A dip into the appalling archives of an American movement to institutionalize the “feeble-minded” that persisted well into the 1970s.
Pulitzer-winner D’Antonio (Atomic Harvest, 1993, etc.) efficiently takes readers unfamiliar with eugenics as an outgrowth of the Progressive political movement through some hair-raising background. Beginning around 1900, scientists posited that intelligence levels and mental defects were 100% genetically transferable (i.e., inherited), a contention that resulted in a mass scare. If allowed to roam society unsterilized and reproduce, Americans concluded, “substandards” would eventually reduce us literally to a nation of babbling idiots. The eventual result, D’Antonio reminds (as hard as it is to believe), was that nascent Nazi movement in Germany actually looked to the US as a model for control of the genetically unfit, later adding its own unique ethnic perspectives. The author then zeroes in on Fred Boyce, a kid in Massachusetts shuttled from one foster home to another and finally, in 1949, committed to the state’s Walter E. Fernald School for the Feebleminded along with many other “typical morons” who today would be recognized as completely normal kids whose speech, learning, and/or physical disabilities set them apart. But in the mid-20th century, D’Antonio notes, “Across the nation, 84 institutions housed a total of 150,000 children and 26 more state schools were under construction.” Boyce’s years of ordeal are documented along with the parallel struggles of several close buddies as they fought to overcome abuse, neglect, and eternal ennui to break free of the Fernald pigeonhole and reenter society as husbands and fathers. As a crowning indignity, it was revealed only a decade ago, Fred and other members of Fernald’s Science Club were at one time administered doses of irradiated calcium (in breakfast oatmeal) without their knowledge or consent as part of an “outside experiment.”
Gross injustice wrought by pseudo-science seen intimately from the inside.