicate, by pointing to the photo of what they wanted/needed.”
While the media has focused on allegations of abuse and neglect, fueled by media representation, progressive developmental and educational programs were implemented during the last days of “Pennhurst.” Ruth recalls; “before I was furloughed, a female patient was being fitted for her own verbal communication board. Anna was a member of the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC), she was able to attend meetings and share her opinions with other members. Due to her disability, she had to have two staff members with her on any outings. She also had a job she was extremely proud of, putting little sewing kits together. It may not seem important to many, but to her, it made her very happy.” Teaching self-determination skills and helping others develop skill-sets for a functional living are core tenants of modern education programs to this day. “Pennhurst’s” reforms prior to closure spearheaded the modern “special education” and “disability” initiatives that drive the instruction and education of special needs instruction today.
Despite positive advances in developmental and educational programming, the dominating the perception of “Pennhurst” is generally negative. We spoke with Ruth about perception and reality. Ruth expressed” Pennhurst will always have a bad reputation. The funny thing, back when I worked at Pennhurst, I had no idea of the reason it was closing, nor had ever heard about Bill Baldini or his expose, “Suffer the Little Children”. My personal opinion with the mainstream media focusing on the negative of Pennhurst is that is what sells, the negative. Maybe more viewers will tune in to hear the latest controversy on Pennhurst or will sell more papers. People forget or maybe don’t realize that Pennhurst was not the only institution in Pennsylvania. When it opened in 1908, there were approximately 10 other State institutions in operation”
Ruth, in her prior capacity working in a museum as well as in her efforts to express the history of Pennhurst, has met resistance in many situations. “People think they know everything about Pennhurst because they saw it on the paranormal TV shows or read all about it online. Some people that would come through the Pennhurst Museum thought the haunted attraction was based on true history of Pennhurst Center. Most people don’t even understand that Pennhurst was state-owned. I try to explain how things were back then. It was a society that shunned people who were different or misunderstood. We didn’t have a diagnosis of “autism”, or “ADHD/ADD” in the early 1900’s. ”
Directly asked if she witnessed abuse and neglect during her time at the facility Ruth emphatically responded with a resounding “No!” “Abuse could be in many forms, which we were taught in our training. Pulling a blind person down the hallway or on stairs would be abuse. One day during training we were blindfolded and shown how to properly lead a blind person, and what it felt like to be dragged down the hall or stairs and being scared. The old children’s game where you stacked your hands one on top of the other to reach higher and higher, that was eventually considered abuse.” Again, training programs such as these are similar to what is offered today and highlight the reality that perhaps Pennhurst, during its closing days was far more progressive in-patient treatment than once thought.
As we continue with our series, next week we will share some of Ruth’s favorite stories, as well as perspectives on the “paranormal” history of “Pennhurst”. We are thankful for Ruth’s time and hope you will enjoy Part Two of My Pennhurst.