The Hope Rogers Story: From Mental Illness … to Making a Difference

Hope at work at the Benton County Social Welfare Office in 1955.

When I waked from my ninth electric shock treatment at the Independence, Iowa Mental Health Institute in March of 1953, I discovered what I really was. I was an animal.”

So opens Hope Sankot Rogers’s 1975 memoir, Time and the Human Robot, a stunningly poignant account of her journey through a mental health crisis as a young Iowa farmwife and mother. Her remarkable reemergence from the depths of insanity remained a private personal triumph until she suddenly faced a very public political reality: a reelection campaign, with her opponent poised to reveal her past to his own gain.

Public Office

In 1972, Hope had narrowly won a historic election to become the first woman on the Benton County Board of Supervisors. “I knew I’d have to work ten times as hard as my political opponent, and I did,” she said. Calculating that she couldn’t win the county’s largest town, Vinton, she had instead focused on its 13 other communities, maintaining a heady schedule of appearances at parades, tractor pulls, car races, grain elevators, and bars, often playing her alto saxophone.

Hope on the job as a county supervisor

“When I squeaked by with a margin of 55 votes—one of the first six women county supervisors ever elected in the State of Iowa—Vinton was in shock to find the rest of the county existed!”

Her advocacy for mental health issues had inflamed that first campaign. “I might never have sought the county supervisor position,” she later wrote, “if I hadn’t received the brush-off from them when in 1965 I asked them to hire an activity director for the 50 mental patients that Independence Mental Health Institute had sent back to the County Home. None of [the supervisors] said a single word to me nor even gave me eye contact. When I returned to my law office job, I said to my boss, ‘Boy, if ever I run for public office, I’m going to run for supervisor.’ He just laughed. ‘That’s one position a woman can never win,’ he said.”

But in her campaign for reelection to the board—now as its chairman—Hope faced a new challenge: the revelation of her own past as a “mental patient.” She valiantly met it by writing and distributing copies of Time and the Human Robot. “I found the world largely adopts the attitude of a patient toward himself,” she boldly, unapologetically declared.

She was reelected by a whopping margin of 600 votes, a virtual local landslide.

Sinking into Chaos

Given Hope’s resilient spirit, the crumbling of her mind two decades earlier did not happen overnight. Beset by poverty and isolation on a failing farm near Vinton, Hope had struggled to stave off despair while caring for her three young children, Bobby, Crystal, and Jeanne. An intensive period during which she was plagued by fevers and frustrations led to an extraordinary night in which Hope became increasingly manic, culminating in her being pinned to the floor by her husband and her father.

The next morning, as the ambulance carrying her to the Independence Mental Health Institute attempted to mount the farm’s icy driveway in high gear, she broke free of her restraints, reached over the driver’s shoulder, “and yanked the gear shift for him, growling, ‘Put the son of a bitch in second!’ ” Then she lay back down.

At the hospital, her mind tumbled into chaos, swinging “the camera and record player of memory restlessly back and forth until [my] intellect resemble[d] a derelict ship at sea without a navigator.” Lost in an “eternity of timelessness,” she regressed back to an animal state, while her “robot body” continued its mechanical functions—getting dressed, eating, sleeping—prodded by her keepers. Her world became a waking dream; her husband, children, and even her own identity seemed “vaporous.”

The Light Returns

But one day, soon after her ninth and final electroshock treatment, she joined other patients who were being led in song by the hospital’s music therapist. One particular song, “Whispering Hope,” suddenly resonated. It seemed as though both its title and lyrics were being personally directed at her:

Wait ’til the darkness is over
Wait ’til the tempest is done
Hope for the sunshine tomorrow
After the darkness is gone

Back in her room, she suddenly recognized the mysterious woman in the mirror whom she had been vacantly observing for months: it was herself. She also realized, to her horror, exactly where she was. “Eventually, my tears ceased, and I rose with the determination that I’d regain my mind and master it, no matter what else,” she later wrote.

