by Jack El-Hai, Wonders & Marvels contributor
When Opal Petty died at the age of 86, her family buried her with a half-dozen dolls she had treasured during five decades of her life. That was the stretch in which the Texas state hospital system confined her without apparent reason, gave her no treatment for her supposed mental illness, and left her with a disorder that resulted from her custodial care. Rescued from hospitals by relatives she had not previously known, Petty launched an influential legal challenge to the state’s commitment practices.
Her troubles began when she reached her teenage years in the small town of Goldthwaite, Texas. Her family disapproved of her wish to date, dance, and go out. Petty broke down in a psychotic episode and began digging her own grave in the family’s yard. Local preachers could not help her, so her parents sent Petty to Austin State Hospital in 1934.
There the 16-year-old was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but later examinations, when her behavioral problems had ended, adjusted her diagnosis to mental retardation, no mental retardation, and no mental illness. Petty received no treatment and spent her days collecting dolls and working in the hospital laundry, where she earned two dollars per week.
Thirty-seven years after her arrival in Austin, hospital authorities transferred Petty to an institution for the mentally disabled, the San Angelo State School in Carlsbad. She remained there until the mid-1980s, when her life suddenly changed. At a family reunion nearby, Linda Kauffman, a family member by marriage, heard about Petty for the first time. Kauffman checked at San Angelo and confirmed that Petty, now well into middle age, was confined there. Kauffman and her husband, Petty’s nephew, began visiting her. Petty wore what Kauffman called “a burlap sack” the first time they met, and a nurse revealed that the patient had not spoken for several years.
Kauffman engaged a lawyer and began a legal battle to free Petty from institutional care. The state released Petty to a foster home and in 1986 let her move in with Kauffman and her husband. Three years later, a Texas court awarded Petty damages of $250,000 for her improper confinement and the resulting mental deprivation, and the Texas Supreme Court approved that decision in 1992. Her lawyer argued that she should have been released from the hospital within weeks of her initial episode, when her psychotic symptoms ended. Texas changed its hospital commitment policies to give patients annual reviews of their treatment and status.
Petty spent the rest of her life with her newfound relatives. She enjoyed playing the piano and taking in the new sight of fresh fruits and vegetables in the supermarket. She died in 2005.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Opal Petty, 86, Patient Held 51 Years Involuntarily in Texas, Dies.” The New York Times, March 17, 2005.
Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation v. Opal Petty. Decision by Court of Appeals, Third District of Texas, August 28, 1991.