Lisa Zeiger

“HOLLAND”: “Hope Our Love Lasts And Never Dies.”—An underground acronym used by young women committed to The New York Training School for Girls.

Language Sampler (detail), A lison Cornyn and Diana Weymar, Muslin and cotton thread wall hanging, 2018

Language Sampler (detail), Alison Cornyn and Diana Weymar, Muslin and cotton thread wall hanging, 2018

It is often--perhaps always--in the margins of history that we uncover the motives and methods propelling its grander public sweep.

”Incorrigibles: Bearing Witness to the Incarcerated Girls and Women ofNew York,” a study of the New York State Training School for Girls in Hudson (1904-1975), tells a shadow story of 20th century girlhood heretofore shuttered from view, now recovered through both accidental finds--most notably a box of documents and photographs from the 1920s and ‘30s about the School’s young charges unearthed at a yard sale--and academic research; through ardently sought family reunions, and less official loves and losses documented only by surviving human voices. Curated by artist Alison Cornyn, “Incorrigibles” conjures the School’s community through archival images and oral histories of women imprisoned there in the 1960’s and 70’s. Its earlier history is a mesh of court documents, medical forms, home visit reports, and fragmentary writings and notes by the residents themselves. Artworks by Cornyn, Aaliyah Mandley, Beth Thielen, and Diana Weymar represent and interpret the lives lived at the School and the ripple effect into the treatment of girls in the system today. The exhibition can be seen at the Charles P. Sifton Gallery in the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn until April 1, 2019..

Who were the girls at the New York Training School, and why were they there?  Surprisingly late into the 20th century, girls could be incarcerated for “vagrancy,” “lewd behavior,” and “keeping bad company,” among other vagaries, as well as for actual prostitution. Under the New York State Wayward Minor Act, children could be incarcerated for misdeeds as minor as skipping school or running away from an unlivable home. The Training School’s most famous resident was none other than Ella Fitzgerald, who ran away from it in the 1930s. Many prisoners were simply runaways or truants; others had suffered physical and sexual abuse and/or rape, often in the parental home, with the victim bearing the blame and punishment. More than a trace of this shifting of blame from perpetrator to victim abides today in the criminal justice system--or as Judith Resnik, Professor at Yale Law School prefers to call it, the criminal legal system, so often anything but just. The very word “incorrigible” still stains many a court document pertaining to young female defendants.

Ella,  Print by Alison Cornyn, Pigmented ink on archival paper, 2018 . Image Courtesy Library of Congress Ella Fitzgerald was incarcerated at the New York State Training School for Girls in the early 1930’s for being: “ ungovernable..."

Ella, Print by Alison Cornyn, Pigmented ink on archival paper, 2018 . Image Courtesy Library of Congress Ella Fitzgerald was incarcerated at the New York State Training School for Girls in the early 1930’s for being: “ungovernable..."

The Training School, founded in 1904, was a reflection of the imperfect ideals of the Progressive Era, which began in the 1890s and held sway until about 1920. Progressive reformers supported causes which today we would recognize as liberal, and, indeed, as cornerstones of American economic and political life: workers’ compensation, minimum wage legislation, a maximum work day, the graduated income tax and the right of women to vote. But Progressives harbored a notably illiberal streak: the policing of morality, with women as particularly useful captains, when, that is, they were not considered culprits.

Many prominent and famous Progressive reformers were female: Jane Addams, founder of the Chicago settlement house movement; Ida B. Wells-Barnett, campaigner against the lynching of African-Americans; Margaret Sanger, proponent of birth control and family planning; Charlotte Hawkins Brown, champion of education for black children; and Florence Kelley, instigator of laws protecting women in the workplace. These pioneers, who embodied female leadership and competence in social causes, slowly readied a political atmosphere receptive to women’s suffrage, proclaimed by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1919.

