Hidden cousins

The perspective of disability at the time of the births of Nerissa and Katherine was one of shame.

When I came to retrieve Janneke from school at the end of her first week, three of her classmates were with her. They chattered excitedly and asked, “Is Janneke coming to the back-to-school BBQ tonight?” I loved the interaction with Janneke’s classmates because it illustrated two things: Janneke matters to them, and the perspective they have about disability and inclusion is a good one. 

lesser known story

Last month, with the passing of the Queen, tributes circulated the globe. One story in particular resurfaced, that of the Queen’s two cousins. Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon were known as the Queen’s hidden cousins, a story that was amplified in the press in 1986 after Nerissa died, by a UK documentary in 2011, and in 2020 with an episode from Netflix’s The Crown.  

Both Nerissa and Katherine were born into the family of the Queen Mother’s brother and presented with significant cognitive challenges; Nerissa was born in 1919 and Katherine was born in 1926, the same year as Queen Elizabeth, her first cousin. Nerissa and Katherine were brought to The Royal Earlswood Institution for Mental Defectives in 1941 at the ages of 22 and 15.

what to believe

It’s difficult to find exactly what happened to Nerissa and Katherine, as there have been numerous narratives created from reports from staff who provided their care, from some Earlswood reports that indicate no visitors came to the girls, from extended family that say the girls’ mother came infrequently until her death in 1966, and from responses within the Royal Family to the stories created by the media, the documentary and The Crown.

I’ve read criticism of the Royal Family regarding their treatment and response (some say abandonment) of Nerissa and Katherine. I won’t pretend to know what happened. But I do know the perspective of disability shared by our society and culture at the time of the births of Nerissa and Katherine was one of shame and disappointment. Persons with disabilities were not welcome in society, and doctors encouraged such persons to be hidden. Families were not always encouraged to visit or make contact once their loved one was institutionalized.

Katherine Bowes-Lyon.
Nerissa Bowes-Lyon

craving community

It is not easy to care for or live with disability on your own. My maternal grandparents cared for their disabled son at home until they couldn’t. Our extended family visited him regularly in the various institutions and later smaller congregate settings. We grew up knowing our uncle, as he was present when possible for our family gatherings. 

In a few years, both Rachel and Janneke will be finished with school, and at that point, they will be solely in our care at home. What will this look like? I hold firmly to the belief that we will learn to do better as a society in understanding and living with disability. I am not looking for royal treatment; I just want our girls to matter to others.


Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *