When Daphne Scholinski was a teenager in the psych ward at Michael Reese Hospital in the early 1980s, she would amuse her fellow patients by looking up illnesses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The term “zoophilia”–a predilection for sex with animals–was always good for a laugh. A few years ago Scholinski found the latest edition of the DSM and looked up “gender identity disorder,” the reason she’d been hospitalized from ages 15 to 18. She was surprised to find that the diagnosis–first introduced in 1980–was still considered legitimate.
“Girls with Gender Identity Disorder display intense negative reactions to parental expectations or attempts to have them wear dresses or other feminine attire,” the definition explains. “Some may refuse to attend school or social events where such clothes may be required. They prefer boys’ clothing and short hair, are often misidentified by strangers as boys….These girls prefer boys as playmates [and] show little interest in dolls or any form of feminine dress up or role-play activity.” In other words, acting like a tomboy could still land you in the hospital.
Scholinski, who grew up in Rogers Park and Arlington Heights, was committed to Michael Reese in 1981 after her rebelliousness–stealing, lying, hanging out with gang members, and getting kicked out of school–became increasingly difficult for her divorced parents to handle. She was locked up with schizophrenics, suicidal patients, and anorexics and bulimics. Doctors would reward her for spending time with girls and wearing makeup and dresses. She spent three years in various institutions, including Forest Hospital in Des Plaines, and her treatment ended up costing $1 million. Her hospitalization ended when her insurance ran out–just after her 18th birthday. She went on to college, where she studied painting, and eventually moved to San Francisco and made a living with her art. Then her eyes were reopened when she saw the new DSM.
“I thought maybe I was at the tail end of it or something,” she says now. “I was just at the beginning. I was blown away that nobody had done anything about it. It was still in there, and still happening.
I deal with these issues in my paint-ing, but I saw this as a more immediate sort of issue and I didn’t feel like my paintings were getting out there fast enough to create change. Writing a book seemed like the best thing to do, to get the story out as completely, openly, and quickly to as many people as I possibly could.”
Scholinski’s autobiography (coauthored with Jane Meredith Adams) takes its title from one of her drawings. The sketch shows a figure standing in front of a seclusion room door wearing a hospital gown–that was Scholinski in 1982 at Michael Reese. “As I finished the drawing, I was thinking that that was the last time I wore a dress.”
Scholinski’s book, The Last Time I Wore a Dress, includes excerpts from her medical records that show how preoccupied her caregivers were with her sexuality. During her stay at the Wilson Center, an upscale hospital in Minnesota, she was forced to avoid her first best friend, Valerie, because the two were supposedly becoming “too close” and jeopardizing the doctor-patient relationship.
Ironically, Scholinski was never treated for depression, and none of her doctors noticed the signs that she’d been physically and sexually abused before being committed. “No one asked me about sexual abuse,” she says. “I was shy about my body. Isn’t that a typical sign of being abused by someone? They were like, no, she wants to be like a boy, she doesn’t want to be a girl. I was dropping these bombs, and everybody saw what they wanted to see.”
The book is a litany of misunderstandings and mishaps, including suicide attempts, failed escapes, parental indifference, and manipulation of both Scholinski and her parents at the hands of a succession of doctors.
“One of the things that pisses me off about the whole institution is, here is this broken-down girl who really needed to go to a place where she felt love and affection and felt worthwhile and that she was going somewhere in the world. Instead they put me into places where they told me that everything about me, everything I was discovering about myself, was wrong and I had to totally become another person, someone I could never be. It was a no-win situation.”
The matter-of-fact seriousness of her story is tempered by Scholinski’s description of her pranks and her dry wit, which is also apparent in her paintings. Her series of drawings called Freedom of Depression: Nine Ways to Commit Suicide was inspired by the various ways she’d lost some of her friends. One of the panels shows a Nike logo above the “Just Do It” slogan.
Scholinski, who has made peace with both of her parents, has also become an activist who speaks at colleges and conferences about the psychiatric abuse of gay and lesbian teenagers. In 1995 she received a standing ovation after addressing the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.
“It’s not that I believe these people had malicious intentions or I don’t want to believe that. But they just really didn’t have a clue how to work with someone. The way they see to create good mental health is to teach you how to conform. If you’re not someone who fits into that nice pretty little package, there’s no way you’re ever going to win. I’m so lucky my insurance ran out when I was 18, or I’d probably still be in there today.”
Scholinski will read from The Last Time I Wore a Dress this Wednesday at 7:30 at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark (773-769-9299), and Thursday at 7:30 at Barbara’s Bookstore, 1100 Lake in Oak Park (708-848-9140). –Cara Jepsen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Daphne Scholinski photo by Aaron Fineman/ childhood photo couresy of Daphne Scholinski.