Yet the Progressive Era was a time of paradox for women. While Progressives extolled women’s social activism as a natural outgrowth of their traditional roles as wives, mothers, and caretakers, they did not omit to glorify and politically manipulate their mythic duty at the hearth: women as keepers of virtue. In 1919, Prohibition was enshrined in the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, a dark twin to women’s right to vote passed the same year. And Prohibition’s figureheads were female: beginning with Frances Willard, second president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the 1880s and ‘90s, culminating feverishly in the 1920s through firebrand Carrie A. Nation, who entered saloons only to scold the patrons, smashing their bottles with a hatchet.

The rights for the poor engendered by Progressive reform were inseparable from--and arguably legitimized by--the imposition upon them of social and moral “purity,” with female leaders the anointed vigilantes. The price tag of greater economic equality for the underclass was reform, not only of their work, housing, and education, but of their most private predilections, aka “vices,” seen by Progressives as personal moral failings which abetted economic degradation.

The Progressives’ vice sine qua non was prostitution, becoming a major national issue in the first two decades of the 20th century. Until that time, there had been mostly local laws criminalizing prostitutes or the act of prostitution. For reformers, the prevalence of prostitution was an affront to civilized morality, inflaming their crusade to eradicate the practice completely to "purify" society.

In the Victorian era and well into the 1910s--with periodic resurrections in our own day--the cult of “pure womanhood” had denied the very existence of female desire. At the same time, the collective consciousness surreptitiously feared the sexuality of women as a menacing, anarchic force--what Freud in 1926 would call “the dark continent” (as if the sexuality of men were not darker still!)--in need of legal control. Enter female incarceration, disproportionately imposed upon “crimes” traceable to often inchoate and non-transactional expressions of female sexuality outside actual prostitution. Female sexual expression, always morally condemned, was now increasingly criminalized; a moral weakness to be“cured” through sequestration. Young girls were considered susceptible to redemption through training; older “fallen women” were a lost cause, a virus to be excised from society and “isolated” in prisons without benefit of education. Hence the Training School’s agenda: the molding of girls barely in their teens, damaged but still malleable.

A telling article entitled “How to Save Girls Who Have Fallen,” was written in 1910 by Annie W. Allen, a member of the Board of Managers at the New York State Training School. Allen’s text classes female sexual expression as a primal horror, if not crime, along with outright prostitution. Society “abhors sexual irregularity in women,” observes Allen, noting a “racial dread of women who misuse their organs of reproduction.” Allen explicitly deems the very nature of girls to be an inborn hazard and weakness: girlhood left to itself was a disease; a snare. Training schools are to re-form girls to the “life of ordinary people.” Allen goes on to note, in words Freud would have seen as slips, a legal obstacle to such reform:

“[M]ost men, especially policemen and police justices, have a customary and unquestioning conviction that fallen girls are saturated with the consequences of their sexual misuse and cannot be penetrated with other interests....Our chief task and aim with delinquent girls is to protect them from the natural consequences of being girls.”

[Left]  Linda,  Alison Cornyn, Linda was committed to the Training School in 1921 for being an “ ungovernable or disorderly child ” at the age of 13. Pigmented ink on archival paper, 2013. [Right] American Dream  Beth Thielen. Charbonnel ink mono-prints on black Arches Cover. Artist Book, variant edition of twenty, 2018

[Left] Linda, Alison Cornyn, Linda was committed to the Training School in 1921 for being an “ungovernable or disorderly child” at the age of 13. Pigmented ink on archival paper, 2013. [Right]American Dream Beth Thielen. Charbonnel ink mono-prints on black Arches Cover. Artist Book, variant edition of twenty, 2018

At its founding, the New York Training School was the only institution in New York State to provide training for delinquent girls aged 12 to 15. The institution took over the red-brick buildings and grounds of the former House of Refuge for Women (1887-1904), which, despite its name, had in fact been a penitentiary for women aged 15 to 30--later 15 to 25-- serving indeterminate sentences, often as long as five years, for petit larceny, habitual drunkenness, and prostitution. High on a bluff east of the Hudson River, the compound possessed a "famous view" of the Catskill mountains.