A painting made at Independence, 1953

With reawakened zeal, she embraced the many creative therapy programs that had been introduced a few years earlier at the Independence Mental Health Institute by its maverick superintendent, Dr. Max E. Witte, Jr. The resulting “creative greenhouse in which I was induced to reflower aided my sure, gradual redevelopment, as I found myself drawn forward daily through the barriers of time. Sheltered from the adversity and the barren wilderness that had triggered my mental collapse, I grew mentally at an unbelievable rate.”

She rediscovered her own musical talent, eventually winning a new fountain pen as a prize for playing her alto saxophone at the monthly patient talent contest. She engaged in psychodrama therapy and worked in the hospital’s beauty shop. But it was art therapy that truly impassioned and invigorated her, her intensified imagination so vivid that her paintings seemed to her to come palpably alive.

One day, her psychologist, Arlene Babcock, revealed some startling information to Hope. Upon her entry to Independence, Hope stated “that the devil had approached me and offered to make me Queen of Hell; that I had thereupon taken a tour with him to look over my prospective domain and refused the honor.” This was news to Hope, for she had no memory of the episode. But “I made no excuses for it,” she said. “I treated it as a fact. If I’d said I toured hell, then I supposed I had.”

Challenges at Home

Hope was released from the hospital after seven months, but quickly realized that little had changed in the dire home environment that had so imperiled her mind. Within a week, she was besieged by bill collectors who, “not wishing to burden my husband while his wife was in the hospital, had patiently waited until I was home again, then bore down at once,” demanding payment for oats, coal, tractor fuel, a dentist bill—all accounts long overdue. Her husband, crippled by depression, sank into “a slough of inertia” on the sofa. Hope realized she must go to work.

While still in high school, Hope had set her sights on becoming a secretary, so she had simultaneously enrolled in the Belle Plaine Business College. “In those days I thought I could do anything, and I could.” Now, summoning that resilient and resourceful spirit once again, she picked up the fountain pen she had won in the patient talent show and began to relearn shorthand by taking down the news report from the radio.

She was soon hired as a secretary for the director of the Social Welfare Office at the Benton County Courthouse, a job she held for three years until she discovered that she was pregnant. Although they had sold their farm and moved into Vinton, where her husband now worked for an appliance store, the pending arrival of another child threatened their still precarious financial situation. But her pregnancy—three years after her last shock treatment—brought with it something of a miracle: it reset the dormant chemistry of her body.

Although she had remained impervious to pain and other sensory perceptions since her hospitalization, her faculties now returned to her, as well as a crushing sense of fatigue. It was the “end of the robot,” although it would take many decades before she regained full command of her frozen facial muscles.

Three years after son Tony’s birth, daughter Mary completed the family. Hope went back to work as a legal secretary, wrote freelance articles, and managed the Vinton Pool Hall, which she and her husband had purchased by mortgaging their home. But in 1971, they were forced to sell the pool hall after he suffered a series of debilitating heart attacks. With two teenagers still at home, Hope once again faced the prospect of being the family’s sole breadwinner, so she went after the one local job vacancy she felt she was uniquely qualified to fill: county supervisor.

A Life of Resilience

Hope’s grandmother, Elizabeth Wright Heller—who just happened to be the half-sister of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, a college classmate of social reformer Jane Addams, and a steely Iowa pioneer—once wrote of her young granddaughter that “she has grit and brains and talent. She will go places some of these days or I miss my guess.”

Hope in 2019 (photo by Kate Payne, Iowa Public Radio)

By her 99th and final year, Hope had more than proved her grandmother’s prophecy. On the morning of October 30, 2023, she put her still-sharp mind to the task of writing and dispatching the last of her frequent fiery letters to the editor of the Vinton newspaper, then closed her eyes and finally found her peace.

Michael Schreiber is the author of One-Man Show: The Life and Art of Bernard Perlin, named a Stonewall Honor Book by the American Library Association, and co-author (with husband Jason Loper) of This American House, about their Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in Iowa.

Michael collaborated with Hope Sankot Rogers on revising and expanding Time and the Human Robot toward its 50th anniversary re-release later this year. Her biography of her great-grandfather, William Cary Wright, appears on Michael and Jason’s blog ThisAmericanHouse.com.