Sheila O’Connor’s books have garnered enthusiastic reviews and prestigious awards. But the creative writing professor at Hamline University in St. Paul is hoping for a different reaction to her sixth book, “Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts and Fictions.”
She hopes it will be a lightning rod to draw other people like her, whose families were scarred by trauma, secrecy and a juvenile legal system that punished girls deemed “incorrigible” or “immoral.”
Although a work of fiction, the book was inspired by her grandmother, who was incarcerated as a teen at the Minnesota Home School for Girls in Sauk Centre for being pregnant.
Because girls’ records were sealed and families often kept their stories hidden out of shame, what took place at the Sauk Centre school and others like it around the country has largely gone untold.
“I have this dream that people will come forward. And that a more thorough story can be born out of this small story in fragments,” said O’Connor, who lives in Edina.
She also hopes it might bring her more clarity about her grandmother’s life.
O’Connor never knew her maternal grandmother — she only knew that her mother was adopted and that her birth certificate read simply “Sauk Centre.” About two decades ago, she shared that fact with a historian.
“As soon as I said, ‘Sauk Centre,’ he said, ‘There was a girls’ institution there. She may have been there.’ And he said, ‘Those records are at the Minnesota History Center,’ ” O’Connor said. “My heart was just racing. It took me a couple of weeks to get the courage to call.”
‘Stunned and horrified’
When she did call, she learned that yes, they were able to locate records connected to her mother’s 1935 birth at the Minnesota Home School for Girls in Sauk Centre. But the records were sealed — until 2035.
After O’Connor’s mother successfully petitioned the court to unseal the documents, she and O’Connor went to the Minnesota History Center’s Gale Family Library in St. Paul. They spent hours poring over the slim case file, learning that O’Connor’s grandmother was 15 and pregnant when she was committed until age 21.
“I can’t even describe the feeling of being both speechless and stunned and horrified,” O’Connor said. “What could she have done to have been sentenced for six years? For a pregnancy?”
O’Connor broadened her search to try to understand why girls were so severely punished for noncriminal offenses such as truancy, “incorrigibility” (refusing to listen to adult authority), “immorality” or “sex delinquency” (which often meant they had become a victim of sexual assault) as juveniles.
She found that it was common for girls as young as 8 to be sentenced until age 21 to be “reformed.”
She also learned that her mother had lived at the facility as an infant, and was breast-fed by her mother for three months before she was adopted — a common practice at the school. And that her grandmother was paroled, but later escaped.
“But I didn’t understand, what was parole? Where was she? How did she escape?” O’Connor said. Some answers came from a 1938 study of juvenile institutions that O’Connor unearthed.
That study, which included a detailed report on the Sauk Centre school, revealed the domestic training that led girls to be “paroled” as a nanny or maid for a wealthy family, the special cottages that housed the “pregnant and feeble-minded” and corporal punishments such as “tubbing,” where girls were forcibly dunked in cold water.
She threads these gritty details through “Evidence of V,” sometimes quoting directly from the study.
A ‘checkered’ past
Relatively little is known about girls’ reformatories, which were once found in nearly every state.
The Minnesota Home School for Girls, which dates to 1911, housed about 160 at a time. But documents involving an “illegitimate birth” were sealed for 100 years, while other inmate records were kept closed for nearly as long.
In 1992, the made-for-TV movie “A Child Lost Forever: The Jerry Sherwood Story” told the story of a mother’s tragic search for the baby she said she was coerced into surrendering as a teen resident at Minnesota Home School for Girls.
When the state sold the Sauk Centre school’s buildings in 2002, the Star Tribune published a look back at the school’s “checkered” history, and included a resident’s poem from decades earlier that began:
“I live in a house called torture and pain, it’s made of materials called sorrow and shame.”
O’Connor found and visited the tiny cottage where her mother was born (now a private home). But she eventually decided that she didn’t have enough information to write the sweeping historical novel she once imagined. And she realized that it was impossible to get a true picture of her grandmother’s life.
Most of the documents she uncovered were told from the perspective of wardens and school officials, describing how happy the girls were to be there, and what an excellent opportunity it was for them to learn how to become domestic workers.
The records she found detailing the high number of girls who tried to escape offset these claims, she said.
“That, to me, read like fiction,” she said. “That was one of the things I really wanted to take up [in the book]. What is true, and what isn’t true. There are all kinds of facts in the book, folded into fiction. And some of the facts read more fictional than the fiction itself.”
So, instead of hewing to a traditional narrative structure, “Evidence of V” layers quotes from legal documents as well as slivers of O’Connor’s family history as it relates the story of a teenage singer (called only by the letter V) who is incarcerated for being pregnant.
But while V’s trajectory was inspired by the few details O’Connor gathered about her grandmother’s life, the character is fictional, as is the story that O’Connor invented for her.
One girl, thousands of girls
“She’s one girl, and she’s thousands of girls,” O’Connor said. “I could have called her anything, because there are so many people for whom this would be their story.”
The book’s details rang all too true for Lisa Pasko, a criminology professor at the University of Denver who studies girls and the juvenile justice system.
Pasko said that current treatment of for girls, especially drug offenders, often involves “moral” redevelopment instead of addressing the effects of trauma. Historically and today, about two-thirds of girls have experienced sexual violence before coming into a facility, she said.
“As much as things change, they don’t,” Pasko said. “That’s why I found [O’Connor’s] book really interesting, to me, because it really resonated — not just what I learned in what I write about historically, but what I hear from girls today.”
For O’Connor, whose mother died recently, this story goes beyond the book.
And the story isn’t finished yet.
“This feels to me like something that this state needs to reckon with, what happened to these girls and what was done to them,” she said.
“I think, for all kinds of reasons, we need to look back and take a hard look at this and say, ‘What went on in America during this time? And how is that continuing today? What lessons have we learned and what lessons have we failed to learn?’
“What does this say about this country’s feelings about women, about girls, about female sexuality, about the narrow social expectations for girls and women?”