The Lost Girls of Willowbrook

Sage Winters, a teenage girl living on Staten Island with her stepdad in 1971, overhears a conversation that sends her world into a tailspin and will forever change the course of her life.  Her mother, who died in a car accident a few years ago, originally told her that her mentally ill, twin sister, Rosemary, died of pneumonia 6 years ago.  She is distraught to find out that her sister was, instead, sent to the Willowbrook State School (an underfunded, understaffed, and inhumane insane asylum disguised as a school).

But, that’s not all.  Rosemary is missing from Willowbrook, and the staff has no idea where she has gone.  Fearing that she was Cropsey’s, Staten Island’s serial killer’s, latest victim, she sneaks away from her already tumultuous life and boards a bus to Willowbrook hoping to find out more information about her sister and fill in the gaps from the past 6 years.

Her trip to Willowbrook is doomed from the start, but things become more complicated when she arrives at the “School” and is instantly mistaken for Rosemary.  Nobody believes her claims to be Sage, and she is forced to become a patient at Willowbrook.

Her worst nightmares would never have prepared her for the horror that is in store for her.

Her quest for knowledge immediately becomes a quest for survival.

When an up and coming reporter (none other than the real Geraldo Rivera) sneaks into Willowbrook and exposes the atrocities happening behind the scenes, Sage sees her chance at freedom.  However, she starts to realize that after what she has experienced, she may never be free again.

Why I read it: Recommendation in online book group

Trigger warnings: Language, mental illness, physical/mental/psychological abuse, rape, murder, captivity

WOW.  Just, wow.  I randomly saw a brief exposé on the anniversary of the release of Geraldo’s original documentary, but I didn’t realize everything that had happened.  I had NO idea.  This book is a compilation of real people and real experiences, and each character is based on a real person (even down to Cropsey).

I was impressed at the research done by the author to write a book like this.  I learned so much, and it made me so uncomfortable and disturbed.  It made me realize how much things have changed since the 1970’s in terms of mental health and caring for people with disabilities.

I went down a huge rabbit hole the night I finished this book (I read this in less than 24 hours), and I watched Geraldo’s original documentary, and 2 other documentaries (one that was made in 1997 and was showcasing a few survivors and their families), and another one on Netflix that focused on Cropsey and his connection with Willowbrook (horrifying).  Unfortunately, these are the only documentaries that I could find on Willowbrook.  For those interested in learning more about this, take a look at the author’s afterward because she lists other books written about Willowbrook.

I thought the author told the story so well, and I was hooked from the beginning.  I read a few reviews that said some people DNF (did not finish) because it was too slow (although this opinion was very much in the minority).  I could not disagree more.  The first chapter very much set the stage and told the story of Sage’s life from the beginning.  The information disclosed in this chapter is very important in understanding the rest of the book.  I did not find it slow, and I certainly found it necessary.

I will be looking up other books by this author.  I loved it so much and learned a lot.

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