Cemetery, Hudson Correctional,  Alison Cornyn, Installation. Pigmented ink on archival paper, 2014/2018

Cemetery, Hudson Correctional, Alison Cornyn, Installation. Pigmented ink on archival paper, 2014/2018

The House of Refuge had been the first prison for adults in the United States to adopt the cottage plan, breaking from the centralized architecture of surveillance which still prevails in this country. It adopted the European system of complexes of cottages in rural areas organized to provide a home – a family-like atmosphere--in the rural countryside, idealized by reformers for its curative powers. By 1904, there were seven three-story cottages for 26 girls on average, several sport fields, office buildings, and a chapel with a Tiffany window. Each cottage had a teacher and a few officers. The teacher, or "house mother" played the part of the parents, and other officials were responsible for leading the activities of the girls: learning to cook, clean, and sew as preparation for eventual work as domestic servants.

The Training School was led by a series of Superintendents, beginning in 1904 with Hortense Bruce, M.D., a sadist whose governance lasted till 1921. Although corporal punishment was strictly forbidden, under Bruce’s rule, transgressors were nonetheless subjected to freezing shower-baths, sleep-deprivation in brightly-lit rooms, enforced silence, and solitary confinement, practices today regarded as torture.

In 1923, a new, decidedly enlightened--albeit within the moralistic strictures of the time--Superintendent arrived: Fannie French Morse, who remained in charge of the Training School until 1937. In 1925, reflecting Morse’s influence, the Training School Board stated its mission as one of growth and success rather than correction or punishment: “to develop in every girl under the control of the school an ideal and a desire to become a useful citizen in the community and fill an honorable place in society.”

Here is a contemporary account of the ethos of Morse’s stewardship and sensibility:

 “We met in Hudson with a unique form of administration which radiated from the superintendent into all directions: to release, to restrain, and to rule through aesthetic principles projected into the community. Aesthetic principles entering into every detail of living are a powerful device of an invisible government. Here we found exemplified the effects of education when it is not limited  to a specific locality, the school alone, but is the very atmosphere itself of the whole community.

                  — Jacob Moreno, Who Shall Survive?(1934), pp.19-20

Photograph of Jacob Moreno by Tiago M. Peixoto

Photograph of Jacob Moreno by Tiago M. Peixoto

The author of this remarkable passage was the Romanian-born psychiatrist and sociologist Jacob Moreno, pioneer of sociometry, the visual mapping of human groups and relationships. In 1932, following a pandemic of fourteen runaways at the Training School, Fannie French Morse hired Moreno to be the Research Director of the Institute; and to produce a sociometric study of the School. Moreno and his assistant Helen H. Jennings examined 500 girls, their intelligence, social activities, and above all, their feelings toward each other.

Moreno published his observations and sociograms in his seminal book of 1934, Who Shall Survive? A New Approach to the Problem of Human Interrelations, based on his intense work with the residents of the Training School during several months. As a conclusion Moreno discerned that behind social phenomena there is an inexplicable driving force fomented by the very structure of the relationships between individuals. It was true for the girls from Hudson: their impulse to run away was not conscious, but rather an instinctive response to the location or status forced upon them in the social network.

Moreno’s dedication of Who Shall Survive? to Fannie French Morse reads “Educator and Liberator of Youth,” a startling tribute for a prison superintendent to receive; Moreno was honoring the empathy Morse showed her charges. And indeed, Morse viewed the girls not as “incorrigibles” but as captives of “a tangle of circumstances,” which it was her task to painstakingly unwind; above all, through education, as well as attention to physical health and an obligatory dose of religion.

