In this chapter I bring together some major themes of the book, and our of times. In Amenia, the small-town setting of this story, for many generations there was state school for “feeble-minded children” that employed most of the residents. It was the site of a horrific scandal in the 1950s: murders, abuse, forced sterilization. It was part of the eugenics movement promoted by US Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. that lasted generations. If the institution were to reopen for business today, they might be locking up moral imbeciles who don’t believe in vaccines or conspiracy theorists who are trying to destroy faith in democracy.
I’m doing some interior renovation of the novel as I get closer to finishing it. I have a self-inflicted deadline of 9/11 to get this first draft done. This chapter is out of order for the moment, but the way I write each chapter can stand alone as a short story.
Some believe that history is cyclical and that constitutional democracies, like organisms, are born, develop, mature, senesce and then die. If a small town is a fractal of this global cycle, Amenia’s wheel was low on a downturn, synched with the United States generally, or even all of post-Enlightenment political systems. It does seem that our institutions are showing advanced symptoms societal dementia; they are irritable, irrational, reactionary and have forgotten completely the hard lessons humanity has learned over the ages.
Perhaps at this moment, at our temporal section of the wheel, having met the ground, we will finally feel acutely the pressure of being squeezed by all the weight of the ideological machinery above and the unyielding reality below.
I do believe the Amenia proles are stirring from their transgenerational nightmare.
In Wassaic, a deep valley hamlet in the town of Amenia—where now the repurposed Borden evaporated milk factory makes extruded plastics—one of seven massive state institutions dedicated to the eugenics movement was founded in the 1930s and employed the entire town for decades. With a capacity for 1,500 “unfit” children, by the 1950s over 5,000 slept head to foot on cots.
It was a warm late October morning. Julia had finally decided to bring her daughter up with her for the weekend. We were driving north on Route 22, when Honoré pointed to a dormant smokestack protruding from the valley of the Ten Mile River. “What’s that factory?”
“Oh, I’ve never noticed that before,” said Julia turning to me. While she waited for my explanation, she mused about how now that it wasn’t belching soot, the smokestack had become a sentimental symbol of a bygone industry. Beneath it one might find, poised on a bank, an old brick building that would make nice luxury condominiums.
“It’s like a steeple,” added Honoré perceptively.
I turned right onto to Sinpatch Road (the name of which is the subject of a story for another time) and drove up the hill to the old site of the Wassaic School for Feeble-Minded Children.
Explaining the massive brick chimney as we passed it, I said, “There used to be a power generation plant here for a state institution that housed over five thousand people.”
“In Amenia?” asked Julia, voice pitched high in disbelief.
Indeed she was right to be surprised for the regular residents of Amenia couldn’t have numbered more that a couple thousand then, if that.
The wide road, sentried by antique lampposts, wound round a desolate grassy hill. After a while a bell tower appeared upon a red-clay tiled rooftop, and then the stuccoed stately hall came into view. It was reminiscent of her Stamford University campus, noted Julia, with its Spanish flair in the arched portico and wrought iron lights flanking the front entrance. Spread out across the landscape were dozens of Spanish-style single-story dormitories. The no trespassing signs, the eerie quiet, empty parking lots, and darkened windows said definitively that the facilities were deserted, but the recently mowed acreage implied a readiness to reactivate the institution at any moment.
“Can we get in trouble?” asked Honoré as I parked the car near the administration hall.
“Not if we don’t try to go in. My friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and I used to get up on the rooftops and pry open the doors. It’s a mess inside. Peeling lead paint everywhere.”
“The place seems somehow inviting, but there’s no living person to greet you,” said Julia. “It’s like a trap.”
Behind the dorms we could vaguely make out the doctors’ and directors’ Tudor style brick and slate roof mansions, still intact but surrounded by trees that would be digging into their foundations. Above all the campus suggested the kind of mismanagement and waste of resources of which only a state is capable. The buildings had been blamed for what went on inside them. Now the place was cursed.
“What happened?” asked Honoré, sensing that something terrible had made a ghost town of the school.
We walked behind the main building and found a second in similar stucco style. Peering through the dirty windows, we saw a four-lane bowling alley festooned with cobwebs. The lanes and railings were beautifully crafted of rosewood, scrolled like court banisters or church pews.
“Like a fancy club,” said Julia.
“The plan initially, was to make seem like a resort,” I explained. “Theoretically the inmates would rise at dawn in the bucolic setting and exercise to music, then sing in the chapel before doing their lessons in reading and writing. Then in the afternoon it was vocational training, sewing and laundry for the girls, woodshop and farming for the boys. In the evening, strolls under ash trees along the boardwalk in the park and, if they had been good boys and girls all day, bowling.”
“They couldn’t have been very feeble-minded if they could do all that,” said Julia.
“No,” I agreed. We walked in silence toward the park.
“This could be beautiful. Such a shame,” said Julia.
“Mom, look apples,” said Honoré. There was an old orchard near one of the dorms. We each sampled an apple. Sweet.
