I lived in an asylum that was turned into a children’s institution and is said to be haunted by its horrific past.

When I go down the internet rabbit hole of my past, I don’t seek out exes or girls who bullied me in eighth grade. I instead look for things that really evil: the group home I was in during my junior year of high school, which is now someone’s house; residential campus near the beach that closed in an abuse scandal; and DeJarnette, the state-run children’s institution now listed as the most haunted asylum in Virginia.

I lived in DeJarnette as a stopover when I was 14, relatively new to the foster care system, waiting for a bed to open up in long-term care. A quick search for DeJarnette pulls up dozens of Ghostbusters-like videos that show the usual fare: intrepid explorers with flashlights and ghost-tracking gear entering a menacing, abandoned brick building.

The white two-story columns at the front almost seem to glow in the dark. The rows of windows flanking the entrance are boarded up, giving the facade an eerie appearance. Inside, someone insists they saw a shadow move. Another shouts that they felt a cold draft. If you’ve seen a haunted night urban exploration video, you’ve seen them all.

The difference is that I walked those halls. I recognize the once large arches that frame the doorways. When the adventurers come to the corridor of the bedrooms and sweep their flashlights along the graffitied walls, I always wonder which one was mine.

The facility, originally known as DeJarnette State Sanitarium, was founded in 1932 by Dr. Joseph DeJarnette. He had been in the sanitarium business since 1906, before managing a colony for people with epilepsy and those he referred to as feeble-minded. In the 1920s, he petitioned the Virginia state government to pass a law allowing compulsory sterilization. His lobbying worked. He targeted those he called “defective” and the “weak”.

In addition to people of color, he forcibly sterilized single mothers, alcoholics, those with mental disorders and epilepsy, the poor, and the incarcerated. He was reported to have close ties to Hitler and the Nazis. In 1938, the United States was said to have sterilized over 27,000 people at his behest.

He was expelled from the center in the early 1940s. The building was converted into a children’s psychiatric hospital in 1975 when Virginia took over.

Dr. Joe’s evil spirit is said to walk the halls. Some say they have heard children’s voices in the dark, or moans and other sounds from the former patients reported to have died due to medical experiments.

I doubt the teenagers who once lived there knew about Dr. DeJarnette by name. I was not. However, the building’s ties to eugenics were among the first things new kids learned about the center.

“Why did they do that?” I asked the assigned girl to show me around on my first day after she filled me in on the history of the building.

“They think your kids will end up like you,” she said. “If we don’t have babies, there will be less of us and more of them.” I wasn’t quite sure what more of them meant, but I understood fewer of us. Lace of me.

Despite DeJarnette’s imposing presence and terrifying history, few memories of my time there match the building’s ghostly reputation.

Once a week we made sandwiches to sell to the staff. I learned how to cook bacon for the BLTs that were on the menu. I was clumsy in the kitchen; I left home at 13 and hadn’t made much for myself except microwavable foods and things I could graze on. A DeJarnette advisor showed me how to get the flames on a gas stove just right and what to look for when bacon is done.

Sandwiches were made assembly-line style, with each child doing a single job dozens of times. During the week I was on mayonnaise duty, I learned that you should spread spices on the edges of the bread. I looked at the disc in my hand. Mayo was a bumpy globe. I distributed it evenly and proudly fixed all the insufficient slices.

I lived in DeJarnette in the winter. The holiday was approaching. It was my first Christmas in the system. I was learning the ropes, but I was still hopeful for Christmas presents, even though I wasn’t sure where they would come from.

A woman from a local church came to pick up our Christmas wish cards.

“You can have anything you want as long as it’s less than $10,” she told us.

My expectations were consistently low back then. I fixated on the sentence everything you want. There were endless options at that price point. I had started stealing cards before I left home. I was well aware of the amount of stuff for less than $10 that you can easily throw into a baggy pants pocket. I asked for a Def Leppard tape though, thinking about the luxury. Tapes were hard to shoplift. All mine had been left behind. I failed to consider that I also no longer had my boom box.

We celebrated Christmas in the living room after lunch. I was thrilled to receive my tape, even though I didn’t have a way to listen to it. I knew I wanted to leave DeJarnette as soon as my social worker found a long-term arrangement for me. The tape symbolized hope and the belief that one day I would have a tape player again.

The author during the time she was in foster care.
The author during the time she was in foster care.

Photo courtesy of TJ Butler

I do not have children. I never wanted them even when I was younger. However, there is a big gap between choosing not to have children and someone taking that choice away from you.

Even as society began to condemn Dr. Joe’s ideology, he was a vocal proponent of the practice until his death in 1957. The United States was changing, and by the late 70s eugenics was considered discriminatory and offensive. Despite progressive attitudes, Virginia continued compulsory sterilization until 1979.

Eugenics allowed a stranger to decide what kind of person you were and what side of more of them and fewer of us you fell on. Most of us agree that this is an offensive, abhorrent concept. We like to think that we have gone further than such a belief. Yet the fight for reproductive freedom continues today.

October can be a spooky month. A few nights ago, I made a cup of tea and plopped down on my couch to watch DeJarnette’s latest Ghostbusters videos. I didn’t mind indulging in the rabbit hole as Halloween approaches. But I would never go there after dark. I am not afraid of the spirit of the lost children, Dr. Joe’s many victims, and even Dr. Joe himself, who all roam the halls, according to the videos. Instead, I’m afraid of stepping on a nail or cutting myself on rusty metal. At my age, I worry about more practical things.

In the world of foster care, certain places focus on children who will age out of the system instead of ever going home. I was one of those kids. I left DeJarnette in the spring when a bed opened up for me at a long-term care facility.

I don’t have typical teenage memories of homecoming dances, first dates, sweet 16, or getting a driver’s license. I like to think I have something better; I got through the system and didn’t become a statistic. I am thriving today and that is worth far more than the girl I was then would have asked for.

Some people believe that decades of past experiences and emotions can leave residual energy in a place. Perhaps this is partly what the ghost hunters are looking for. Because when you consider the collective traumas and experiences of all those who spent time in the hollow, state-run institution, there was plenty of ghosting going on. They weren’t ghosts though. It was us.

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