You don’t need to have read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to know that mental institutions in the ’60s weren’t happy places. Built to inhabit those who didn’t conform to the strict rules of society at the time, mental institutes were a mix of underperforming schoolchildren, truanting teens, and anarchic adults – most of whom were not mentally deficient in the slightest, but simply those who went against “the system”.
One of those patients was 19-year-old Julie Mannix. The daughter of extremely wealthy parents – her father, Daniel P. Mannix, wrote the book the Fox and the Hound which was later adapted by Disney for the screen – the young debutante from Philadelphia had her life mapped out for her. Her parent’s expected their beautiful blonde daughter to marry a rich man, but instead, she fell “madly” in love with a young Jewish boy from the Bronx in New York City, called Frank von Zernceck. But the 23-year-old did not meet the approval of her parents. To add further scandal, during a trip to the family gynecologist it was discovered that the teen was pregnant. Rather than discuss the situation with Julie, the doctor went directly to her parents who were horrified by the news that their unmarried daughter was pregnant with the child of a boy they thought unworthy. Not only that, but it later transpired that Frank was married. “Just like that, the life I’d known suddenly came to a halt,” Julie recalls. Concerned about how the story would affect the family’s reputation, Julie’s parents devised a drastic plan to deter any unfavorable rumors from surfacing. Diagnosing their daughter as “severely depressed” they committed her to a psychiatric facility where they planned for her to have a secret abortion. It’s important to note that at this point, that until 1973 abortion was illegal in the US, unless the mother or child’s health were at risk – something Julie’s parents had ensured was the case by having her diagnosed “severely depressed.” Determined not to go through with the procedure, Julie fought for her baby’s life. “Although my mother was a staunch Catholic, she had so convinced herself that an abortion would save my future that she was able to justify an act she normally would have abhorred,” she explained to Redbook magazine.
“Much to everyone’s dismay, I wouldn’t sign the papers to authorize the procedure. I held out even after they moved me to the state hospital. I didn’t object to abortion on moral grounds; I just desperately wanted my child — a baby conceived in love, with a man I loved — to live. I had no idea what would happen to my baby, or to me, as a result of my decision. But I’d never felt such conviction before.” “The mental hospital was my punishment for refusing to have an abortion,” Julie explained. “Being betrayed so horrifically by my family — and Frank, I couldn’t even think about Frank — shattered me.” During her six months in the mental facility, Julie thought about her child’s future. “I began to think of what I would want for my daughter when she was born: a mother, a father, a home, a room of her own, and a happy, ordinary life,” was what Julie lusted after, but these dreams made her realize something.”I knew I couldn’t give her any of those things,” she explained painfully.
“I was held in the state hospital for six months, until the day my water broke. On April 19, 1964, at a Catholic Charities hospital near Philadelphia, I gave birth to a beautiful and healthy little girl. I was allowed to see her only once, from five feet away, before I gave her up. I named her Aimee Veronica. Aimee means “loved”, Veronica means “bearer of victory.” As I signed the adoption papers, my heart ripped apart. I put down the pen, turned away, and, on shaky legs, I left my baby behind.”
“I thought of Aimee constantly in the decades that followed. My longing for her triggered a series of deep depressions, which would come on quickly and linger for weeks; the passing years never softened them … There was nothing to do but pray that she was with a good family and growing up loved.”
However, during this time a small ray of light appeared in Julie’s life. “Frank divorced his wife while I was institutionalized. He had called and written me daily, but all attempts at contact were thwarted by my parents,” explains Julie. “After giving up Aimee, I moved to New York to become an actress, and Frank and I began seeing each other again. On January 15, 1965, we were married.” When her parents found out what their daughter had done, she was “unsurprisingly, disinherited.” Frank and Julie would go on to have another two children together: Danielle, born in 1965 (a year after Aimee was born) and Frank Jr. born in 1968. Despite being clueless as to the whereabouts of their first child, they celebrated her birth each year. “Every year on April 19, Frank and I celebrated Aimee’s birthday, the date of which we had engraved on the inside of our wedding rings,” Julie writes. However, Frank and Julie wouldn’t always be in the dark about the daughter they unwillingly put up for adoption, for Aimee was to find them. Except, she wasn’t Aimee when they reunited. Kathleen Marie Wisler had enjoyed a charmed childhood, growing up with a middle-class family who adored her in Florida. “It was as if I had been dropped into the first chapter of a fairy tale,” she explains, before adding: “but we all know how fairy tales go.” Sadly, Kathy’s adoptive mother passed away when she was six-years-old after losing her battle to cancer. Four years later, her adoptive father would remarry a woman 16 years his junior, adopting her two daughters in the process. “The marriage was a disaster from the start,” Kathy recalls. “There were constant fights about money — and really, everything else.” It was during this turbulent time that Kathy learned that she was adopted after her step-sister spat “At least I’m not really adopted,” during a row. Confused and hurt by this news, Kathy waited for her father to come home. But, when she asked him if it were true he simply replied: “I thought you knew. Your brothers are adopted, too.” “I’ve never thought of you as anything but my daughter,” he said. “I’ll never forget the day Mom and I went to the hospital to get you. You were crying so hard, but then — ” he smiled, “they handed you to Mom and you stopped. You knew you belonged with us. You’re my daughter, kiddo.” Kathy’s life would only get more chaotic as time went on. Her father divorced his second wife two years later and the family lost their home after her dad was laid off from his job. “Somehow, the descent into poverty pulled my family closer together,” Kathy recalls. In 1986, she graduated from high school and began to work at a stock brokerage firm, where she reconnected with her high-school boyfriend Brian Hatfield, whom she married two years later. Whilst walking his daughter down the aisle, Kathy’s dad leaned in to whisper: “Mom would be proud of the woman you’ve become.” It wasn’t until Kathy had two children of her own that she began to think about her birth mother. Noticing differences in their genetics and characteristics, Kathy couldn’t help but speculate that her two daughters had inherited their blue eyes and agility from her own parents.
