A surprise, then a secret, then a sister

Review Memoir


Secret Girl

Molly Bruce Jacobs

St. Martin's Press / 232 pages / $22.95

Molly Bruce Jacobs was 13 years old when her parents first told her she had a younger sister named Anne who was in an institution. She was 38 when she met Anne for the first time, and 48 when Anne died in 2002.

Now she tells Anne's story in Secret Girl, a compelling and disturbing page-turner that lays bare the secrets of a privileged Maryland family.

Anne was the elder of twin girls born in 1957 to Bradford Jacobs, who would become the editorial-page editor of the Evening Sun, and his wife, the former Molly Carter Bruce of the Maryland and Virginia Bruces, related by blood or marriage to a broad swath of the old WASP elite.

Anne had hydrocephalus - too much fluid on the brain. In those days, before shunts were used to divert the excess fluid, a child with hydrocephalus would likely die from pressure on the brain or become mentally impaired.

The doctors told Anne's parents they did not think she would live. Anne was placed in a group home for infants.

But Anne managed to live. At age 4, when her caregiver could no longer keep Anne, her parents insisted that the girl, who was mentally impaired but otherwise healthy, be admitted to Rosewood, the state hospital in Owings Mills.

Molly Bruce Jacobs, a former Baltimore lawyer who lives in Delaware, was given access to Rosewood's files on her younger sister. Among other things, the records detail the refusal of both parents to consider having their disabled daughter at home.

"They feel they have developed a style of living that does not leave room for Anne," said one report. " ... The idea of a separate room and help at home for Anne was also ruled out as being too intrusive into the family circle."

Half a century ago, it was not unusual for a disabled child to be placed in an institution. Bradford Jacobs would later tell the author, who is known as Brucie, that he believed, "Anne was better off at Rosewood. She was with her own kind there." He said that having Anne at home would have been too great a strain for her mother, as well as a trial for Brucie, three years older than Anne, and Sally, Anne's twin. Few people outside the Jacobs family appear to have known of Anne's existence.

Indeed, Brucie and Sally Jacobs did not learn about Anne until 1967, when their father told them during a family vacation in California. Both girls were shocked. "I was relieved that Anne would remain a family secret," Jacobs writes. "I was still wrapped up in the naive belief that I was something of a princess ... entitled to glamorous pleasures in a world that did not accept the likes of Anne."

Anne was at Rosewood for almost two decades. She seldom saw her parents, who lived not far away in Green Spring Valley.

At 23, Anne moved to a supervised group home for adults in Baltimore, and it was there that Brucie Jacobs met Anne.

By then, Jacobs was a divorced mother of two who had struggled again and again with alcoholism. She had a strained relationship with her parents, especially her mother. She had given up her legal career. She was in therapy, and during one session she found herself blurting out the secret of Anne's existence.

"I told him that I'd known about Anne since I was thirteen, but had never gone to see her," she writes. "I explained that my parents rarely spoke of Anne and had minimal contact with her. She lived her life, and we lived ours. ... I found myself telling him the bits and pieces that I knew about my sister, and I couldn't have been more surprised when, at the end of the session, I suddenly announced that I was going to see her."

Three days later, she visited Anne for the first time. There followed more visits over the next decade. Sometimes Jacobs brought her sister home with her for short stays.

Anne becomes Secret Girl's saving grace, a loud, funny, forgiving soul who liked flowers, magazines and the color red. She explained away her family's lengthy absences from her life by claiming they were on vacation. When they did show up, she would exclaim, "I missed you, buddy." She was always eager for presents, for signs that somebody cared about her.

Anne's unfiltered, boisterous way had nothing in common with the reserved Jacobses. One Christmas, when Anne was visiting, Jacobs invited her parents over, and it quickly became chaos. Anne, shrieking with delight, began dancing with an umbrella, singing louder and louder, "Shakin' my bootie ... I'm shakin' my bootie." The high-decibel wailing was too much for their mother, who commanded Anne to stop. "The room was silent as a chapel," Jacobs writes. "Anne froze. Looking dumbfounded, she stared at our parents. `I'll be good,' she said, her voice pleading. `I won't cry.'"

Secret Girl is a profoundly sad story. Long ago, a couple made a choice that, to them and the standards of the time, seemed appropriate, and stuck with it as the world changed around them. Bradford Jacobs died in 1997, but his widow is still living, to face whatever judgment readers of this book will care to render. Neither she nor Sally, a reporter at the Boston Globe, welcomed the book. Brucie Jacobs, in bringing the story to light, presumably achieves some kind of closure.


Harry Merritt is The Sun's lifestyle editor.

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