Marie Balter began life in the winter of 1931, born in Gloucester, Mass., to a penniless alcoholic who gave her up at birth. That, of course, was only the beginning.
She lived in foster homes until she was adopted at 6 by an aging Italian-born couple who spoke no English. Stern and rigid, they disciplined Marie by locking her in the dark, cold cellar or tying her to a post or to the stairs. No English-speaking playmates were allowed in the house. If she wasn't home before the street lights came on, they would lock her out all night. Eventually she fled from them, seeking shelter at a convent.
During the next two decades, Balter endured one tragedy after another, living an existence so fraught with psychological blows and so lacking in love that massive, Gothic-style Danvers State Hospital was the place she came to call home. And for good reason: She descended into what doctors at one time diagnosed as schizophrenia, neither walking nor talking, besieged with the specters of eery wailing sounds, colors that produced funereal odors, mirrors that reflected demons.
Though doctors and nurses predicted she would never be able to lead a normal life, Balter was to emerge from near- catatonia in Danvers' locked wards, enroll in college, marry, earn a master's degree from Harvard and return to the institution, as a staff worker. Today, at 55, she is a leading mental health administrator and is developing her own treatment, research and training center near Boston.
Marie Balter's remarkable story, airing Sunday at 9 on CBS, is called "Nobody's Child" and stars Marlo Thomas. Director Lee Grant and her scriptwriters have chosen to omit many of the tragedies that occurred in Balter's life and concentrate instead on her triumphs and on her topic of specialization, mental health.
Scenes depicting the Massachusetts mental institution were filmed at Vancouver's River View Hospital, a provincial mental health facility that once housed 4,000 patients. The actors who portrayed the hospital's mental patients were so effective, Grant noted, that "when Marie Balter saw the film, she thought they were patients."
Certainly Balter should know. She has been on both sides of the locked doors.
Her first encounter with a Massachusetts state mental health facility occurred not long after Balter left the convent to attend a strict parochial boarding school. Alone and consumed with feelings of rejection, she became depressed and was sent to Boston State Hospital in Mattapan, where she was diagnosed as psychoneurotic and suicidal. At 17 she was moved to Danvers, where the most troublesome or disturbed patients were kept in locked rear wards. Marie was sent there. "I wasn't sure at all why I was thereamong them, but I felt I must have done something horrible," she said later.
Although it was unusual at the time, Balter recalled that she was "allowed to go back and forth to (high school from) the local hospital. I only had one more year, and since I was adamant, the doctor who had my case at that time agreed . . . It was unusual at the time."
The spirit that enabled Balter to fight for her education was to see her through a series of tragedies. When Marie was 18, her natural mother located her and signed her out of Danvers. But life with her mother, an alcoholic and drug addict, was so miserable that Marie voluntarily returned to Danvers. A year later, the woman was badly burned in a house fire. "I packed a little bag and moved into the waiting room of Massachusetts General (Hospital) until my mother died, about two weeks later. Then I went back to Danvers. I had no place else to go, and by that time it was the only home that I knew."
Her adoptive parents, angry because she had gone to her dying mother's bedside, disowned Marie. So she lived at Danvers. When she was about 28, she made a visit to her adoptive parents' home. Her father, whom she hadn't seen for seven years, was due to return from a sailing trip. "He came in, took off his hat and coat. I went up to kiss him hello . . . he died in my arms -- he just dropped dead."
Within the year, her adoptive mother died. "When she died, I fell apart completely. I started vomiting, shaking . . .The walls started to move, the floors started to move. They discovered that I had infectious hepatitis and mono, as well as my psychological problems." So she returned to Danvers, and when she recovered, no one was left to sign her out.
For 20 years Marie was in and out of hospitals, a miserable person whose doctors did not understand what was wrong with her. They prescribed treatments such as massive doses of tranquilizers, ice baths, and more drugs until she was either rebellious and combative or drugged and nearly comatose. Today Balter believes that severe panic and anxiety were basically her problem, compounded by drugs.
By 1964, Marie -- then 33 -- weighed only 86 pounds and was nearly catatonic. She hadn't talked for 18 months, hadn't walked for two years, heard imaginary voices wailing and saw demons in mirrors. And yet, "a little part of my mind said, 'Look at the world you've found yourself in.' I didn't like that world and I wanted to get out . . . I made a commitment to God that if I ever got well, I would dedicate my life to mental health."
