- If you were to meet Fred Boyce today, you might think
he was a normal person, aside from the fact that he is better looking and
more charming than most of us. He has been a successful entrepreneur for
most of his adult life. He was married to - though subsequently divorced
from - a woman with graduate degrees from Harvard and the University of
Massachusetts. His reading interests range from Carl Sagan's Cosmos to
Isaac Asimov to Somerset Maugham.
- But Fred Boyce is not normal. Indeed, in some ways, he
is extraordinary. At the age of eight, after years of neglect involving
seven foster homes, he was labeled a "moron" and incarcerated
for 11 years at the Fernald State School for the Feebleminded in Waltham,
Massachusetts, where his experiences were more reminiscent of Abu Ghraib
prison than of any self-respecting educational institution. At Fernald,
Boyce and hundreds of other children - many of them of normal intelligence
- were subjected to systematic physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, physical
torture, sexual humiliation, solitary confinement, threats of electroconvulsive
"therapy" and lobotomy, and the constant threat of incarceration
in an insane asylum if they misbehaved. There was little education at the
Fernald "School." The "training" consisted of slave
labor, in which the inmates were made to prepare the food and clothing
for the institution, as well as other products that were useful to the
state. When he was "paroled" (Fernald's word for what we might
call "graduation") in 1960 at 19 years of age, Fred Boyce could
not read or write.
- Boyce's remarkable story, and that of hundreds of other
children at the Fernald School, is recounted in detail in The State Boys
Rebellion by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael D'Antonio. The title
refers to a brief and pathetic rebellion by a small band of adolescents
at Fernald, which resulted in harsher punishment, including incarceration
at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
- The "state boys" had not been found to have
committed any crime. Their nightmares began when they became victims of
abuse and neglect in their own homes or in a succession of foster homes.
Lacking the will to prevent or treat their suffering, the state found it
easier to incarcerate the children. The purpose was not just to save money
and get them out of sight. They were swept up in the passions of the popular
American eugenics movement, which held that society would be further weakened
if "morons" like Fred Boyce were allowed to reproduce.
- Fernald was not unique. In 1967, an estimated 270,000
children in the United States, many of them normal or mildly retarded,
were institutionalized. By 2002, as a result of the deinstitutionalization
movement, the number was 47,000, despite an increase of 100 million in
the U.S. population. It is not known how many suffered, at the hands of
these institutions, the type of abuse visited on the children at Fernald.
- As venues for the abuse and neglect of children, of course,
such state-sponsored institutions were never a primary focus of concern.
Most child abuse in the United States, then and now, occurs in the place
where children should feel safest: in their own homes, most commonly at
the hands of their own parents. The reported cases - more than a million
each year - are the tip of the iceberg, for the majority of cases are either
unrecognized or not reported. Unlike Abu Ghraib prison, these homes are
not subject to visits by the Red Cross. Nor are they routinely visited
by professionals soon after the birth of a new child - in contrast to homes
in most developed countries, where such visits sometimes continue for years,
to provide support and services for families in need. The prevention of
child abuse is just one of the benefits.
- When 52 Americans were held hostage in the U.S. embassy
in Iran in 1979 and 1980, the American Broadcasting Company thought the
crisis important enough that it created a nightly network television show,
"Nightline," to keep us informed for 444 days. There is no such
program for the million children, at higher risk for death and permanent
disability, who are held hostage in their own homes. Unlike the story of
the Iranian captors, led by an easily caricatured Ayatollah, the daily
abuse that occurs in typical American homes is an old tale, too stale to
sustain a daily audience.
- Fred Boyce's story might never have come to light had
it not been for an investigation into another scandal at Fernald - the
use of the incarcerated children for nontherapeutic experiments, sponsored
by Quaker Oats and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, involving
- 2 This abuse was less obvious, even to the boys themselves
and to their parents. The boys were told that they were joining a science
club, with perks of special diets and trips to Red Sox games as rewards.
It is likely that the boys were not physically harmed by these experiments,
and years later they received reparation payments of $60,000 each. For
the state boys, the main value of the investigation into the radiation
experiments was that it provided access to the media and the opportunity
to reveal the more serious abuses that occurred at Fernald.
- The good news is that progress is possible. We now have
a system of protections for human subjects in research that would make
the Fernald radiation experiments all but impossible to conduct. Laws mandating
the reporting of child abuse interrupt the cycle of violence in many families,
and nascent prevention programs, which make use of home visitors, are expanding.
The Fernald School, for its part, is scheduled to be shut down. Some observers
have noted that the Fernald School, and other institutions like it, provided
benefits to society by serving as a safe haven for people who might otherwise
have had no support structure. Unfortunately, these benefits were outweighed
by a host of problems that ultimately led to the closure of the institutions.
Today, children who are labeled as retarded, accurately or not, are educated
in real schools, not warehoused in terrifying institutions with indeterminate
- Fred Boyce and his "classmates" are free. Incredibly,
Boyce is not bitter, and he has empathy for his jailers. All he wants from
the state that incarcerated and punished him for 11 critical years of his
life is an apology and a correction of the written record, confirming that
he is not a moron.
- Source Information
- The State Boys Rebellion, by Michael D'Antonio, was published
by Simon and Schuster, New York, 2004.
- From the Departments of Pediatrics and Medical History
and Bioethics, University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison.
- 1. Kevles DJ. In the name of eugenics: genetics and the
uses of human heredity. New York: Knopf, 1985.
- 2. Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments.
Final report. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1995.