Five Little Dionnes and Where They Grew

Mercifully (for her, for us), Kate Gosselin has mostly disappeared from the weekly covers of the tabloids. For a while there, it seemed as if Kate and her reverse mullet were going to be with us until the Lord returned.

A couple of months ago, I checked out the first season of “Jon & Kate + 8” from the library. I can see why people watched the show – it was fascinating, but also, it makes you think to yourself, Hey, I don’t have it so bad! I can handle two toddlers, easy-peasy! Say what you will about Kate (and there is plenty to say); there are very few women who could manage to care for two toddlers and six babies at the same time, few people who could keep things organized and keep everyone fed and clean, without losing their own minds.

Of course, one can easily raise objections to the very idea of putting children on display like that. But the Gosselins were not the first (or the most egregious) example of the media (and people’s curiosity) exploiting a set of multiples. That sad distinction belongs to five sisters who were born in a snowy hamlet in Ontario, in the middle of the Great Depression. Their survival was a miracle; their lives were a tragedy.

In late 1933, a 25-year-old farmwife became pregnant for the seventh time in eight years (a thought, by the way, that just clobbers me.) This time, Elzire Dionne suspected she was carrying twins, but when she went into labor in May, two months early, her doctor delivered five identical baby girls. Combined, they weighed less than 14 pounds.

The odds of conceiving quints naturally is 1 in 65 million (it’s probably less for identicals, but I couldn’t find the stats.) In 1934, there were no NICU’s – and there were no known cases of quints surviving, ever. The Dionne’s doctor wrapped the tiny babies in old napkins, placed them on a corner of the bed, and waited for them to die.

Unbelievably, the babies lived. They were kept in a wicker laundry basket next to the stove, and fed water and corn syrup. Once newspapers got wind of the story (“World’s First Surviving Quintuplets!”), it spread across the globe. The new babies were an international sensation.

Within four months, the government of Ontario had declared the Dionnes to be “unfit parents” (but only for the quints, evidentally), and took the babies from their parents. For the next nine years, the Canadian government turned the girls into Ontario’s biggest tourist attraction.


A large compound was built across the road from the Dionne farmhouse and was opened to visitors. The babies lived there with a doctor, some nurses, and a handful of policemen. Their playground was a “public observation area” where, eventually, 6,000 people per day filed by to gawk at the girls. Their mother (who had three more babies after the quints) ran a souvenir shop on the premises, selling cups and postcards and candy bars covered with pictures of her daughters.

The girls were required to follow a strict schedule, and were regularly subjected to inspections and testing. They were used to sell a wide variety of popular products, and were featured in several Hollywood films. Hollywood celebrities filed by, along with the masses, to stare at the girls.

Their compound, dubbed “Quintland,” was surrounded by barbed wire.

When the girls were nine years old, their parents won back custody, but the fractured family found it impossible to mend itself. The girls were unhappy and felt isolated, and they left home at eighteen, severing almost all contact with their family. One of the sisters died two years later, after entering a convent. Another one died at 35. The surviving sisters wrote a scathing book about their ordeal. Two sisters are still living today.

******

The comparisons between the Dionne sisters and the current rash of mega-family media darlings are obvious and easy to draw (although by any measure, the Dionne case was the most extreme, and the most tragic.) But all of this makes me think about the much broader issue of “celebrity,” that monstrous sub-culture we have created.

Human beings who accomplish or produce monumental things are legitimately famous (or infamous.) People who are known simply for being born, or because of how they behave, are spectacles.

In the Dionne’s case, what is so appalling is that those girls had no say in the matter – they were victims in every sense of the word. In today’s world, however, there are masses of people who make spectacles of themselves, in order to be famous – famous for, um, making spectacles of themselves. (As a naturally shy person, this concept just confounds me to no end. I don’t want anyone staring at me. Pretty much ever.)

Look, no one is more curious than I am. I understand the fascination with sociology, with anomalies. Here is the problem, though, with the slippery slope of curiosity: when we train our attention on something, we begin to consume it, to use it up, whether that thing is a book or a snowboard or a meatball sandwich. Or a person.

And human beings were never intended to be feasted upon.