Balter turned to prayer, and began her own treatment: First she shuffled cards to renew feelings in her hands, then she took a few steps, and scrubbed floors. Eventually, she told her doctor "that I wanted to get better and that I needed her help. I needed for her to give me permission to do the things that I thought I needed to do . . . to leave the unit and go for a walk on the grounds." To the attendants' amazement, she arranged for Marie to leave whenever she wanted.
She took walks and worked on the unit, and one day -- after eight years in a closed ward -- she asked if she could be moved to an open ward. "The nurses and attendants took quarter bets that I'd be back on the closed wards in a few weeks. Everyone was counting on me to fail."
But Balter didn't fail. When she went back to the closed ward 17 years later, she was an administrator of the hospital.
Admittedly, the transition took a long time. In 1966 the Mental Health Act had been passed, allowing the institution to sign Marie out. Now 35, she passed through sheltered workshops and tried different jobs. And she met Joe Balter, an accountant who was also a patient at the hospital. A manic-depressive, he was able to control his condition through medication. Joe encouraged Marie to begin tentative steps to the outside world. With scholarship aid she enrolled at North Shore Community College in Beverly, Mass., and in 1973 earned an associate in arts degree.
Marie and Joe's friendship blossomed, and the two married. But, again, tragedy wasn't far behind. After only six years of marriage, shortly before she was to be graduated from Salem State College, Joe Balter, 45, died of a pulmonary embolism.
"After Joe passed away, I went back to Danvers. I still had one more semester at Salem State, so I went to work at Danvers State (for five years)." She finished her last term, with straight A's, and was graduated with honors in psychology in 1976. That she also was stricken with bladder cancer seems almost a footnote.
Learning that Harvard's Graduate School of Education had an excellent mental health program, Balter applied to work for a master's degree. "I was able to work out with my employer that they would advance me my salary," she explained. She was graduated in 1982, and went on to design four programs for Danvers State Hospital that received government funding.
The following year she received an award of $7,500 from the Wonder Woman Foundation, an organization that recognizes extraordinary achievements by women over 40 who have overcome unusual obstacles to achieve their goals. Her category: courage.
Today Marie Balter draws upon her vast experience, both personal and professional, to help the people of Massachusetts' Eastern Middlesex district and to run her newly-founded Balter Institute, which she hopes to develop into a treatment, research and training center: "I want to be able to develop an institute whereby we could work with the treatment and research for professionals, paraprofessionals, clients and family." The facility is located "on the grounds of a seminary that wasn't being used, outside Boston on the North Shore near Salem."
Balter has lectured widely on the subject of mental health and for seven years was a supervisor with Northeastern Family Institute, a private non-profit agency, in charge of several community programs including a transitional residence for former patients, a crisis-intervention team, a social drop-in center for those who have suffered mental illness, and a day treatment center to help institutionalized clients get out into the community.
A third-degree lay order Carmelite nun, Balter lives near Boston with another mental health professional, Barbara Thompson, a widow who "decided to put up with me. After her daughter got married and her husband passed away, we bought this townhouse together . . . Barbara and I worked at Danvers State. We became very, very friendly, and it was almost a year before I realized that her mother was the primary nurse who really brought me up all those years."
Balter said she believes her story is in good hands. "I knew when I first met Lee (director Lee Grant) that I would go with her, because I felt she was sincere . . . She's been just super . . . The script we worked on together -- I worked with the writers and with Lee . . . I feel that they've done a super job. The story is still the same -- things were left out, but I think it was just as well . . . my bout with cancer, my brother's death, my best girl friend's death . . . essentially it was very accurate, but for continuity's sake I think they had to pick the one theme."
Grant, who had attended the Wonder Woman Awards ceremony, said she was struck with Balter's story of victory over incredible adversity and, with her husband, producer Joseph Feury, began to plan a film. After two years of work, they managed to get the project before the cameras. Grant chose Thomas to play the title role after having seen her in "The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck."
Balter, too, was pleased with the choice of Thomas. "With Marlo, I was at first concerned that I was going to watch someone act me out. I was just amazed -- I see myself going through the film. It wasn't like watching someone imitate me. She didn't overact or underact . . . I wasn't watching someone else playing me -- I was watching myself. They (Grant and Thomas) must have been watching me more closely than I thought."
Balter and Barbara Thompson went to Vancouver for one week of the filming last November during "their first real severe winter in about 16 years," and stayed in the suite next to Marlo Thomas. Both women came down with the flu.
"I myself have small problems and big problems. You just deal with it; it's nothing to be impatient about . . . The more room you give to despair, the less room you have for God . . . The word is hope."