“I wrote a letter to Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia requesting my background information. Three weeks later a large white envelope arrived. I held it for nearly a minute before slicing it open and pulling out the document. First, there was the information about my mother: age 20, Catholic, 5-foot-4, blonde hair. And yes, blue eyes. Then my father: age 23, Jewish, 5-foot-6, black hair.”
“I had only envisioned a mother, and the thought of my birth father rattled me. I read his information again. ‘Special Aptitudes: singing, dancing, acting.’ He’s gay, I immediately thought. For her it was first love; for him it was an experimental fling; for me it was bad timing.
I imagined my rejected, pregnant mother turning to the nuns at Catholic Social Services, then leaving me behind to start a quiet life in a predictable town where she would regretfully live out the rest of her days. I felt guilty for picturing her in such a cheerless light.” “I slid the form back in the envelope, along with any desire to find my birth parents. I just wasn’t ready. And that didn’t change three years later, when my father died and I found my adoption papers among his things. I just felt orphaned and alone.” “Then one day, while sorting through some files, I came across that envelope from Catholic Social Services. It had been 10 years since I’d looked at it last. Armed with it and the birth name, Aimee Veronica Mannix, that was on my adoption papers, I turned to Google.”
After a quick search online, Kathy discovered the New York Times obituary for Daniel Pratt Mannix IV, her biological grandfather, who’d died in 1997. From that she learned that he had a daughter, named Julie.
“I searched Julie Mannix, which led me to the Internet Movie Database [IMDB]. The Julie Mannix now in front of me was an actress with a career dating back to the mid-’60s who had married a television producer named Frank von Zerneck in 1965, the year after I was born.”
However, this discovery only served to torture Kathy who told herself, “they’re fine without you.” But, she couldn’t stop herself from renting the film La Bamba after learning that her potential biological sister featured in it. “‘Look,’ I said to Bryan as I watched Danielle, ‘we have the same smile, same laugh, same way we tilt our heads’,” she recalls. The next day Kathy wrote a letter to Frank and Julie, which she posted in November 2008:
“How do I begin a letter like this? Well, I think I’ll simply just start with: I was born on April 19, 1964, in Philadelphia. Based on the documents Catholic Social Services provided me, I find it plausible that you may know some information concerning my birth family…. It is not my intention to interrupt their lives; I simply want to connect on any level they feel comfortable.” Two days later she received a call from Julie, who she explained everything to, from how her mother had died when she was six to how she was married with two children. Once she had finished, Julie spoke; “‘Kathy—,’ she said, with a tenderness that filled me with hope, ‘I’m your mother’.” Eight months later, after sharing several photographs and emails, they arranged to meet at the Ritz-Carlton in New York City, where Kathy had been conceived.
“I enter through the double doors. Every seat in the lounge is taken. Scanning the crowd for her, I try not to panic. I calm my nerves with a self-audit, smoothing my trousers and touching each piece of jewelry: earrings, necklace, wedding ring. I feel a gloved hand tap my shoulder. ‘Madam, are you meeting someone?’ the doorman asks.
“I turn and look over my shoulder to see her. It’s like looking at my own eyes staring back at me. ‘Kathy,’ she says, asking yet knowing. I can only smile in response. She steps toward me with open arms, and for the first time, I feel the embrace of my mother.
The incredible story has now been adapted to a book, Secret Storms, which tells the tale in more detail. But, even with limited knowledge, it’s a heartbreaking story. But, as Kathy said, it had a fairytale ending! We wish Julie and her family the best of luck for the future now that they’re reunited and whole again.