Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Unknown Flowers for Algernon
by Daniel Keyes

Originally published in 1959, this novel is the imagined story of a mentally retarded man not only gaining intelligence, but genius, by way of an operation.

The story is told in first person, in both diary and “Progress Report” format.  When we are first introduced to Charlie Gordon, he is a 32-year old man with the developmental and emotional status of a child.  He works as a janitor at a bakery and has worked hard to learn how to read and write at the Learning Center for Retarded Adults.  His diary entries and Progress Reports covering the first month or so of the story are extremely childish, and written phonetically.

Then Charlie has an operation, which is never elaborated upon.  The reader assumes it was some sort of brain surgery, although Charlie’s recovery is so swift that it lacks any realism.  But the story isn’t about brain surgery, it’s about the possibility of drastically altering intelligence, and what the repercussions might be.  As Charlie’s intelligence rises following the operation, his emotional maturity lags behind, and that’s the first pitfall.  As he becomes more intelligent, he becomes aware that the people he thought were his friends when he was “dumb” had actually been laughing at him and making him the butt of their jokes for years.  One of his greatest hopes in agreeing to be the subject of this experiment is that a higher IQ will make people like him more, and will gain him friends.  Eventually, however, his intelligence far surpasses that of everyone he knows, including the doctors directing the experiment, and he finds that he has just as few friends as he did before the operation.

As Charlie’s IQ ascends, childhood memories also come flooding back – of an abusive mother who couldn’t bear having a “moron” for a son, a father who couldn’t stand up to his wife, and of a family that ultimately washed its hands of him by dragging him from bed one night and committing him to the Warren State Home and Training School – a repository for the mentally retarded.

With greater intelligence also comes sexual awareness and desire, and much of the story is devoted to Charlie’s sexual awakening.  He falls in love with the woman who was his teacher at the Learning Center for Retarded Adults, and she reciprocates without much hesitation.  I found this relationship disturbing; although Charlie has virtually changed into a new and different person, Alice is fully aware of the experiment of which he is the subject, and moreover, she has been long acquainted with him as a man with an intellectual disability.  To me, it felt like what it might be like if a grown woman fell in love with and became sexually attracted to someone she had once babysat.  I mean, I know it happens, but  . . .

The first subject of this experiment is Algernon, a white lab mouse.  Charlie eventually runs off with Algernon and becomes quite attached to him.  When Algernon begins showing signs of regression, Charlie’s own fate seems clear.

All in all, I thought the story was so-so.  Although it’s clearly outdated, it does raise some valid concerns about the potential price of artificially raising the intelligence of people with developmental disabilities, especially now that we seem to be on the cusp of having drugs available for just such a purpose for people with Down syndrome.  The debate within the Down syndrome parenting community rages on, with one camp eager to give their children every opportunity for an independent life as possible, and the other camp insisting that they accept their children exactly as they are and remaining unwilling to entertain such intervention out of  certainty of a downside.  Me?  I guess I lean heavily towards the latter.

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Three Generations, No Imbeciles by Paul A. Lombardo

[Originally posted on December 29, 2013 here]

Three-Generations-No-Imbeciles-Lombardo-Paul-A-9780801890109Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell

by Paul A. Lombardo

The United States has a long history of shameful behavior behind the legacy of patriotic heroism, bravery, innovation, and resilience. Our forefathers stole land from the natives who were here before us, spread disease, enslaved hundreds of thousands of people, and well into modern times have continued to marginalize and mistreat minorities. One of the chapters in U.S. History that is not taught in school is the eugenics movement which took hold in the early twentieth century.

Eugenics – or “better breeding” – was a social movement rooted in quasi-scientific theories about heredity. It was believed – though never actually proven by any stringent scientific methods – that individuals with undesirable traits, including, most notably, epilepsy, alcoholism, “pauperism,” (those living in poverty), criminal tendencies, and “feeblemindedness” were born with those traits by way of genetics, and that they would pass those traits onto their offspring. The only way to prevent the world being overrun by these “lesser breeds” was to prevent them from reproducing via forced sterilization.

“Anxiety about those who failed in the contest of life, relying on charity and inflating the taxes of everyone else, was widespread.”

(Things haven’t changed much, have they? Just listen to anyone in today’s Republican party and you’ll hear much the same.)

“Degeneracy theory gave a human face to the biblical curse condemning children to inherit the sins of their fathers.”

Forced sterilizations – the vast majority of which were performed on women – began in the late nineteenth century on people institutionalized, either in prisons or in mental hospitals. In order to give it legal clout in the face of public disapproval, a test case was chosen in 1923 to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case was Buck v. Bell, and the plaintiff was Carrie Buck, a young unwed mother who was deemed “feebleminded,” as was her own mother who resided in a state institution, and her infant daughter.

