A gripping indictment of society’s treatment of “losers.”
In 1966, a pilot program at the Abilene State School in Texas moved six developmentally disabled men to a ranch run by T.H. Johnson, who agreed to teach the “boys,” as he called them, basic agricultural skills. They would be paid a pittance and board at the ranch, saving the state money and providing Johnson with a source of very cheap labor. Award-winning New York Times writer and columnist Barry (Bottom of the 33rd: Hope and Redemption in Baseball’s Longest Game, 2012, etc.) rivetingly chronicles the lives of these men and 26 more who worked for the irascible Johnson at his turkey processing plant in Texas and, later, in Atalissa, Iowa. From 1974 until 2009, Johnson’s workers, living in filthy, decrepit housing, were paid far below minimum wage, from which room and board were deducted; were denied medical and dental care; and were violently abused by their overseers. Every day, they caught, killed, and gutted turkeys, work, Barry writes, that was “hard…and repetitive, a bloody, filthy, feathery mess.” Along the way, a social worker discovered the “slave-labor camp” and reported the “human-rights horror” to the Iowa Department of Social Services only to be told that the company’s operation—a “for-profit business model with a paternalistic overlay of limited freedoms and routine discipline”—seemed legitimate. The townspeople of Atalissa liked the “boys,” who sometimes came to town, marched in parades, and bought candy with their small allowances, and the men were proud to be workers; they didn’t openly complain. But one man’s sister, desperate over her brother’s plight, caught the attention of a tenacious investigative reporter, whose exposé shocked the nation. Finally, social services sprang to action, and the men were extricated, cared for, and embraced by those who had long ignored them.
Gently, empathetically, and indelibly, Barry conveys a tale of unthinkable brutality.