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THE FERNALD STATE SCHOOL AND LOSS OF CHILDHOOD: LIVES RUINED THROUGH MISGUIDED PUBLIC POLICY

Kolodny, Edwin H. MD

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Dr. Kolodny is Bernard A. and Charlotte Marden Professor and Chairman of the Department of Neurology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.

The State Boys Rebellion: A True Story By Michael D'Antonio

308 Pages • Simon & Schuster 2004

The State Boys Rebellion is the story of a group of unfortunate young boys from Massachusetts who were incarcerated in childhood by a misguided social welfare system. Deprived of adequate educational and social opportunities with no hope of freedom, they struggled to achieve normalcy within a cruel and abusive environment. The true story of how they survived state-sponsored neglect and terror, their remarkable rebellion, and their determined struggle to lead meaningful lives as adults is beautifully told in fascinating detail by Michael D'Antonio, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist.

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HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Figure. The State Bo...
Figure. The State Bo...
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D'Antonio provides a well-documented and compelling historical context for that story. Institutional care for the mentally retarded in America began with the founding of a school for the feeble minded in Boston in 1848 by Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe. He believed that these children could be trained to lead productive, independent lives. In 1887, the school moved to the suburb of Waltham, where its residents could learn farming and shop skills and eventually graduate into the community.

The rise of the eugenics movement changed this grand vision of Dr. Howe. In 1883, the term “eugenics” was coined by Sir Francis Dalton, who thought that hereditary factors accounted for a class of superior individuals. The rapid rise of poverty and crime among immigrants in America's cities was considered the result of negative eugenics so that such organizations as the Race Betterment Foundation were established to encourage perfect eugenics marriages. Eventually prominent Americans became supporters of this cause, urging the elimination of those who are destined because of inferior heredity to perpetuate illiteracy and criminal behavior.

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THE IQ TEST

Dr. Walter E. Fernald, one of Howe's successors felt that the students at the school in Waltham could not achieve self-sufficiency and that the offspring of the brighter “feebleminded” would result in further social ills. He therefore advocated “the permanent care of this class before they have carried out a long career of expensive crime.”

The creation of the IQ test by Alfred Binet in 1904 and its refinement by Stanford University professor Louis Terman as the Stanford-Binet test made it possible supposedly to identify “high-grade defectives.” Henry Goddard, author of a book on the Kallikaks, a tale of a six-generation feeble-minded family, argued that morons – those with IQ scores between 50 and 70 – should be hunted out “so they do not propagate and make the problem worse.”

This attitude led to the acceptance in many states of programs of involuntary castration and sterilization of men and women considered unfit for reproduction. It began in Virginia in 1927 and continued there until 1979. Thirty states would eventually adopt the practice victimizing more than 66,000 individuals.

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MANY WITH NORMAL INTELLIGENCE

While some criticized the IQ test as flawed and showed that children of normal intelligence can become mentally subnormal in a non-stimulating environment, others asserted that love and affection by adults can “raise a child out of feeblemindedness.” The momentum to admit orphans or troublesome children including those who had been abused, neglected, or abandoned grew. These included youngsters of relatively normal intelligence.

In Massachusetts in 1949, such children accounted for approximately 8 percent of those in its state schools. With a population nationwide of more than 150,000 residents in 84 institutions of mental deficiency, D'Antonio estimates that 12,000 may have been of normal intelligence.

The Nazi government in Germany eventually adopted the ideas promulgated by the eugenics movement in America. After World War II, attempts were made to reject eugenics. The American Journal of Mental Deficiency dropped the heading “Eugenics” from its table of contents in 1945, yet programs of eugenics continued and the numbers of borderline children admitted to institutions continued to rise.

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COMMITMENT TO THE FERNALD STATE SCHOOL

The central character in D'Antonio's gripping tale is Freddie Boyce who, as a frightened and homeless seven year old, was committed to the Fernald State School in 1949 for an indefinite period. Abandoned by his mother, he had been a ward of the state since he was eight months old. In his seventh home in six years, along with other foster children, he was barred from attending the local school.

Without a legal guardian at his court hearing, he became a “state boy” and “lifer,” one without family ties or visitors. Confined to the Boys Dorm, he had to learn to fend for himself within a hierarchy run by the “big shots,” tough, smart, domineering boys who could defend themselves in a fight, and by attendants who were overwhelmed and could “lose it,” causing humiliation and terror among their charges. Deprived of affection and subject to physical and sexual abuse, Freddie and his friends vacillated between docile obedience and desperate defiance.

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HORRIBLE CONDITIONS

Overcrowding, lack of privacy, and inadequate staffing in the Boys Dorm created anger among the boys and a high turnover rate among attendants. Violence by the attendants escalated and, as the boys got older, they began to challenge the attendants physically.

Although it was considered a school, classroom time at Fernald was half that of a public school and not very challenging. Some of the teachers were not credentialed and the reports of those who tried to help were ignored. Contacts with therapists were also counterproductive as they signaled to the boys their acceptance of the label “retarded.” Paradoxically, the service staff regarded the boys as normal and prized their labor in the shops and gardens on the school grounds.