As noted by Moreno in the passage above, the Training School was a complete world unto itself, centralizing in minute detail a variety of functions which in society at large would operate as separate institutions--housing, workplaces, schools, sports, hospitals, churches--each with distinct philosophies, rules, and practices. Every element of the Training School, in contrast, was suffused by the “invisible government” of “aesthetic principles,” a description by Moreno I find fascinating, but which unfortunately he does not elaborate upon. It is but a clue to the values, preoccupations, and methods Fannie French Morse exerted at the School; we can only guess at how aesthetics figured in issues of order and conduct.

I speculate that Morse was likely a throwback to the American Arts & Crafts Movement of the 1890s, when poor urban girls were elevated from the dismal lot of factory work through training in handicraft, seen as a natural extension of more mundane household skills. (It is noteworthy that Chicago’s Arts and Crafts Society began at Jane Addams’ Hull House, in October 1897, underscoring the alliance between social reform and handicraft begun by William Morris in the 1860s in England.) Although the Training School girls were being prepared for domestic service, the early 20th century understanding of that occupation involved a degree of art and craft, particularly that of fine needlework and embroidery, no longer expected of maids or housekeepers today.  

Who Shall Survive? reads, even today, as a radically optimistic approach to emotional healing and potential. In the first chapter, Moreno makes short work of Freud, characterizing sublimation--the goal of Freudian analysis--as a negation of the natural self; at best a dour truce between instinct and the imperatives of organized human life. Moreno calls the Freudian project “negative sublimation...a reversal of the active form of Christian sublimation,” that, far from overcoming Christian doctrine, adopts its strategy, minus its faith, and therefore its hope. If the Christian’s sublimation of instinct is a journey heavenward, the Freudian analysand travels ever backward towards the discouraging cul-de-sac of childhood trauma. “Christianity can be looked at as the greatest and most ingenious psycho-therapeutic procedure man has ever invented compared with which medical psycho-therapy has been of practically negligible effect.” Hail Mary.

Moreno had graduated in medicine in 1917 from Freud’s alma mater, the University of Vienna, and was a practicing psychiatrist near Vienna between 1918 and 1925. He was therefore within the ambit, though decidedly not the circle--or ideology--of Freud. During this time, Moreno founded the improvisational Stegreiftheater, or Theatre of Spontaneity, origin of the therapeutic psychodrama he would develop throughout the next three decades. Where Freud’s highest therapeutic hope for neurotics was “ordinary unhappiness” Moreno was more sanguine; certain from the start that human life could be pleasurable as well as meaningful.

In his autobiography, Moreno recalled an actual encounter with Sigmund Freud in 1912 in which Moreno, all of 23, boldly, even eloquently, differed with the master:

‘"I attended one of Freud’s lectures. He had just finished an analysis of a telepathic dream. As the students filed out, he singled me out from the crowd and asked me what I was doing. I responded, 'Well, Dr. Freud, I start where you leave off. You meet people in the artificial setting of your office. I meet them on the street and in their homes, in their natural surroundings. You analyze their dreams. I give them the courage to dream again. You analyze and tear them apart. I let them act out their conflicting roles and help them to put the parts back together again.”’

For Moreno, the word “spontaneity” was both battle-cry and strong medicine. Spontaneity—the positive and natural exercise of volition—was his key to the mental health, indeed, to the happiness of individuals and communities alike, encompassing enterprises and institutions of every kind. Moreno’s experiences at the New York Training School led him not only to ever more nuanced and intricate sociograms of groups--geometric ciphers of peculiar beauty which he published in Who Shall Survive?—but there, in a place of imprisonment, to a psychotherapy dedicated to liberty. And, unlike more orthodox psychotherapists’ concentration on the individual patient as a wretched island of dysfunction, Moreno discerned a fount of psychic well-being and empowerment in finding “elective affinities”: in belonging to a group of one’s own choosing:

“We began to speculate over the possibility of a therapeutic procedure which does not center primarily in the idea of sublimation but which leaves man in the state in which he is spontaneously inclined to be and to join groups he is spontaneously inclined to join, which does not appeal to man either through suggestion or through confessional analysis but which encourages him to stay on the level towards which he naturally tends, which does not forcibly transgress the development of individuals and groups beyond their spontaneous striving as has often been attempted by sublimating agencies. We were developing a therapeutic procedure which leaves the individuals on an unsublimated level, that is on a level which is as near as possible to the level of their natural growth and as free as possible from indoctrination.”

