10/29/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT
The childhood images are fleeting, obscured in a half-century haze, but Jeff Daly still feels the special bond he shared with his baby sister Molly Jo. He can still hear her squeals of delight when he'd roll a rubber ball across the floor or run in circles around her playpen in their Astoria, Ore., home. And he still remembers that night at the family beach house. "It was dark, it was just the two of us, and she started crying," says Daly, now 56. "I picked her up and put her to bed with me to keep her warm. She stopped crying and went to sleep."
Then, one day in early May 1957, the memories stopped. It might have been breakfast time when he noticed, or at dinner—Daly can't recall. But Molly was gone. Just vanished. Without a word. And her 5-year-old brother was devastated. "Jeff clung to my leg, crying and asking, 'Where's Molly?'" remembers family friend Beverly Smith, 80. "She was my playmate, my friend, my sister," Daly says, recalling that day. "Where was Molly?"
He received no answer. In fact, Daly says, his mother, Sue, forbade any talk of Molly in the house—even the mention of her name—effectively erasing the nearly 3-year-old's existence. For decades the laughing little girl remained a haunting mystery for Daly, but it wasn't until his father's death three years ago that he finally felt free to set out to find her. As Daly, a network freelance cameraman, tells it in his documentary Where's Molly?, which premiered earlier this year at the Portland International Film Festival, it was an emotional quest, and a costly one, even ruining his relationship with his brother Tim. But in the end it gave him back the sister he lost so long ago.
As it turned out, Molly was one of tens of thousands of American children with physical or mental handicaps in the 1950s and 1960s who were sent to institutions for life, often with little or no further contact from their families (see box). In Molly's case, she had a clubfoot, a wandering right eye—ultimately rendered blind after unsuccessful cataract surgery—and may have been mentally disabled. And while the decision to send her away was not unusual in those days—doctors recommended institutionalization as the best way to help disabled children and to relieve families of the burden of care—Daly still seethes, maintaining that his perfectionist mother couldn't stand a flawed child. "I don't have a lot of love for my mother," Daly says. "Looking at pictures of my sister, it seems nothing's wrong. I don't understand how Molly had to go away. I don't understand how she became such a family secret."
For the first few years of Daly's life, his family seemed to live the American dream. Raven-haired Sue, a onetime child model, met her husband, Jack, at the University of Oregon. As he started up the ladder at Bumble Bee seafood brand, they bought a three-story house in Astoria. Jeff was born in 1951, and then on May 10, 1954, Sue gave birth to Molly Jo. Daly recalls little of those days with Molly, but Smith attests, "He adored her. He'd play ball with her for hours, or put his hand in a sock and make a puppet for her. I thought, 'Isn't Sue lucky to have a boy that crazy about his younger sister?'"
Instead, Sue seemed fixated on her daughter's defects. Medical records show that despite physical problems, Molly seemed to be developing normally. But they also note her mother's observation that she was "slow." In fact Sue took Molly to a psychiatrist in October 1955, but the child was not diagnosed. At 2, Molly was "speaking a few words," according to her records. But soon after, a second psychiatrist diagnosed her "profoundly retarded with an IQ of 50." Daly questions that assessment: "I think my mother didn't get the diagnosis she wanted from the first psychiatrist, so she found another one."
And so, just before her third birthday, an aunt and uncle picked Molly up, drove her to the rambling Oregon Fairview Home in Salem—and out of Daly's life. At first, Jeff was full of questions: Where's Molly? Why did she go away? "Whenever I asked," he says, "I was sent to my room." While Daly's dad put in long hours at the office, it was Sue who made the rules at home; if Jack Daly ever objected to Sue's moratorium on the subject of Molly, he never said a word about it in front of Jeff. Daly doesn't recall exactly when or how he learned Molly had been sent to Fairview, just that it became "common knowledge"—and caused him considerable anxiety about his own place in the family. "I had glasses, I couldn't count well, I wasn't perfect," he says. "What if they sent me away?"
Molly's absence transformed the household. "My parents dramatically changed their lifestyle," Daly says. "Friends and family who asked about Molly were no longer welcome. I remember going to the grocery store and dodging people in the aisles to avoid questions." Holiday photos reflect a stark contrast. "The year before Molly left, there's a 7-ft. tree, hundreds of gifts—she's surrounded by wrapping and boxes. The next year it's me with a tiny tree. Molly's gone and Christmas is gone."
Life brightened when Sue gave birth to Tim at the end of 1958. "The relatives came back, Christmas came back, we were a family again," Daly says. Yet he welcomed his new brother warily. "I remember thinking, 'He might get shipped out. Don't get too attached.'"
As time passed, so did Daly's thoughts of Molly. But things started to change when a curious Tim, then 30, visited Fairview in 1989. "My mother told me if I did the same," Jeff says, "I would not be in the family anymore."
In the '90s, because of conditions at the facility, the state began closing down Fairview and placing its patients in group homes; without Sue's consent, Daly couldn't have found Molly if he'd tried. Then living in Larkspur, near San Francisco, in 1994, Daly got a group letter from former high school classmate Cindy Simonsen. They met for drinks, and the talk hit a nerve. "What happened to your sister?" Cindy asked. Daly was speechless—no one had asked about Molly in 30 years. "He said, 'I have no idea,'" Cindy recalls, "and that I shouldn't talk about it."
