Know who made that tub? My sons did,” Mama says. “Know who made that picture?” pointing to a wall hanging. “I made it, I did.” See these walls? My sons made them. See that curtain? Know who made that? I made it, I did.” “Didn't your sons make that television, Mama?” I ask. “No, they didn't. I bought that television at Macy's in New York City.” 

Of course, Celeste's not really my mama, though she thought she was. But then, she thought she was the mama of ever so many people. Yes....here is another story from days at the group home.
Celeste had no end of sons. Oddly, she tended to arrange them in groups of fifty, as in the Bible.  Lots of daughters, too, but she emphasized sons. She had fifty sons who were policemen, she'd declare. They carry big guns with them, this long (a gesture about a foot and a half) Mess with them, and they'll crack you right in the jaw! She had another fifty sons who were priests, also sons who were bishops, and a son who was a Pope. Others were firemen. Ah....it's good to have so many sons, she must feel really blessed. “Nah....they're all bastards,” she'd say. “They all have their own wives. They don't come to see their mother. They just think of themselves, they do.”
It must be stated at this point that “bastard” was Celeste's word of choice. Everything was a bastard. She'd use the word when angry. She'd use the word when not angry. Her room was filled with objects both animate and inanimate....they're all bastards, she'd chuckle. “That elephant, that there, he keeps looking at me, he does, the bastard,” she'd mutter, and thumb her nose at it. Easing herself into the sit-down tub, she'd curse her own leg. “Get in there, you bastard!” and then “Hah! Called my own leg a bastard!” followed up by a  laugh at the witticism. “Shut up, you bastard!” she'd tell the toilet, and then: “How can it talk? It don't have a mouth.”
Now, being wholesome such as I am, I gave serious thought as to whether I should really sprinkle this post with “bastards.” In the end, I decided I would. First, it was Celeste's word, not mine. Second, I can't imagine conveying a feel for the woman without using her vocabulary. Third – trust me on this -  I'm sparing the reader (so far) 90% of what she'd routinely say. Fourth, aren't the real swear words ones like “kill,” “rape,” “war,” as Brother Wease told our brother? “The words I use (a lot....he's the closest Rochester comes to “shock jock”) are just silly words,” he says. To which our guy replied that since they are silly, we try to avoid them, but he didn't disagree with Wease's premise. Fifth, I sometimes wonder if strict avoidance of all course words isn't more a Victorian relic than a biblical one. Read through the Old Testament, and you'll find some earthy accounts. Somehow, I can't picture those OT characters using the sanitized words modern translators ascribe to them. When Elijah taunted no-show Baal, for example, in front of  his worshipers: “And it came about at noon that Elijah began to mock them and say: “Call at the top of your voice, for he is a god; for he must be concerned with a matter, and he has excrement and has to go to the privy,” I somehow can't picture him using that word. Celeste refers to the same substance frequently, and, believe me, she does not say “excrement.” Therefore, for this post only, I am relaxing my normally impeccable standards of fine language. [let the reader be warned]
When Celeste was but a young woman, her father gave her in to the latest medical craze – that of lobotomies. For about 15 years, that operation was all the rage in America. Group house lore was somewhat vague on dad's reason, obscured by many decades, but it seems Celeste had borne a couple of children out of wedlock. That didn't sit well with the family, and the operation was deemed a good way to control her behavior.
Lobotomies were first performed on humans by Dr. Antonio Egaz Moniz. He won a 1949 Nobel prize for his work. Dr Moniz' technique was to drill two holes on either side of the forehead, through each of which he would insert a special surgical knife to sever the brain's frontal cortex from its thalamus. As might be imagined, the operation was none too precise. However, it was thought to aid psychotic patients afflicted with repetitive thought, and a number of them did find relief. But there were also some who got worse, and others who showed no change, in fact, the results were in just about the same proportions one might obtain by doing nothing.  In time, Dr Moniz would advocate his procedure for only the most extreme and incurable of cases. He retired from medicine after one of his patients shot him, leaving him paralyzed. It's tempting to say it was one of his lobotomized patients, but no...it wasn't. It was a non-lobotomized one. (but did the fellow fear he might be next on the "to-do" list?)
Once you attuned yourself to Celeste's frequency, she was quite enjoyable to talk to. You'd play along, of course, try to enter her world. What was real and what was delusion? Sometimes, she'd claim to have made this knicknack or that contraption, like that wall hanging, other times she might say she'd bought them at Macy's in New York, a store owned by one of her sons. Life had apparently been harsh for Celeste. Any number of people in the past had hit her, even her own sons. They'd hit her hard for no reason at all, but she'd always managed to get them back, one time, for example, by knocking them “down the stairs and breaking both their f**king legs, the big bastards.”
Yet in public she could be surprisingly gracious, uninhibitedly complimenting this or that person on their dress or shoes or general appearance, going from person to person, then back to a favorite or two. People loved her. At first I braced myself for the type of invective that she would hurl in a heartbeat back home (“My God! Look at that ass! No wonder - she eats like a hog!”) but there was none of it, as if she was a different person. And if you led her in song ("I wonder if we can get away with singing a song for these people, Mama") such as Unforgettable, you'd find she would join in with perfect pitch, though she'd manage only a line or two undistracted. She used to sing, so she said, on a stage in New York City when she was seven years old. Several people at the last doctor's office waiting room said she'd made their day.