Moreno’s insight into the healing power of relationships and groups entered into freely and by inclination was accurate. Unusual unions, strange for the time, formed in the Training School’s desolate environment: wedding ceremonies, “adoptions” of one girl by another; the bonds of love and belonging he so emphasized as the most potent medicine for human suffering; the elixir of life that eluded Freud. The proverb, “Physician, heal thyself,” comes to mind, but at the Training School it was the “patients” themselves who brought about whatever true healing happened there. In the midst of catastrophe and control, the girls found unlikely loopholes of caring that had been missing from their “homes” of origin.

I have framed at some length the contradictory social, penal and psychological ideologies which underpinned the New York Training School for Girls. Frankly, they fascinate me as examples of how social “change,” “emancipation,” and “help” for the helpless are invariably commandeered and exploited by elites to expand their power rather than part with even a small portion of it. Rebels among reformers are rare; Jacob Moreno was one. Moreno and Morse appear, in my limited research, to have been benevolent, even oppositional figures who likely did their best to bring healing to lives misshapen by abuse and misdirected punishment.

But no voices, not even that of Dr. Moreno crying in the walled wilderness of normative psychology, are as powerful and damning as those of living women who survived the School, their spoken accounts recorded by Alison Cornyn. These residents remember episodes of physical, emotional and sexual abuse so regularly repeated they were in essence systemic. Forced labor, violence, and long stretches in solitary confinement were not sporadic aberrations but methods of “training” integral to the School.

Each spoken vignette also tells of suffering leavened by the nearness of others, both peers and staff, who could, of course, be thorny as well as comforting. Many of the cottage housemothers, known as “Ma” prefixing their surnames, are remembered fondly, kind surrogates who recreated maternal care that in the lives of some residents was the first they had ever received.

The residents themselves invented small pleasures from scant allotments. Much to my admiration, writing appears to have been primary, prim letters home the least of it. The yellowed, polymorphous papers that continue to be unearthed comprise coded communications between residents—love letters among them—and private diaries and calendars.

I especially liked the harsh, pungent words of Liz’s narrative, delivered in a knowing, throaty voice. Liz entered the Training School in 1971 at the age of twelve and ran away four times. She describes her clique, and why they were there:

“We had to be hip, so I was slick -- ’Slick, Sly, Wicked, and Wide’ -- that was the name of our group. Some of the girls were there because of unwanted pregnancies. Some of them were there because they were being sexually molested at home. We were there because nobody wanted us. So, our common bond was that we felt rejected. “

Years later, Liz wrote the following poem, a rhyme of triumph from the trenches. Her walk on the wild side and intact defiance made me rethink this essay:

High heels and pantyhose,

what does it matter? I’m twelve years old.

What does it matter? The things I’ve seen

—More than most at seventeen.

What does it matter that my eyes are black?

Obviously, I deserved that slap

--or was it a kiss?

I can’t remember the cause of this.  

Perhaps I stood, and then I fell

and winded up in a grown-up hell.

For sex and drugs, that’s what we did.

Twenty years later it matters, you see,

 to the child within me who is finally free.

Incorrigible Stories,  Alison Cornyn. Book Installation and Oral Histories

Incorrigible Stories, Alison Cornyn. Book Installation and Oral Histories

When a few weeks ago I published an earlier version of this review online under a different title, “Testament of Youth,” objected to my description of intimate relationships formed between Training School girls as “strange unions.” I took down the post, and thought hard.

My interest in reviewing “Incorrigibles” in the first place was never aesthetic, but personal; incited by my identification with the residents.