As kindly volunteers and television came into their lives, the State Boys felt even more acutely their involuntary confinement. Boredom, resentment, and the desire for revenge led to fires, false alarms, break-ins, and then escapes. Always they were returned by police to Fernald, but their escapes showed the State Boys that they were indeed capable in spite of their meager education. Talk of possible “parole” in the future only exacerbated their anger at being equated with criminals. “With each day, the State Boys grew bigger and smarter, and they were obsessed with what lay beyond Fernald's boundaries.”

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SEETHING RAGE LEADS TO RIOTING

Finally, on the very day of the first Sputnik in space, November 4, 1957, a full-blown riot broke out in Ward 22, causing much destruction as a group of teenagers held the police, fire, and state mental health authorities at bay until late in the evening. While Fred Boyce was not one of the rioters, 15 of his fellows were hauled off to Bridgewater State Hospital, some to languish there for years without schooling.

Meanwhile, the public was beginning to learn about the conditions at state schools like Fernald through documentaries such as Christmas in Purgatory, published in 1966, and through activism on the part of organizations such as the National Association for Retarded Citizens and individuals such as Gunnar Dybwad. More federal money was made available for research of the mentally retarded, the Kennedy Foundation came into being, and by 1970 a federally-funded research center for mental retardation was established on the grounds of the Fernald School.

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LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE

But for Fred Boyce, his friends, Joey Almeida and Robert and Albert Gayne, and many others who were deprived of their childhood and education, it was too late. Today these same youngsters would have been labeled as learning disabled and been given special education opportunities within a community of their peers.

Adjustment to life on the outside, when they were finally given their release, was difficult. They found work at menial jobs and flirted with trouble. Fred lost a promotion when he admitted that he could not read. They suffered socially, could not develop emotional attachments, tried hard to find relatives, and harbored fantasies of revenge. From all his “years reading the faces of attendants Fred did develop an uncanny ability to assess people in an instant,” which helped him to succeed on the carnival circuit.

Ambivalence about the institution led Fred to return to Thom Hospital at Fernald when he needed stitches and Joey to work there as a driver. Many did settle down, marry, and raise families but most hid their past from those closest to them. Doris Gagne, who had escaped to Buffalo, NY, at age 17 and eventually raised six children “was unable to feel the emotion that she knew others experienced.” With her children, “she was all business, like an attendant in an institution.”

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AN APOLOGY AND COMPENSATION

Always Fred harbored a need to reach a resolution about the loss of childhood. The opportunity came when it was revealed in December 1993 that many of the boys had participated in an experiment in the late 40s and early 50s involving oatmeal containing radioactive calcium. Enticed into a “Science Club” for this purpose with special inducements and without informed consent, the story was picked up by reporters who discovered that scores of Atomic Energy Commission radiation research projects of this type had been carried out without the knowledge of their participants.

For Fred, who was present in Washington for the apology, this was not enough to compensate “these guys [who] had their lives ruined because people were trying to do good.” With the help of brave lawyers, he and more than 70 others in the Science Club eventually won a monetary settlement from the Quaker Oats Company, MIT, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS

As I read this meticulously researched and voluminously footnoted book, I recalled my own experiences as a visiting student at Fernald in the 60s and as a researcher at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center in the 70s and 80s. The author's description of the people and facilities rings true. The North building was indeed a “snake pit” where “puddles and piles of human waste littered the floor.… The room was filled with rhythmic moans, chirps and shouts from stooped and drugged men, many of whom were either half-dressed or completely naked.” Thom Hospital, on the other hand, was a refuge of kindness and decency where the most deformed and helpless residents received compassionate care.

From the mid-1960s onward, much progress was made in moving Fernald residents out into the community so that only a few hundred of the most disabled persons remained. One tragic long-termer who declined to leave was Charlie Dolphus, who like the infamous Mayo Buckner of the Iowa Home for Feeble-Minded Children, preferred the safety and security of Fernald to the unknown of the outside world.

The disciple of the behaviorist, B.F. Skinner, unnamed by D'Antonio, was probably Dr. Murray Sidman whose research showed that even the profoundly retarded possessed adaptive skills. In his research with North Building residents, he rewarded correct responses with tokens that they could trade for candy and other items. Some realized that they could add to their collection of tokens by flattening bottle caps that they found on the grounds using a rock as a hammer! Systematic surveys of the Fernald School population were made by trainees from the Massachusetts General Hospital and for the first time diagnoses of chromosomal abnormalities, inherited metabolic diseases, and genetic syndromes were made. One outcome was the publication of Mental Retardation, the first atlas of its kind by Holmes, Moser, and others.

I left in 1991 just as Sandra Marlowe arrived to catalog the history of the Fernald School. D'Antonio describes her collaboration with Fred Boyce and Joey Almeida in unearthing records that eventually helped the Science Club boys to win their token victory against a misguided public bureaucracy, which for too long oppressed a defenseless minority of our citizens.

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RECOMMENDATION

The State Boys Rebellion should be read by everyone who works with developmentally delayed and learning disabled youngsters and those children with troubled families or behavior disorders. It should be required reading for pediatricians, neurologists, psychiatrists, social workers, family lawyers, and judges, as well as students of the social sciences and modern American history. Its scholarly value is enhanced by photographs, voluminous footnotes, and a detailed index. Henceforth, it should no longer be possible to say: “Boy did you get a screwing in life.”

©2004 American Academy of Neurology

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