They used to come in through the eye sockets, just above the eyeball; American doctors had learned to streamline Moniz's time-consuming European process. And, surely reserving the process for only the most desperate and incurable was too conservative! Insert an ice-pick instrument behind the eye, a light smack of a mallet would pierce thin tissue and bone underneath, and then a quick rotation of the pick end. The knife end would swish like a windshield wiper, severing all in its path. Some experienced doctors, it's said, would faint at the sight. Electroshock sufficed for anesthesia. The entire process could be done in ten minutes. Largely through the near-evangelistic promotion of one American physician, Walter Freeman, (who trained scores of others) lobotomies became accepted therapy for convicted criminals, for discipline cases, for difficult relatives, for those exhibiting otherwise undesirable behavior. Eighteen thousand were performed between 1939 and 1951 in the United States. President John F. Kennedy's sister Rosemary received the operation as a young girl. The mildly retarded girl was going a little “boy-crazy,” much to the well-connected family's embarrassment, so dad took her to Dr Freeman. After the procedure, Rosemary spent the rest of her life institutionalized. Her father never told the rest of the family what he had done. (The case sounds remarkably like that of Celeste, though be assured, they were not the same person; there were many such cases.)
The media couldn't get enough of Dr Freeman. When he rolled into town, in his Loboto-Mobile – yes, newspapers actually called it that! - his exploits would make front page headlines. Curing mental distress was as easy, they wrote, as curing a toothache! Magazines such as Time and Life sang his praises, exaggerating his successes, sweeping aside his failures. A showman, he would sometimes do both eyes at once, two-handed lobotomies! He'd line patients up as in an assembly line, once doing 25 women in a single day.
I'd somehow assumed a lobotomized person wouldn't recall the procedure. I was mistaken. “I got a son who's a doctor,” Celeste confided once, “a brain doctor! He did an operation on me, he did, he hurt me real bad, he did. I saw stars from heaven! See....I got two holes in my head. (I leaned forward to feel them....no, mama, I can't feel them anymore. They must have healed up) I was out cold for a week! It hurt like hell, it did. He didn't give a goddamn. It didn't hurt him any!” I asked why he would do something like that. “Well, I did some things when I was a girl,” she muttered sheepishly, “and he didn't like that.”

She had a lot of anger; that was apparent to all. She took it out on her housemates  - “get away from me, you bastard, I'll cut your throat!” - though they'd done nothing to her. (in time, one of them learned to make preemptive strikes) Yet she could unexpectedly change her tune: “Oh, that dress looks very nice on you, Connie.” And her sorrow at learning of someone's death was genuine. Lots of things frightened her, even things she'd made. She feared death, too. “What do you think happens when you die?” the psychologist probed. “Oh, I'll probably go to hell,” she responded. So the psychologist thought she might do well to see a priest, an idea that gained some traction and I went to a nearby church to see what could be arranged, till Celeste herself slammed the door with: “I don't wanna see no f**king priest!” So I told her later, when she likewise expressed concern over hell, that I didn't think there was any such place. "You know what hell is?" she said to me, dead serious. "This is hell, right here." I swear I don't think there was anything wrong with the woman mentally before the lobotomy. Strong-welled, likely. Rebellious, perhaps. But mentally, I bet she was okay. She isn't now, though.
You couldn't really pin down details, but there was a theme to her early life. It wasn't a nurturing one. Housemates will shed few tears when she dies, I fear, and one or two will positively rejoice. Was she “born mean,” as she herself would tell you? Was she raised mean? Or did she become mean pondering what  had been done to her. For, at a young age, those she trusted most were duped by the latest medical craze. She was put into their clutches, and they lobotomized her, they did.
The bastards.