They started dating and wed in 1996, set up house in Larkspur and bought a beach home in Oregon. In 2003 Sue died from complications related to throat cancer—Molly wasn't mentioned in her obituary in the local paper. After Sue's death, Daly grew close to his father, but decided to wait until the right moment to ask about Molly. But within a few months Jack had a heart attack. Before his death in January 2004, "he'd cry and say, 'I was a horrible father,'" Daly recalls. "He wouldn't say why. I wondered if he needed to talk about Molly."
Going through Jack's effects, Daly found a slip of paper in his wallet with Molly's birth date and Social Security number. "I believe my father knew we'd find that card—that he wanted us to find Molly." Then, in the back of Jack's office closet, pay dirt: a file with details of Molly's life—letters, papers, addresses and phone numbers. Cindy began making calls, going down the list until she reached Washington Court, a group home in Hillsboro, Ore. "I asked the person who answered if they knew Molly Jo Daly," she remembers. "There was a pause, and the person said, 'She's sitting right across from me.'"
On Feb. 2, 2004, Daly drove to Hillsboro and walked haltingly into the group home, a light blue house on a suburban cul-de-sac. "I was sweating, shaking, I couldn't breathe," Daly says. And there she was: 46 years later, a stocky middle-aged woman with a crooked grin, sitting in her wheelchair with her head down. "I said, 'Hello, Molly,'" Daly recalls. "'I am your brother. I'm sorry you were here and I wasn't.'" Only able to speak a few words, Molly put her hands out and screamed, "Eeee!" She then grasped him and fell silent. For fully 20 minutes she and Jeff hugged each other, as tears streamed down Daly's face.
Largely through medical records, Daly began tracing Molly's life. In the '50s, Fairview was considered a good facility, though by today's standards it seems Dickensian. "There were people in massive wards," says James Toews, assistant director of Oregon's Department of Human Services. "Hundreds of kids, including infants, were lined up in cribs and maybe got bathed and fed, and that was it."
Daly came across a 1960s promotional film for the institution and froze when he saw one scene of a little girl rolling a ball on the floor—and clearly saying, "Play ball." "I couldn't breathe," he recalls. "That's my kid sister. There's nothing wrong with her."
As her records reveal, Molly did not take well to her new home. One entry: "Nurse called the mother to tell [her] Molly had uncontrollable bouts of crying." Another: "Her only joy in life seems to be taking her shoes on and off." Another: "Molly cried for hours today, throwing herself on the floor."
As she entered adolescence, Molly started harming herself, often by bashing her head against the walls. She still bears the scars along her scalp line. At 15, for no apparent medical reason, she stopped walking; over time, her muscles atrophied to the point that she no longer can walk. "The increase in patients' bizarre, self-abusive behaviors at Fairview was almost geometric," Toews explains. "It was often a result of their environment, not their disability."
All those years, Molly was alone—almost. To Daly's surprise, her files showed that, early on, their dad, Jack, visited—apparently without Sue's knowledge. But, the records say, Molly "would become so upset, crying for days after he left, that [the staff] asked him to stop coming. And he did."
Not entirely, though. In 1956 Jack and other civic leaders formed the Astoria Clowns, donning full makeup to entertain local children. Two years later they started to travel, including, at Jack's suggestion, to Fairview. "He wanted to see Molly, and this was the only way he could," Daly says. Sue, records show, only seems to have visited her daughter once—just before Molly's 11th birthday. But Sue's mother, Marie Mercer, came regularly. "I don't think she ever thought Molly should be sent away," Daly says.
It was shortly after Mercer's death in 1988 that Tim Daly made his trip to Fairview. He never made contact with Molly, but observed her from across the room. "I didn't want to bring her any weird, crazy experiences," he says.
He and Jeff are now estranged because of Where's Molly? A reporter and substitute anchor for a San Joaquin Valley, Calif., TV station, Tim believes the film is well made, but that it unfairly portrays their parents as "cruel and insensitive." Seven years Jeff's junior, Tim has a vastly different take on the decision to institutionalize Molly. "It tormented them until the day they died," he says of his parents. "I saw how this pained my mom. But in that era, they did what they felt they had to do." Still, he's pleased his brother has reunited with Molly. "If it's making a lot of pain go away, I'm very happy for him—and for Molly."
Now Molly's legal guardians, Jeff Daly and his wife, who split their time between Larkspur and Oregon, drive to Hillsboro several times a month. Molly spends each July 4th at the Dalys' beach home with her newfound family—including Cindy's three daughters and four grandchildren from a previous marriage—whose pictures adorn Molly's room at the group home. Washington Court is a far cry from Fairview. Molly lives with four patients and a team of caregivers. Her days start with arts and crafts, then an afternoon paid job at a recycling facility, tearing books into stacks of paper. After dinner, there's TV time in a communal living room. Molly is considered mentally disabled, but it's not clear how much of her condition is a product of her confinement. In any event, says supervisor Ken Damm, "Molly is a loving, happy person."
Since their reunion, Daly says, Molly has learned some new words—notably "brother," "family" and the names of Cindy's grandchildren. When Daly arrives on a September morning, a caregiver is styling Molly's hair. Grinning widely, Molly yells, "Walkum!"—her word for taking a stroll. Daly wheels her outside to the swings and gives a push. "It doesn't take much to put a smile on her face," he says.
Later, at a weekly music-therapy session Daly arranged for his sister, Molly shakes a tambourine. "Whoo!" she shouts when her big brother grabs a tambourine himself. "Shake, shake, shake!" she tells him, throwing back her head and laughing. Her big brother smiles at her. "We're a team, Molly," he says. "We're a team."