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The State Boys Rebellion
"D'Antonio's remarkable ability to reconstruct scenes through the eyes of young Freddie and his friends and his restrained and luminous writing would alone make this book worth reading. But his story also reaches back to show how the State Boys' abuse resulted from early 20th-century reformers' benevolent attempt to offer special training to the mentally retarded. D'Antonio's analysis of the dark, unintended consequences makes this not only a fascinating read, but a necessary one for anyone interested in how terrible harm can sometimes be born of a sincere desire to do good." Mary Wiltenburg, The Christian Science Monitor (read the entire Christian Science Monitor review)
Synopses & Reviews
At age seven, an orphan boy named Freddie Boyce finally believed he had found a real home with a kindly widow who raised foster children on her farm in rural Massachusetts. But when his foster mother died in the winter of 1949, Freddie was subjected to a rudimentary IQ test and then sent to a state institution for the feebleminded. There, along with other relatively normal State Boys, he would endure neglect, abuse, and terror and live without the hope of ever being free again.
Though they couldn't possible know it, the children of the Fernald State School were the victims of bad science and a newly developed bureaucracy designed to save America from the so-called "menace of the feebleminded." Beginning early in the twentieth century, United States health officials used crude versions of the modern IQ tests to identify supposedly "deficient" children and lock them away. The idea was to protect society from potential criminals and to prevent so-called undesirables from having children and degradingthe American gene pool.
Under programs that existed in almost every state and continued into the 1970s, more than 250,000 children were separated from their families. Tens of thousands of these were not disabled but merely unwanted orphans, truants, or delinquents. Yet they were denied proper education, routinely abused, and could be subjected to forced surgical sterilization, lobotomy, shock therapy, and psychotropic drugs.
The State Boys Rebellion is the dramatic and meticulously researched true story of Fred Boyce and a group of boys who never accepted their incarceration at the Fernald State School in Massachusetts and insisted they were normal. In many cases, school officials noted that they were not disabled and did not belong in an institution. But the school depended on their unpaid labor, and so they were kept locked away in wards where many were beaten, raped, forced to fight each other. They were offered no hope for freedom and knew that others had grown old and died within Fernald's walls.
Inspired by what they learned from television and radio about the national civil rights movement, the State Boys protested their mistreatment, pleaded in vain for their freedom, and rebelled by running away. Finally, in a desperate attempt to get attention for their plight, they seized control of a prisonlike ward and demanded their rights. Although the participants in this dramatic event were imprisoned for their actions, the takeover eventually led to freedom for many State Boys, who were given minimal training and then released to fend for themselves.
In these pages, the reader will learn how the State Boys struggle to survive without family, social connections, or education. Some never adjust and die of alcohol and drug abuse. Others manage to build stable lives, with good jobs, family, and friends. While they try to forget the past, it all comes rushing back in the 1990s when news reports announce that they had been used as human guinea pigs in Cold War experiments in which they were fed radioactive oatmeal. Under Fred Boyce's leadership, the State Boys reunite, sue, and win a multimillion-dollar settlement.
To capture this story, award-winning journalist Michael D'Antonio worked closely with the surviving State Boys, interviewed former Fernald teachers and professionals, used the archives of the school, and won the release of previously sealed papers. The result is a thoroughly documented story from an almost-forgotten corner of American history. It reveals the danger in misguided science, the fearsome power of unchecked bureaucracies, and the remarkable resilience of the human spirit.
"The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment shockingly demonstrated that the world's most powerful narcotic might well be unlimited power over the powerless. Emancipation movements the world over have also taught us that even the most abjectly powerless will, given enough time, fight for their freedom and dignity. These two precepts are at the heart of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist D'Antonio's startling account of the wholesale incarceration of the mentally retarded during the middle decades of the last century. The bastard child of progressivism and eugenics, the institutionalization by the 1930s of needy children with below-average IQs was a well-established part of the legal system. The effect of this was to consign many children to overcrowded and underfunded medical prisons where physical, emotional and sexual abuse was rampant — and quite literally without end. D'Antonio wisely chooses one institution, the Walter E. Fernald School for the Feebleminded, in Massachusetts, where a group of boys, utterly (and correctly) convinced of their lack of abnormal status, after nearly two decades of confinement, in 1957 instigated a violent uprising in Ward 22, the prisonlike facility where misbehaving inmates were periodically sent. Thanks to their indomitable conviction that their institutionalization was unjust and the growing awareness on the part of certain sympathetic outsiders over several decades, these young men were finally able to help put an end to this ghastly system. D'Antonio (Atomic Harvest, etc.) deftly combines detailed archival research and extensive personal interviews to paint a richly nuanced picture of a horrifying and shamefully underexposed part of our country's recent history. Agent, David McCormick. (May)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Gross injustice wrought by pseudo-science seen intimately from the inside." Kirkus Reviews
"Here is medical and social history writ large....Here, too, is lucid, compelling, thoughtful writing — a narrative we readers will ponder long and hard." Dr. Robert Coles
"The inevitable defiance...supplies the movement to D'Antonio's depiction of Fernald, but his crystallization of the despair there is what will most strongly affect readers. Great credit is due D'Antonio for his high-quality reportaged." Booklist
"The State Boys Rebellion is an important and moving story, secret too long. This is why men and women become writers, to tell stories like this, to remind us of who we are at our worst, and at our best." Richard Reeves, author of President Nixon: Alone in the White House and American Journey
"[A] brilliant, masterfully reported story, and by recounting the lives of the boys incarcerated at Fernald State School in Massachusetts, he has written a deeply moving book of lasting historical importance." Robert Whitaker, author of The Mapmaker's Wife
Evocative of Erin Brockovich and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The State Boys Rebellion presents a remarkable history of a group of boys who survived one of the darkest and least known episodes in American history.
About the Author
Michael D'Antonio is the author of many acclaimed books, including Atomic Harvest, Fall from Grace, Tin Cup Dreams, and Mosquito. Two of his original stories, Deacons for Defense and Crown Heights, have been made into films for the Showtime network, and his articles have appeared in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and many other publications. Among his many awards is the Pulitzer Prize, which he shared with a team of reporters for Newsday. He lives on Long Island with his wife and daughters.
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