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The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames
Author: Justine Cowan



Dorothy Soames

I always knew my mother had a secret. She guarded it fiercely, keeping it under lock and key. That was how I envisioned it—a hidden chamber tucked away in the recesses of my mother’s twisted mind. But her secret was too big to be contained, and it would ooze out like a thick slurry, poisoning her thoughts and covering our family in darkness.

When I was nineteen, my mother accidentally gave me a clue to her past, yet it would take me years to gather the courage to learn more. Eventually I followed a trail of bread crumbs that led me across an ocean into an institution’s macabre and baroque history. Only then did I discover the agony of generations of women scorned by society, and of thousands of innocent children imprisoned although they had committed no crime. And I would dredge up family secrets that forced me to reassess everything I had ever known.

Of course, I didn’t know any of that when the phone rang that morning. I only knew it was an odd time for my father to call.

“I need your help. It’s your mother.”

His voice was strained and loud.

I had trouble concentrating as he described the events that had unfolded earlier that morning—my mother tightly clutching the steering wheel as she careened through a labyrinth of twisting hillside roads, my father racing close behind in his matching black Jaguar, desperate to stop her. Luckily, he’d caught up with her before she could run herself off the road.

“She said she had to go to the hospital.”

“The hospital? Why? Was she hurt?”

“No.” My father offered no further information, but he wasn’t really calling to explain. And I wouldn’t find out where my mother had been trying to go that day until years after her death.

“I have to be in court today.”

I don’t care, I wanted to say, but the words stuck in my throat. One thing I’d picked up in my nineteen years was the intuition to dread what I knew was coming next.

“It’s not safe to leave her alone.”

Images flashed before me. Jagged shards of glass on an Oriental rug, a papier-mâché piñata swinging from a tree, broken dolls strewn across sleek hardwood floors. I pulled my textbooks out of my backpack and returned them to the desk as my arms began to tingle, my fingers going numb. I usually had more time to prepare myself.

I tried not to think about what I would find as I drove across the Bay Bridge, watching the city’s skyline come into view before heading south, toward Hillsborough.

We’d left San Francisco when I was six, my father eager to escape the damp city fog that triggered his claustrophobia, my mother more than happy to relocate to one of California’s most prestigious zip codes. On the face of things, the wealthy enclave where we landed was a magical place for a child, and the neighborhood kids had the run of its wide, quiet streets. We’d duck into gaps in the hedges that concealed manicured gardens, using the holes in the thick vegetation as secret tunnels to evade capture during our games of hide-and-seek. On our corner stood an empty manor house we’d crawl into through an unlocked window, running through its grand rooms with our arms spread wide as if we were flying, or taking turns riding from floor to floor in the dumbwaiter. One at a time we would climb into the small wooden box to be hoisted and lowered by the rest of the group, the ropes creaking as they threaded their way through the rusting pulleys.

But Hillsborough lost its brilliance as I got older, and soon I could see only its blemishes, reflected in my mother’s eyes—her blind idolatry of wealth and status, how she name-dropped the famous people who lived around the corner in the English accent she hadn’t lost despite her decades in the States, her triumphant grin when we scored the best table at an exclusive restaurant.

My eventual escape to Berkeley had given me the perfect antidote to an upbringing I’d grown to despise, the clamor of urban life providing a comfort our home never could. I basked in the grittiness of noisy streets, the beatnik cafés and bookstores, the street vendors and shirtless hippies whooping through games of hacky sack on Sproul Plaza. Even though I was only forty minutes away, my life felt like my own.

By the time I pulled into the driveway, my father was gone. I parked a few feet behind my mother’s shiny black Jaguar, in its usual spot. Nothing seemed out of place. The lawn was freshly mown, the roses untrammeled. I climbed a set of brick stairs to the front door, surveying the row of arched windows that lined my childhood home for any hint of what awaited me.

The front door was unlocked. I took a deep breath as I pushed it open and peeked into the living room, where the gold-upholstered furniture perfectly complemented the giant handwoven rug, and the various objets d’art gathered by my mother on her frequent trips to Butterfield & Butterfield were strategically placed on antique tables and in glass display cases. It was the sort of room designed to impress or intimidate. But I was only looking for signs of disarray—a couch cushion off-kilter, a toppled figurine.

None of the ornate furnishings appeared to have been disturbed, so I inched down the hallway, gently dragging my fingertips along the bright white walls. Each week a young woman who spoke little English spent hours mopping the floors, scrubbing the bathrooms and the kitchen, dusting every room and nook and cranny, though rarely to my mother’s satisfaction. After the house cleaner had finished her tasks, I often found my mother wiping the walls with a vinegar-soaked rag. Scratches and red patches on her knuckles were telltale signs that she’d been on her hands and knees, rescrubbing the bathroom floor.

My shoes made no sound as I approached my mother’s room and knocked lightly, hoping she was asleep.

“Justine, is that you?” she called out.

I tiptoed inside, feeling a familiar wave of guilt over the fact that I didn’t actually want to see or speak with her. The room was dim, but I could make out my mother’s silhouette as she sat up in bed. Her nightgown reflected the light streaming through the gaps in the heavy white curtains.

She was holding a notepad. I immediately recognized her old-fashioned calligraphic script, with its precise bends and curves. I couldn’t make out the words in the shadowy light, but I saw deep indentations in the thinly lined paper, along with dark smudges and small tears where it looked like a pencil might have broken.

She turned the notepad toward me, and a splash of morning light illuminated the page. Each line contained a name, written over and over, with the same unwavering precision. It was a name I had never heard before, and would not hear again for many years.

Dorothy Soames Dorothy Soames Dorothy Soames





I didn’t love my mother, but I cried when she died.

Twenty-five years had passed since I left California and moved into an adult life that kept my mother at arm’s length, and I’d made it to her bedside with hours to spare. Her battle with Alzheimer’s had been lengthy, but at the end her decline was swift. In a matter of months the disease had transformed my mother into a soon-to-be corpse that bore little resemblance to the woman who had raised me. Gone was the imposing figure who radiated nervous energy and was rarely at rest. Any idle moment would be spent flitting around the house, tidying up invisible clutter. Even while sitting still, shoulders square, her spine barely touching the back of her chair, she would fiddle with her fingers or pick nervously at the skin on her arms until she bled. Now, no longer able to speak or move as she slipped in and out of consciousness, her arms sank into the thin hospital blanket like leaden stumps, her contorted fingers curved under her bent wrists.

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