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107 pages

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On a May morning in 1939, eighteen-year-old Velma Demerson and her lover were having breakfast when two police officers arrived to take her away. Her crime was loving a Chinese man, a “crime” that was compounded by her pregnancy and subsequent mixed-race child. Sentenced to a home for wayward girls, Demerson was then transferred (along with forty-six other girls) to Torontos Mercer Reformatory for Females. The girls were locked in their cells for twelve hours a day and required to work in the on-site laundry and factory. They also endured suspect medical examinations. When Demerson was finally released after ten months’ incarceration weeks of solitary confinement, abusive medical treatments, and the state’s apprehension of her child, her marriage to her lover resulted in the loss of her citizenship status.

This is the story of how Demerson, and so many other girls, were treated as criminals or mentally defective individuals, even though their worst crime might have been only their choice of lover. Incorrigible is a survivor’s narrative. In a period that saw the rise of psychiatry, legislation against interracial marriage, and a populist movement that believed in eradicating disease and sin by improving the purity of Anglo-Saxon stock, Velma Demerson, like many young women, found herself confronted by powerful social forces. This is a history of some of those who fell through the cracks of the criminal code, told in a powerful first-person voice.



Publié par
Date de parution 22 octobre 2009
Nombre de lectures 1
EAN13 9781554586677
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

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Life Writing Series
In the Life Writing Series , Wilfrid Laurier University Press publishes life writing and new life-writing criticism in order to promote autobiographical accounts, diaries, letters, and testimonials written and/or told by women and men whose political, literary, or philosophical purposes are central to their lives. Life Writing features the accounts of ordinary people, written in English, or translated into English from French or the languages of the First Nations or from any of the languages of immigration to Canada. Life Writing will also publish original theoretical investigations about life writing, as long as they are not limited to one author or text.
Priority is given to manuscripts that provide access to those voices that have not traditionally had access to the publication process.
Manuscripts of social, cultural, and historical interest that are considered for the series, but are not published, are maintained in the Life Writing Archive of Wilfrid Laurier University Library.
Series Editor Marlene Kadar Humanities Division, York University
Manuscripts to be sent to Brian Henderson, Director Wilfrid Laurier University Press 75 University Avenue West Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3C5

Velma Demerson
We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program for our publishing activities. We acknowledge the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation s Ontario Book Initiative.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication Data
Demerson, Velma, 1920- Incorrigible / Velma Demerson
(Life writing series) ISBN 0-88920-444-6
1. Demerson, Velma, 1920- 2. Women prisoners-Ontario-Biography. 3. Interracial dating-Ontario. I. Title. II. Series.
HV9505.D44A3 2004 365 .43 092 C2004-906735-4
2004 Velma Demerson
Cover design by P.J. Woodland. Photograph of Harry Yipp by C.D. Hoy, used with kind permission of Barkerville Historic Town, BC (photo P1574).
Text design by C. Bonas-Taylor.
Throughout this text fictional names have been used for inmates of the Toronto Industrial Refuge and the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Females. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. The names of government and institutional officials are as stated.
Every reasonable effort has been made to acquire permission for copyright material used in this text, and to acknowledge all such indebtedness accurately. Any errors and omissions called to the publisher s attention will be corrected in future printings.

Printed in Canada
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the publisher or a licence from The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). For an Access Copyright licence, visit or call toll free to 1-800-893-5777.
Order from: Wilfrid Laurier University Press Wilfrid Laurier University Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3C5
I dedicate this book to my beloved son Harry Yip
I would like to join forces with all those who believe that the past and the present are indivisible.
As the car turns into the driveway , I see the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Females as a dark formidable fortress pencilled black against the white sky. The enormous structure with its jutting turrets appears to stretch an entire city block. It casts a shadow over the grassy exterior extending to a wide spiked iron fence and onto the street beyond. The tall steeple gives a church-like appearance but the numerous iron-barred windows embedded in the dark stone exterior frighten me.
The building is distant from the street but as we draw near I can see the women who were at the Belmont Home with me leave the other car and move toward, then up the stairs. They are partly hidden by the hulking figures of two men.
During the drive from the Home, we three girls squeezed into the back seat sat unmoving, still absorbing the shock of sudden removal from our restrictive but reasonably safe haven. Only Adelaide s sniffling could be heard. Her tears weren t allayed when Miss Pollack assured us of well-being in our new quarters. The foreboding appearance of the reformatory seems to justify Adelaide s apprehension. She has stopped crying and is staring at the looming reformatory that awaits us.