Behind us a door creaked on its hinges. I approached the broken door and opened it slowly. Its lock had been wrenched apart.
“Don’t go in,” said Julia.
“I’m just going to take a quick look, as a historian.”
“We’re staying here.”
“Pick some apples,” I said and went in.
In the hallway of the dorm, daylight streamed from open doors and I walked slowly crunching broken ceramic tiles and dried plaster beneath my feet. In the common area, kids had spray-painted “Get Out!” in red paint and “Shit” in black. Glancing into one of the rooms, I saw several industrial-style beds with pipe and flange headboards. On the wall was a child’s drawing of an apple tree. It was not the primitive art of feeble-minded child.
The official scientific classification, “feeble minded imbecile,” in those days was defined as having an IQ under 60, and they were smarter than the “idiots” whose IQs were said to be between 0 and 25, but they were not as smart as some “morons,” whose IQ might be as high as 70.
The main reason behind labels was to have having something to attach to a sciencey-seeming quantitative measurement. Never mind that the IQ test for immigrant children was in English or that some native speakers hadn’t been taught to read. The point was that somebody had to fill out a form in order to get the state to institutionalize abandoned children. The form required a label and a number. But of course they quickly packed the place with people who had high IQs or who just weren’t like everybody else.
I entered the room in order to get the drawing to give to Honoré. It took some effort to work the tack out of the plaster wall. As I turned I saw in the corner on the floor a doll made out of old socks, the work, probably, of our resourceful student artist, wrongfully diagnosed.
I went further into the building until I found the staircase. On the second floor, some recent cleaning had taken place and there was evidence of work in progress: carpenter’s pencils on the floor and a few drill bits. When I made a round of the floor, I saw the same kind of abandoned rooms that I had seen on the first floor. But, as I started back down the stairs, I noticed a closed door. All the others had been left ajar.
I tried the knob on the door to Room 101. It was locked. I headed back down the stairs.
I hadn’t mentioned to Julia that during one of my earlier explorations of the facilities I’d actually stolen documents from some filing cabinets. In those files I’d found handwritten letters to the inmates dating from the early thirties through the war. I had summarized the contents and cataloged the references to usual weather events, food rations, various local news and such things that help historians form a context for the subject they study. I later deposited the cataloged documents at the local public library as part of my research project for my Master’s Thesis.
Sadly what I found in all of the letters, without exception, was a perfunctory tone, usually from a guardian or a distant relative. There were very few letters considering how many children were held here. Most were orphans, I gathered, or had fathers who had gone to prison.
When they completed their education, they were shipped out to well-to-do families as servants and farmhands, under which circumstances it was much more convenient that they’d been spayed and neutered. Every elite class must have its eunuchs.
We may say that the Wassaic School for Feeble-Minded Children was the brainchild of Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He believed, to the tips of his grandiose mustache, that, if the State could conscript the best citizens to lay down their lives in war, it surely could compel the unfit—who do nothing but sap the strength of the State—to make the lesser sacrifice of being sterilized, to prevent our nation from being swamped with incompetence. (These are all his words.) It is better for all the world, he opined, if instead of waiting to execute their degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, the State could simply prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.
He further noted, in his landmark decision that still partly stands to this day, that the legal principle that granted the State power to force children to get vaccinated also granted it the power to cut Fallopian tubes. In fact, the poor and disenfranchised should submit to whatever medical intervention the managerial class deems necessary to protect the elites.
When I re-emerged from the dormitory, Julia and Honoré had picked a few bushels of apples and held them in their hiked skirts, showing their knees.
“I’ve got some bags in the car,” I said and jogged off in that direction.
As we drove away putting the smoke stack behind us I mused, Did Booz’s parents, Holly’s or Kimmie’s grandparents tie the children in their beds, forbid them to speak at meal times? Did they assist in surgeries to sterilize them? Did they help backfill the unmarked graves? Would the Amenia moms and dads come home to their own children, after a ten-hour shift trying to keep the hundreds of children still and quiet and feces-free, apply the same authoritarian terror they did on the job?
If so, how many generations would it take to erase the habit? Abused children tend to grow up to be abusive parents. In the rearview mirror of time, even childhood trauma can take on a nostalgic aspect, even the suffering and deprivation, even the maternal backhand across the face, the humiliating laughter from your own guardians, the paternal slobbery hugs that followed the bouts of brutal beatings. That happened to me and I turned out okay, so …
At some point though they would have to realize that force and subjugation is no way to help anyone. If the institution were to reopen for business today, they might be locking up moral imbeciles who don’t believe in vaccines or conspiracy theorists who are trying to destroy faith in democracy. History tends to repeat itself. Unless the vermin class begins to wake up.
Would the state institution workers’ children and grandchildren revolt when the state tried to lock them down, when the state told them it was for their own good and the good of society?
Yes, the wheel had turned. The old Amenia locals didn’t like it when the State treated them like feeble-minded children. They stood right up and asked, Are public health officials really the best ones to make decisions for us?
If you want to support this work, leave a tip through PayPal.