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the book ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the book, 'In the Last of the Last Days: Faith in the Age of Dysfunction'

The French Version of Geraldo?

It's not unusual for the developmentally disabled to have issues of self-esteem. And it's not hard to see why. If your closest associates - in the vast majority of cases, your only associates - are people who have to be paid to see you, you don't think you might have some self-esteem issues?

But Doug has no issues of self-esteem. He is one of the few who has benefited from heavy family involvement. At the restaurant, he barks (more or less literally) directions to staff as they pass by - this or that dish is empty, and he holds it up to make his point. Doug is non-verbal. If you don't know him, you won't understand a thing he says. If you do know him, you still won't understand a thing he says but, combined with gestures, you can usually catch the drift. Doug's very social. He thrusts out a hand to men as they pass, inviting a handshake. From women he wants hugs; he holds out both arms.

After the meal, we drive over to the Fairport commons area - Liftbridge Park - to hang out a bit. We're in luck. Lots is happening - a classic car show and a live band. I wheel Doug near the band, an all-girl group called It's My Party, who perform songs from the early 60's, and perform them very well. They have matching outfits, just like in the 60's, synchronized gestures, and ... um...some campy 60's dialog between songs. The drummer is their producer, and their website says they have performed for 20 years. How can that be, since the singers themselves are yet high-schoolers? Ah, the producer has been around that long, and maybe some of the backup musicians, of which there are 8 or 9 - are some of them high-schoolers, too? The girl singers have been replaced once or twice.

Many in the audience are older folk - revisiting their youth, one suspects - and after the show, a woman remarks on the lankiest singer's long limbs. "Yeah, it's hard to get clothes," the performer replies. Actually, I thought she said it's hard to get close. That would fit too, for the trio accentuate their songs with 60's cheerleading gestures, arms flailing like windmills.

Doug is captivated by all this. You want to leave? I ask after a few songs. Slight but emphatic shake of the head no. You want to stay? Slight but emphatic shake of the head yes. You want one of their CDs? Yes. So we wait in the lineup, which really isn't wheelchair accessible, and they sign his copy with hugs and kisses - xxooxxoo. Of course, Doug solicits actual hugs and gets them from the girl or two closest to him. Backing out, he keeps it up and gets several more hugs from other girls....you know...girls in the audience, girl friends of the singers, and so forth!

Back at the home I write up a report - they like to keep track of social progress and "if it's not documented, it didn't happen." I tell about all the hugs and conclude with the question "how does he do that?" I mean, it's not as if anyone offered to hug me.

These are my people: the developmentally disabled - to use the current jargon. Working at the group home was probably the most enjoyable job I've ever had, and I resisted any attempts to rise in the ranks because each step up meant more bureaucracy and less contact with residents. I still keep up with them. This outing with Doug was on my own time.

All this explains why I'm not in a hurry to pick any quarrel with Sabrine Bonnaire, one of France's premiere actresses. We're on the same team. True, I'm not familiar with her acting career, but then I'm not French, am I? Who would ever have thought that a film would be made about a group home, and if it was, who would ever have thought it would be any good? But such is Ms. Bonnaire's first stab at film directing. The film is Her Name is Sabine. It's a documentary set in a group home. Sabine is Sabrine's sister.  Sigh....I hope it's not a sign of how invisible these people are that even the reviewer has screwed up the title: it is not the cheery My Name is Sabine, as he states. It is the more provocative Her Name is Sabine, implying that most people would see her as a subject, a patient, a resident, a disabled person, a ....but she has a name.

Sabrine Bonnaire makes sure people know her name. She's pulled photos and home movies out of a seemingly bottomless reservoir to show her sister growing up - a vibrant, talented (she plays classical piano), pleasantly quirky girl - once inseparable from the 18 month older Sabrine. But she suffers from autism. It's effects grow more pronounced through the years. Her parents pull her out of school and hire tutors. Still, she deteriorates. An admittance to the hospital's psych ward is a total disaster - the screen goes black while Sabrine narrates the details.

Sabine is now in a group home, just like where Doug is. The French actress used her fame to jump-start funding, and the house exists largely because of her. She's since met with French President Nocolas Sarkozy and Minister for Work and Social Affairs Xavier Bertrand to argue for the disabled. Is Sandrine Bonnaire the French version of Geraldo Rivera? Like him, she's done much to advocate for this most vulnerable population, and I can't do anything but cheer her for that.