The car stops and the two plainclothes guards sitting in the front seat get out. One of the men opens the door. As we emerge from the back seat, we re aware that the two men are within arm s length, watching us warily. The small pale-faced girl who had been sitting next to me is practically lifted off her feet by one overzealous guard. The other seizes my arm in a tight vise. Satisfied with having contained his prey, he reaches out with his other hand and fastens his grip onto Adelaide. Her eyes are still glued to the stark prison confronting us. I want to shake her out of her trance but can t get my arms to move. My limbs feel leaden and my body as inert as the stone edifice we re about to enter.
Adding to my feeling of helplessness is some obscure premonition, an instinct that something dreadful could occur in such a sinister place. My throat feels taut. I feel isolated, apart. Fear envelops me. I feel totally alone.
The two men remain crushingly close as they direct us up the stone steps, through the gothic arch of the entrance to the door, and ring the bell. Without delay, as if watching from the window, a woman with greying hair and wearing a brown dress with a broach opens the door. Her appearance suggests she s the superintendent and is expecting us. Her attention is directed towards the men who have escorted us and with whom she will conduct the business of our transfer. This time I m not entering the office or being greeted by the superintendent as I was at the Home. This time I m entering an institution where all personal recognition has been dispensed with. This sudden realization triggers an immediate identification with all the women who preceded me and stood on this very spot. It s becoming horribly clear that my life is forfeit to a still unknown but punitive monster-the state. All movement, all time, even my very thoughts are being consumed. I feel naked, shamed, and defenceless.

The entrance hall is immense with shining hardwood floors. From it extends a spiral stairway with strong banisters. I envision the steps extending all the way up to a high-raftered ceiling-a tower.
There s a wide doorway to the right. To the left is a hallway. There are no furnishings, not a clock or a chair. The absence of a clock disturbs me as I contemplate timeless, meaningless days. The enormous space diminishes me. I imagine the warmth and comfort I ve known being replaced with rigid austerity. A sinking feeling overwhelms me as I envisage every bit of control over my life being taken away.
Aside from low voices engaged in the solemn rite of conveying human cargo, there are no sounds. We stand in the hall outside the open door of the office under the men s watchful eye, brutally aware that talking may not be tolerated. Having completed their task, our escorts are impatient to leave and eager to turn us over to a tall older woman in a white uniform, who says tersely, Come with me.
She leads us to a room, holds the door open, and bids us enter. We are surprised to hear the door click locked behind us.
My mind spins back to try and pinpoint the exact moment that this nightmare began.
It s 1939 and I am eighteen years old.
After our brusque reception we find ourselves installed in a large cloakroom where we are immediately introduced to the place s discipline. There s to be no talking, a matron says. We re relieved to find the room filled with familiar faces from the Home. I try counting those present but give up when I reach forty. It appears that a good number of the older Belmont girls aren t here. One of the first batch of transferred girls whispers to me, Miss Pollock was crying when she said goodbye. We stand about waiting. We re instructed to discard our Belmont attire and change into Mercer clothing. Put the clothes you have on in a neat pile in the corner. The matron designates a place on the spotless floor. We undress quietly.
I can see that the girls ahead of me in line are getting large cotton dresses, aprons, underwear, white cotton stockings, and black shoes. When my turn comes, I put on a large faded old-fashioned dress. It s extremely wide and reaches my ankles. However, when I put on the full apron with its long ties I can see that it will hold the dress in, making it look like it almost fits. The thick cotton stockings are about two inches too long at the toes but are easily stuffed into the shoes, which are also several sizes too large.
Each girl has quickly been handed a bundle without reference to size. We learn that we can expect to be issued standard Mercer attire in our own size later. What we ve been given is the garb provided to all new inmates, to be worn for the first few weeks. In the months to come we are always able to recognize a new inmate by her initiation clothing. To girls already in a state of anxiety, the code of silence and humiliating dress further the subjugation. We are young women, aware of fashion. We know that large cotton dresses and wide aprons belong to a past era of drudgery on the farm.
A matron passes out food on old tin pie plates. I m beginning to suspect that inmates will never have pie. Pie is probably served to staff

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