I don’t know if it takes a village to raise a child. But it absolutely takes a net of love far wider and more populous than the small, often malign mesh of the nuclear family, which I experienced as a secretive hell pitted against the world, sometimes icy, other times hot with rage. One morning when I was fourteen, I was sleeping late and refused to carry in a bag of groceries from the car for my father. He did not speak to me for the next seven years, until we met by chance on an off-ramp at La Guardia Airport. When I turned fifteen, in 1972, my father judged me incorrigible enough to exile, not to a reform school, but an apartment of my own; sometimes with a roommate; for longer periods alone. My parents, unsteadily bourgeois, could pay to throw me out, inaugurating a lifetime spent in apartments by myself until my early fifties, when my psyche and finances caved.

I was rescued in 2009 by East Harlem’s Greenhope Services for Women, a residential program founded and run by women for women, an urban community then enclosed in a former convent that blended residents court-mandated as an alternative to incarceration, along with parolees, and homeless women from the city. I fell into this last group. All of us were drug addicts, and, as intensely shared time and group therapy would gradually disclose, we had all been physically, emotionally, and sexually abused within our childhood families.

I do not believe our residents’ original families, all of them much poorer than mine, were unusual, or even unusually bad. For the “normal” nuclear family is not a shining point of light on a line, but the line itself, an undulating continuum that more often than is ever admitted, especially by the rich, has bends as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. The bourgeois family successfully masks ills and vices identical to those of the poor deemed so glaring and disgraceful by late 19th-century reformers.

Why is the nuclear family, rich and poor, still behind a sacrosanct red line, off-limits to total rethinking and reconstruction? In Paradise Lost, Milton’s Lucifer proclaims of his powers, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Substitute the word “family” for “mind,” and ask yourself my question again.

“… [S]peak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.” Matthew 8:8. At Greenhope I heard the official definition of “domestic violence” for the first time, startled into real life at 52 by its perfect fit. Chapter and verse, it applied to me. These two words had never been spoken by any of my exorbitant, forty-year retinue of top-notch therapists and psychiatrists. Even the analyst who graduated from Yale could never get to the point. Elites excuse their own.

At Greenhope, unlike the Training School, there were no punishments, except for group confrontations and discussions and occasional suspension of passes to the outside world. Only the serious transgressor—for theft, assault, or flagrant and repeated drug use—would be remanded to prison, a strong incentive to behave well towards one’s fellows and care responsibly for oneself, which to an astonishing degree, we did. Greenhope was a very pleasant place to live. For the first time in my life, I felt my own strangeness—my history, strengths, and weaknesses— was understood and upheld by an institution with authentically supportive structures, unlike the faintly misogynist ones of the Ivy League women’s college from which I graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1980.

About strangeness, I am here to say that every union, straight or gay, is always strange; always a clash as well as a coming together. And an intimacy forged in a place of restriction—whether maximum security or simply so low-income that kitchens and bathrooms are shared and house rules imposed as they are in the women’s residence I live in now—will be a highly charged catch-all of connection well beyond mere romance. Such relationships reenact—or in some cases create for the first time—sisterhood, motherhood, even infancy, as well as the saving freshness of new friendship.

The New York Training School foisted on girls who had, at most, misbehaved in some unimportant way, a label and punishment that were indelible their whole lives long. “Incorrigibles” cross-examines the legal words and sentences still used to blight female lives. The exhibition ends April 1st, but the glossary Alison Cornyn has compiled will speak volumes for a long time to come.**

Anna.  Alison Cornyn, Anna Murphy was sentenced to the Training School in 1925 for being an "ungovernable chid". Pigmented ink on archival paper, 2013

Alison Cornyn, Anna Murphy was sentenced to the Training School in 1925 for being an "ungovernable chid". Pigmented ink on archival paper, 2013

*Alison Cornyn’s ongoing oral history interviews with former residents of the Training School will be published on the Incorrigibles narrative website once it is completed. The website has received a planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2017 and thanks to that support now have preliminary designs, information architecture and plans for the narrative website. Additional fundraising is in progress to finalize designs and program the site.