Now....the point upon which I would contend with Ms. Bonnaire is a small point. It's hardly the focus of her story. Barely worth mentioning. On the other hand, I will mention it AND I will make a big deal over it. It steams me. In the midst of the film review linked to above is inserted Sabrine's observation about their Jehovah's Witnesses upbringing (who would have guessed?), as if it somehow explains Sabine's troubles:

Sandrine and Sabine grew up in a large, working-class family on the outskirts of Paris. Their mother was a Jehovah's Witness whose strict adherence to the sect's rules on birth control explains the number of children: 11 in total, of which Sandrine, now 41, is the sixth, Sabine the seventh. Growing up in a Jehovah's Witness home was "quite heavy", says Sandrine. "First of all, it was very boring. You don't do birthdays and Christmas when everyone else does them. You can have them, but three or four days after the date, so you feel apart from your friends."

I tell you, I won't put up with it. I'll bet you anything that this girl was fully embraced in the local congregation and circuit, where the atmosphere is warm and accepting, and where children are taught to be kind and compassionate to those less fortunate, rather than "bullying" and "mocking" (yes, even during birthdays and Christmas), as they were in the grade school Sabine had to be pulled from. It's not Jehovah's Witnesses who screwed up the title of her film. The JW mother ought to be a hero in this story, not a token religious nut. She nurtured her daughter as a child and adult as, one by one, other siblings departed for lives of their own. How is it that Sabine plays classical piano without, at the very least, mother's support? Mom dutifully followed doctor's advice and admitted Sabine into the local hospital, where they put her in locked isolation and straightjacket, administered drugs by the truckload, denied toilet facilities, and ultimately forbade family visitation - these were medical experts, mind you - and finally returned the woman to her mother in far worse shape than they found her. Does it occur to anyone that the mother's faith helped her carry on when everyone else failed her daughter? As stated at the outset, family involvement with the developmentally disabled is, at least in the U.S, rare.

And what is this about the "sect's rules on birth control?" Nobody among Jehovah's Witnesses has any hang-ups about birth control, unless you mean the abortion-inducing IUD kind, which yes, we do reject. But contraceptives? Condoms? No one has any issue with them. So if the mother did have strong views in this regard, it didn't come from the "sect." And the holidays? Well, yes, I suppose. But surely it's a matter of perspective. There were Jewish kids when I was going to school and they sat out every Christmas and Easter. It wasn't that big of a deal. There were compensating attributes within their own faith. No one carried on about how they were deprived. Look, if there's a party going on, of course a child will want to be part of it, same as all will want to subsist on ice cream and candy. But as adults, you hopefully come to realize what's important and what's not. Christmas, to take the most prominent example, does not fall on Christ's birthday. Jesus never said anything about celebrating his birth anyway, and most customs associated with it are from non if not anti-Christian sources.

In fact, is it just Sabrine Bonnaire or is it all of France? For perhaps two decades, France has leveled a 60% tax on financial contributions made to Jehovah's Witnesses, a repressive measure unheard of in any free country, and a plain attempt to stamp out the group. The policy's been under appeal from the outset and will likely be decided in the European High Court. Look, I know that much of Europe is intensely secular, and probably France most of all. I suspect it stems from World Wars I and II, bloodbaths that found fertile soil in the very continent where churches held most sway. If churches can't prevent such mass slaughters, what good are they? But how ironic that the only Christian group with the guts to unilaterally stand up to Hitler is the one most harassed in post-war France!

Still, the movie is great. It's a shame so few Americans know of it, just as they know nothing of Maigret. French critics dubbed it "the most beautiful film Cannes has given us this year". Mrs. Sheepandgoats and I, though not of that august body, fully concur.

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the book ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the book, 'In the Last of the Last Days: Faith in the Age of Dysfunction'

A Willowbrook Legacy

When my nephew was small, the family lived far away, so I didn’t see him very often. Every time I did see him, therefore, I had to get reacquainted. Young children are shy and it does you no good to cozy up during a short visit; on the next visit you’ll have to start again from scratch.

So there I was trying to warm up to the child, showing interest in his activities, doing goofy things and so forth, and the look on his face plainly said “get this creep away from me!” Obviously a new tack was needed.

“Mitchell,” I ventured, “let me tell you about my friends.”

The boy looked like he might put up with it.

"I have one friend named Carolyn who likes to make herself a cold drink when she gets home from work. Do you like cold drinks? ……My friend goes to the refrigerator and pours a glass half-full with milk. Do you know what she pours for the other half?” The boy looked up.

