RED WING -- The genesis of Sheila O’Connor’s most recent book, “Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions,” had nothing to do with writing a book. Instead, O’Connor was working to research her maternal grandmother’s life.
“The book is actually inspired by the story of my grandmother who was incarcerated at the age of 15 for being pregnant with my mother,” explained O’Connor.
O’Connor’s grandmother is one of the thousands of women from the first half of the 20th century who experienced a piece of American history that was nearly forgotten before O’Connor published her book.
Through years of research and convincing the court to unseal her grandmother’s file, O’Connor learned about “home schools” where girls and young women were sent when they were out of line with societal norms and expectations for women.
“The number one reason the girls were incarcerated at that time was immorality,” O’Connor explained.
When asked what fell under the definition of “immoral,” O’Connor explained that there was no black-and-white definition and that girls could be sent away to a “home” even if they were “in danger of becoming immoral.”
Now, being immoral was never a crime, which is made apparent by the fact that it was almost always only women who were classified as committing this social sin. The records of women sent to “homes” are very few in number. However, those that O’Connor has found or that have been shared with her show a high frequency of rape resulting in pregnancy.
According to O’Connor’s research, girls who were charged with immorality were brought before a judge (all of whom were male at the time) and he decided if they were to be sent to a “home.”
Once a girl was sent away, she was there until she was 18. Upon turning 18 she was sent to work as a servant in a house of an unknown family until she reached 21. Then she could leave the system. If she tried to escape before she was allowed to leave, she had to spend more time in the “home.”
O’Connor’s grandmother was 15 when she was declared immoral. Her crime? Being pregnant with O’Connor’s mother.
When she gave birth, her daughter was adopted.
While 15 is a young age to be sent away from family and everything that you know, there were many girls much younger in "homes." The youngest girl convicted of immorality that O’Connor found was only 8 years old.
When O’Connor first saw her grandmother’s records after the court released them she was stunned.
“I never found a strong enough word for what I felt,” she explained.
Since learning about her grandmother’s life, O’Connor has been working to find other stories about these "homes" but available information is nearly impossible to find.
“It was like hunting for the most minute and infrequent bread crumbs you can imagine,” O’Connor said while describing her research process.
Even now when this topic is searched online almost every hit is related to O’Connor’s book and interviews that she has done about the project.
When asked why this piece of history is so obscure and forgotten, the author paused and explained:
“I think it’s an important conversation, and I think it goes to the power of shame. They made these girls think that they had something to be ashamed of. … whether they had been a victim of abuse, a victim of rape.”
When girls were convicted of immorality they did not have the opportunity to defend themselves or talk to their community members so people assumed that the girls who disappeared had done something terrible that was worthy of the punishment.
“There was never any opportunity for the girl to have told their story,” stressed O’Connor. She then later explained:
“And that is the power of erasure and erasing what had happened to these women and their stories.”
O’Connor will be speaking at the Red Wing Public Library on Saturday, Feb. 29.
While here she will talk about the research process for this book as well as this piece of history that has been forgotten by so many.
O’Connor will also talk about the connection that these “homes” have with Red Wing.
According to the author, girls in and around Minnesota who were sent away were originally sent to and held in Red Wing.
Girls were housed in the city until a “home” designated for them was built in Sauk Centre, Minn.
While this process of hunting for stories, information and people who knew about or experienced life in these “homes” took years, O’Connor continued to search. She said:
“I believed that there was a real mission to this work and that it had to be told. I have heard from so many people in various connections to this school really very grateful to this story being told.”
If you go ...
Who: Sheila O’Connor
What: author event
Where: Red Wing Public Library
When: 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 29