For a Friend in the Snakepit

Off the Town Books

THIS IS being written for a friend I made during the summer. It is an apology for the way she is forced to spend her life. An apology, not an excuse. Perhaps it is an abuse of position to use these columns for personal reasons, but as long as my friend is in New York and I am in Cambridge, there is no other way for me to do what I must.

Sally Weingart is a resident at the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island. She is mentally retarded, or more precisely, a mongoloid. She is twenty-one years old, but her physical appearance and the circumstances in which she lives make her age immaterial. She is three and a half feet tall and weighs fifty-four pounds. For this and other reasons I think of her as a child, but her lack of teeth makes her look like an aged woman.

Sally and I came to be friends while I worked at Willowbrook during summer vacation. My employment at Willowbrook was strictly accidental--I had no idea that I would work there until I took the job. The two months I spent there has altered my perception of retarded people and in more subtle ways it has rearranged my thinking about humankind in general.

Willowbrook became a state school for the mentally retarded soon after the end of the Second World War when it was converted from use as a military hospital. It is as much a school as Devil's Island was a correctional facility. Despite its fine sounding name, the Willowbrook State School is a place where 4500 retarded people are sent to wait around until they die.

The institution, a drab and dreary brick building affair, became famous when Robert Kennedy '48, then campaigning for the Senate, toured the premises in 1965 and left calling it a "snake pit." Willowbrook turned into a headline story in New York during the early part of 1972 when a local television reporter, Geraldo Rivera, did a searing expose of the inhuman conditions which prevailed dispite Kennedy's much publicized visit. The Rivera expose attracted the largest audience for a locally produced show in television history, causing some superficial and politically expedient changes to be made.


But for the most part Willowbrook remains the snake pit it has always been. There is one difference now, though. It is a difference which will probably have no profound effect on Willowbrook but which has a killing effect on me. Now I have a friend living and dying in that god forsaken hell hole.

I got my job at Willowbrook through an ad in the New York Times. The ad, which appeared on a Sunday in the middle of June, read something like this: "Students! Do you want to do something relevant and put some bread in your pocket too? Work as a recreational aide at Willowbrook this summer and take patients out on hikes and nature walks. It will be very rewarding."

Not having any other job and not wanting to miss out on any rewards, I got up early the next morning and drove out to Staten Island for an interview.

As it turned out, close to 300 other college-age people also showed up. None of us were interviewed and all of us were given the job. I later learned that the mass hirings were necessitated by a New York State Court order that Willowbrook increase its patient-staff ration to nine to one.

After two days of going through the bureaucratic procedures involved in becoming a state employee, I began working in my building on a Wednesday. Building 25 houses 135 profoundly retarded (IQs under 20) adolescents of both sexes. Most of the residents are unable to feed themselves, and only a very few are toilet trained. None of them are able to talk.

IT IS impossible to adaquately convey the horror I felt when I walked into the dining room in building 25 for the first time that Wednesday. Forty-five children were seated around linoleum-topped tables waiting for one of the attendants to come by and feed them. They were moaning and screaming, rocking back and forth, stinking of urine and feces and I was vaguely nauseous, overwhelmed by the desire to run away. My first and only thought at that time was, "My God! These things can't be human."

In retrospect, I can be nothing but ashamed of that judgment.

It took two full weeks of nightmares and adjustment for me to get used to the manifestations of retardation. I eventually came to accept them as a fact of life. But no amount of dreaming or mental readjustment could ever get me to accept or even understand the miserable treatment given the children and adults who live at the Willowbrook State School and places like it.

In my ward at building 25, almost all of the forty-five residents spend each of their waking hours sitting in plastic chairs lined up against the walls. In order to keep the children seated the attendants administer beatings whenever a child gets up to walk around and the nurses administer sedatives three times a day. In extreme cases, that is to say when a child is especially determined to walk around, the attendants won't hesitate to tie a resident to his chair with shoelaces or bedsheets. All too often the children are forced to remain in their seats even after they have urinated or defecated in them.

If there were some break in this monotony, things would not be quite so dismal. But only three of the children in the ward go to school, and that lasts less than two hours a day.