Eighty years ago yesterday, the Dionne quintuplets were born to an impoverished farmer and his wife in a small town in Ontario, Canada.
Together, they weighed about 14 pounds. It was assumed that all would die, but they lived. They were the first known surviving set of quintuplets.
The miracle of their survival was followed by an ordeal of a childhood that they understood fully only in retrospect many years later.
First, the doctor who delivered them installed them in their own small house, a Skinner Box-like environment. They were cared for by nurses who were discouraged from touching the girls. The nurses came and went, and when they moved on, the quintuplets were distressed as if they had lost a mother. The doctor specified a regimen of times to wake, play, eat and sleep. Their mother visited, but they never knew her as their mother, and she often quarreled with the nurses, who didn't want her to touch her daughters. In fact, mother and children never seemed to bond. The quintuplets knew no other children and little about anything outside their small world.
But the world knew them. Ontario controlled the rights to their photographs and prevented their father from making a picture when he attempted to do so. He sometimes sold his autograph for 25 cents.
The quintuplets were featured in magazine articles, books, newsreels and advertising. The province established their home as Quintland, a commercial attraction. Tourists could see them playing at scheduled hours from an observation deck through a piece of gauze. In all, it is estimated that Ontario made $500 million from quintuplet tourism and promotions.
Over the years, three million people visited Quintland. The traffic stopped during World War II, when gas and tires were rationed. At that point their father was granted his oft-stated wish to move the quints home to a large house that Ontario had built across the street from Quintland.
There, too, the quintuplets had a difficult experience. Their other siblings (who eventually numbered seven) and their parents did not like them particularly, and the five girls were treated more harshly and given more household chores than the other children. They were told that there were two families: the five of them and all the rest.
Their brothers and sisters were sent away to school, but the quintuplets completed high school with a few other neighborhood girls across the street from their home in the former Quintland building.
Later, when the remaining quintuplets were in their 60s, they revealed that their mother had beaten them and their father had harrassed them and made sexual advances.
When the quintuplets turned 18, they moved out of the family home, seeking anonymity and peace. Their relationships with their parents never were repaired, and their siblings complained publicly that their stories of harsh treatment at home were false.
Two went into a convent; one left, and the other died. Two trained as nurses, and one studied music. Each received $121,000 when they turned 21. Their father, who had parsimoniously doled out small amounts of their own money to them, resented this.
Three married. All the marriages failed. A second quintuplet died young, alcoholic and alone. When the three remaining quintuplets attended their father's funeral in 1979 after years of no contact with their family, their mother told them they had killed him.
Two of the quintuplets, now 80, remain. In 1995, as a French book was being released with their cooperation, one of them sat for a long interview with a British reporter. Her son (the remaining one of twins) was with her and said she was happy and at peace.
In the newsman's telling, she was angry and regretful at the way she and her sisters were treated, but also thoughtful about her life and generous in her assessment of the adults who had mistreated her in her early years.
The reporter asked what she wished had been different in her life.
"We should have been raised as normal children," she told him.