I am no preacher, but here is what I would say to those who would be famous, those individuals who are yearning for attention: Go out and do something, or say something, or write something, or make something. We all cling to the surface of the same earth – by God, contribute something while you’re here. Your life is too valuable and too unique and too vital for you to just stand there, absorbing stares. You are not a tree, or a mountain range, or a sunset, or a shooting star. You are something infinitely more precious. You are flesh and blood and bone and spirit and soul and laughter and sorrow and love and rage and tenderness and joy and determination the likes of which the natural world can only dream of.

You were not created to be a spectacle.

******

By the way: Yvonne. Annette. Cecile. Emilie. Marie.

Those were the Dionne girls’ names.

Just thought we should know.

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12 thoughts on “Five Little Dionnes and Where They Grew

  1. Okay, beautifully written! You almost lost me with the little thrown in detail that the mother had THREE MORE CHILDREN AFTER THE QUINTS!!!! Someone help her…
    I don’t mind a little spotlight occasionally, I won’t lie. But when it’s shown on me, I hope I am seen doing SOMETHING…ANYTHING…that will make someone’s day brighter, or maybe even making someone’s life a little better!

    • Thank you! Yes, I am boggled by all the children. I think that makes 14 total, and all but one of them lived. I know that was not that unusual back then, but still. It’s a very good thing I didn’t live back then. I would have died after about 4.

  2. What an ugly story: the Dionne quintuplets, I mean.
    So tragic. Yes, my mind is boggled too over THAT many pregnancies in such a short time for such a young woman – but those were the times, I suppose.
    She would have been pilloried if she’d done otherwise.

    But really, the only thing this episode makes me realize, yet again, is that humans are not perfect. There are no real guidelines as to what it means to behave in a ‘humane’ way. Sad absurdities happen and will continue to happen. I used to think humans were on some sort of learning ‘curve’ and that, eventually, we would all be enlightened in some way – evolve, l suppose. But it hasn’t happened. All you need do is pick up a history book, a newspaper, check the internet, look at the magazines at the check-out counter of the supermarket.

    The older I get, the easier it is to reconcile the sad truth that HUMANS JUST STUMBLE ALONG NOT BEING PERFECT and making the most tragic and ridiculous mistakes over and over.

    Making a spectacle of oneself is mistaken for ‘doing something’.

    Instant celebrity, especially now in the computer age, is here to stay. Foolishness now has an instant world-wide audience. That’s it, I’m afraid.

    • I know, good thoughts. You’re exactly right. We look back now and are completely appalled…we would NEVER do that nowadays (and we wouldn’t)…but I wonder how many things we ARE doing now, that people are going to look back at in 80 years, and be appalled by.
      And yes, we’ll always be imperfect…

  3. What a refreshing way to start my morning! Inspires me to go conquer the world and yes, the daunting day to day of raising a child is palled by the thought of this scenario. My heart breaks for what these five girls endured and their mother….was she a wack-a-doodle or what….stop having children!

    • I know. That was not unusual for back then…all I can say is, God sure knew where in history to stick me!
      I am totally one of those people who would have died on about the 4th baby…there’s no way my body could’ve handled that. My stars.

  4. You definitely hit the nail on the head, specifically with pointing out the “monstrous sub-culture” that values celebrity over all else. Our culture has taken the natural desires to love and be loved and accepted and twisted them such that a great many people only feel a sense of self-worth if they are noticed and acknowledged by peers and/or others. Even those of us that ‘get it’ are still prone to fall into the trap when we walk to close to the edge…. (How often do we post on facebook? What’s our real motivation?)

    Sigh…..

    • Yes…sigh…the spectacles will never go away, and we’ll never stop staring at them. Human nature.

      I just wish we could train that attention on all the really cool things in the world of science, or literature, or history…

      Like I said, sociology is incredibly fascinating!

  5. I love your blog! I just followed your link from Jamie the VWM’s post. I may* have just read 3-4 of your posts when I should be doing homework. I’d like to “follow” but I think the RSS link is on the fritz (just FYI).

    Ps. My blog is really lame lately (I pretty much just write for my family in far away places), but I felt the need to fill in that field so that you could check out that I’m not a creeper. Just wanted to let you know I love your blog!

    • Hah! Creeper…I love it. I just found Jamie’s blog and love her, too.

      Thanks for stopping by and for the kudos. 🙂 Are you on twitter? I’d love to “follow” you.

      RSS Link…oh dear…I am SO not-techhie. If there’s a problem, I don’t know how to fix it. Can you try the email option? I guess I’ll have to investigate.

      Talk to you later!

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