“There is a hell on earth, and in America there is a special inferno. We were visitors there during Christmas, 1965."
Beat that for a first sentence. It’s from a book published in 1966 called Christmas In Purgatory: A Photographic Essay on Mental Retardation that details two reporters’ visits to institutions on the East Coast. If it’s true that pictures are worth a thousand words, this book has enough words to fill a few oceans.
I stumbled upon the photos online while helping my son research a history paper. He and his eighth-grade classmates were asked to write a paper about an American hero. He chose to profile a woman in our community who started an after-school center for kids with special needs.
Aidan, who has Down syndrome, has gone there for years to play basketball, take theater classes, learn karate, and take a gazillion other classes. The skills he’s learned there have meant that he can play on the town basketball team, play with his classmates on the playground, and generally feel confident in a world that moves at lightning speed.
I thought his choice of highlighting the mother who started the center to be particularly inspired.
But I thought it needed context, so we started to research disability history. Of course, I knew about the institutions. (There is the remains of one just a few towns over, and I remember the jokes kids made about it when I was growing up — “What, are you from Belchertown or something?” was one of the worst insults you could throw.) But running into those pictures was still shocking, especially as I think of my son who goes to middle school, wrestles with math, sings solo in the chorus, has a mad crush on the redhead in homeroom, and in general lives a very full life. These photos are not ancient history — Belchertown didn’t close until 1992, and Fernald, in the eastern part of the state, still has a few residents.
So now I have to debate if I’ll share this book and these photos with Aidan for his project. Does he need to know how little value we put on people in the not-so-distant past? I don’t know. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.