“Ranch salad dressing! Does that sound like a drink you would like?” The lad looked wondrous, as if I was from Mars, and shook his head emphatically. I had his attention.

Carolyn loved ranch dressing and would have drunk it all day if we had let her. We didn’t, of course. She’d make raids to the kitchen and grab the two ingredients. Sometimes she’d get so far as to emerge one jug in each hand, but we’d always intercept and send her off, to howls of protest.

“I also have a friend named Jackie,” I said. “Do you know what she eats?" The boy shook his head. “Anything,” I answered. “Even if it’s on the floor. Even if it’s not food. She’ll grab it quick and put it in her mouth.” The boy looked at me as if I was from Venus.

She’d also eat paper clips and screws and tacks, so you had to follow her around and watch her very closely. If she spied some….say, dryer lint….she‘d lunge….it was unbelievable how strong she was at such times, so you were wise to clear the area beforehand. It’s a condition known as Pica….who would have thought there’d be a name for it?
She’d also talk non-stop, but only about a dozen phrases said again and again and again. You couldn’t help but like her, and you couldn’t help but regard her as a mischievous child, same as Carolyn. Always active, she used to wander around the house constantly, and staff would have to follow her, lest she ingest carpet, knickknacks, paper, what-have-you, like a giant vacuum cleaner. But she fell ill and spent several months in a coma. (something she ate?) In the hospital, I’m told, they didn’t move her too often and the weight of the bedcovering pressed down on her feet till she could no longer straighen them. Discipline meted out to lots of people, of course, but it didn't do her any good, did it? Thereafter in a wheelchair, she'd talk constantly of going to work and would almost shake her chair apart in excitement when the van showed up. “Go to work,“ she’d repeat, banging fists together up and down, like hammer on anvil……the sign language gesture for “work.“ At work, they told me, she’d speak of nothing but going home.

Then there was Christopher. Christopher couldn’t walk either, or talk, but if you set him on the floor he could hop about and cover surprising ground. I got in the habit of reading stories to Christopher, shamelessly overacting the characters when I saw how much he liked it. He’d rock back and forth and positively howl with delight. You could also give commentary on the TV, as over-the-top sportscaster, for instance, and get the same enthused result. Other times, in the early morning we'd roll out onto the deck and listen to the birds.

The second part of Christopher’s life has been much more pleasant than the first, thanks to the Willowbrook Decree. As a kid, Christopher was placed at the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island. Places like this were once hailed as panacea for the developmentally disabled. Not only would they live in happy bucolic surroundings and get plenty of care geared to their needs, but they would be far away. But in 1972, Geraldo Rivera snuck into the school with hidden camera and detailed shocking conditions: children packed in like cattle, cowering naked and filthy. Feces on the walls. Urine all over. Frequent and violent deaths. The place was, as Robert Kennedy had declared a few years before, “not fit for even animals to live in.” Geraldo’s on-air reporting (which earned him a Peabody Award) jarred consciences. Investigators investigated, hearings were heard, speeches were spoken, and groundbreaking legislation was legislated. All 5000+ residents were dispersed and relocated in small communities. They also received and are still receiving  life-long oversight to ensure personal wellbeing.
The present trend to place individuals with developmental disabilities in community residences, the birth and spread of day programs and special education in New York, then in other states, then in other countries, can all be traced, at least in part, to the Willowbrook hearings. So Christopher, former member of the Willowbrook class, is a hero, a pioneer of sorts, though I doubt he is aware of it.

My nephew enjoyed hearing about my friends and we became chums again. And in calling them friends, I really don’t misspeak. They became friends. I might pull up a chair in Doug‘s room, for instance, and watch some TV with him. This was a challenge, since it was his set, he had the remote, and he’d flip through channels as if spinning a roulette wheel. Still, considering what‘s on these days, it was probably just as well.

Sometimes when I assisted these folks in their daily routines, I would imagine seeing then again in the new system, with sound body and mind. But for dumb luck, life might easily have turned out differently, with them assisting me. In many ways, working in the disabled home was the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had. And it changed my overall conduct. Now, if I am invited to a party or someplace, I will put my hands in my pockets, murmur some niceties to whomever I must, and then go search for some mentally retarded persons to hang out with.


All names have been changed of course, even that of the nephew. Only my own, Sheepandgoats, is rendered accurately.

update available here.

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the book ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the book, 'In the Last of the Last Days: Faith in the Age of Dysfunction'