In postwar Austria, a psychologist named Maria Nowak-Vogl ran a mysterious psychiatric facility where “difficult” children were sent. With help from a friend and journalist, Margaret Talbot, Evy Mages mines memories of her time at this child-observation station in the mid-seventies, remembering all the abuse that happened there. Nowak-Vogl was a well-respected academic; she was also trained by Nazis and believed in repressive practices and cruel punishments to make children compliant and “socially desirable,” including administering epiphysan, a shot meant to suppress sexual urges. Talbot accompanies Mages to Austria to learn more about Nowak-Vogl and the villa—which operated from the mid-fifties until the late-eighties—as well as her own family history. This story is as horrific and dark as it sounds. Amazingly, though, Mages has come out the other side, now helping other victims connect with each other and making it easier for them to report the abuse they experienced as children.
A news article about the commission’s findings described the villa as a combination of “home, prison, and testing clinic.” The commission had reviewed medical records and reported something shocking: children had been injected with epiphysan, an extract derived from the pineal glands of cattle which veterinarians used to suppress estrus in mares and cows. Nowak-Vogl, a conservative Catholic, had wanted to see if epiphysan would suppress sexual feelings in children, as well as discourage masturbation, thus rendering her charges more “manageable.” Masturbation—among both adolescents and young children, who use it to self-soothe—was a preoccupation of Nowak-Vogl’s. So was bed-wetting. Her staff was instructed to keep charts documenting urination and bowel movements, and to check children’s underwear “with the eyes or the nose.” Schreiber described her as being “on a crusade against masturbation and sexual excitedness.”
The more that Evy read, the angrier she became. Nearly four thousand children? Until 1987? Eight or so similar facilities had operated in Austria after the Second World War. How many thousands of children had spent time in repressive psychiatric institutions like hers? At all the facilities, confused children were brusquely evaluated for “misbehavior.” But only the Sonnenstrasse villa was so consumed with stamping out sexuality.