“Feeblemindedness” was a very vague term, encompassing a vast array of “conditions,” including, but not limited to illiteracy, low IQ (determined by very unsophisticated and untested tests), wanderlust, immoral behavior (like becoming pregnant out of wedlock – nevermind that Carrie Buck became pregnant as a result of being raped by her foster parents’ nephew), and “shiftlessness.” Upon learning that Carrie was pregnant, her foster parents did what many did in those days to distance themselves from the shame of an unwed pregnancy in the household: they had her sent away and committed. Torn away from her baby only a couple of months after giving birth, Carrie was committed to the same institution where her natural mother resided – for reasons unknown – and both they and the infant girl were deemed “feebleminded.” Carrie’s surgical sterilization was planned to take place on the heels of her case which would go to the Supreme Court, which the doctors and lawyers orchestrating had every intention of winning – to the point of assigning an attorney to represent Carrie who did nothing to defend her rights and merely bolstered the State’s sham of a case.

In the famous Supreme Court decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote,

“It is better for all the world if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind . . . Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

Carrie Buck was in fact forcibly surgically sterilized after the case was decided, as was her thirteen-year old younger sister, and thousands upon thousands of more people over the next several decades, with California leading in the number of sterilizations performed. Carrie was eventually released from state custody and lived to be an old woman, dying in 1983, having been married twice and living most of her life in abject poverty. People who knew her later in life scoffed at the notion that she was “feebleminded.” She was, in fact, of average intelligence. The daughter she gave birth to illegitimately was adopted by Carrie’s foster parents and died of an illness at the age of eight or nine, after doing well enough in school, both academically and in her “deportment,” despite having been deemed “feebleminded” as an infant.

The U.S. eugenics movement fueled Nazi Germany’s quest for racial cleansing,

“But neither scientists nor the public connected U.S. laws to German atrocities. Fifty years after Buck, more than a dozen compulsory sterilization laws were still in force, and surgeries were documented in institutions as late as 1979. Far from being a legal dead letter, Buck has never been overturned.”

German scientists actually worked closely with American scientists in the development of their own eugenics movement, which of course was the foundation for the Holocaust. At the Nuremberg trials, Buck was referred to again and again in defense of the Nazi’s genocide.

It is hard to imagine in this day and age people being forcibly surgically sterilized for any of the reasons that were seen as completely justified and reasonable back in the day. And yet, despite astronomical leaps in scientific knowledge and supposedly progressive social views, minorities, people living in poverty, and people with disabilities are still marginalized and even targeted for elimination now. Knowing the history of eugenics in the U.S., it is impossible not to believe that modern-day prenatal screenings, designed specifically to target and weed out certain disabilities, is tied to eugenics.

“In the shadow of the Holocaust and in the light of Carrie Buck’s saga, eugenics is now almost universally considered a dirty word. But many of our motives today are no different from those of the Buck era: we continue to hope that science can be used to improve the human condition. We all want to eradicate disease; we all hope to have healthy children. We all also want lower taxes. Whether or not we use the word eugenics to describe those motives, we must recognize their power, both in historical context as well as today.”

“Today we can diagnose some forms of deafness, blindness, and cancer as well as numerous other diseases, where we know the genes that lead to disease and we can reliably predict its onset. The search for the cause of mental retardation has not abated since the time of Buck, and many genetic markers for cognitive impairments remain under study. How much does it matter if we use a technique – less troubling to some than coercive surgery – to “cleanse the germ plasm,” as the eugenicists would have said? Does our embrace of techniques such as preimplantation selection of “normal” fetuses or prenatal genetic diagnosis and selective abortion make our motives in “eradicating defects” less suspect? Our modern emphasis on autonomy as a principle important to both law and ethics does not free us from the hard questions posed by our newest technology.”

Three Generations, No Imbeciles is an unflinching look at a chapter in our history that still reverberates today. Utterly fascinating and ultimately unsettling, this should be required reading in every U.S. History classroom.

The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco

[Originally posted on October 20, 2011 here]

The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco

When I picked my second-grade twins up from school yesterday, their teacher (also a friend of mine), tearfully told me about this book she had just finished reading to the class, and she urged me to take it home and read it, so I did.

Young Trisha has a learning disability and is the target of teasing and bullying. She longs to go live with her dad and grandma in Michigan and make a fresh start, where nobody will know how dumb she is. In Michigan, however, she is bewildered and crushed to find herself in a “special” class, just like in California where she lived with her mom.

Enter Mrs. Peterson, the teacher of this class – known as The Junkyard for its misfits, oddballs, and seemingly discarded kids. Her introduction misleads the reader into thinking she is a harsh character, until she explains the definition of genius to her class:

“Genius is neither learned nor acquired.

It is knowing without experience
It is risking without fear of failure
It is perception without touch
It is understanding without research
It is certainty without proof
It is ability without practice
It is invention without limitations
It is imagination without boundaries
It is creativity without constraints
It is……extraordinary intelligence!”

… and tells them that this describes each of them.

And thus follows an uplifting narrative about how these kids find their own worth, and their own special genius.

This story, inspired by the author’s own true-life experiences, is a wonderful parable about diversity, tolerance, and the value of all people, no matter what their differences or limitations might be. I love that my kids’ teacher is sharing these principles in her classroom. A wonderful story for teachers and parents alike to share with elementary school- age children.