copyright © Judith Moriarty
A look back over my life, epitomizes to me, what has happened to America. There was once upon a time those magic moments far removed from the madness of war, box stores, and shuttered towns. My brother Johnny and I would spend summer days at our secret ‘camp’ called Sundown. It sat above the steel mills far below in the valley. We would take an iron skillet, eggs, bacon, and eat our lunch there near the waterfall. I can’t remember that we ever spent a moment indoors during the summer.
No ‘Danger Stranger’ – had our streets resembling a ghost town. We had no TV – no video games etc. There were no malls – and no designer duds, or exotic vacations. People aren’t poor until the world tells them they are. When you have the beauty of nature – nobody is poor.
Then one day the trucks came. The church who owned the fields and woods; sold the land to the robber barons who owned the mills. They covered the fields, the woods, and our secret camp, with tons and tons of ash and hot slag. They didn’t live there so they didn’t care. Pretty soon, there was just an ugly black mountain of black ash/slag. Then people started dumping garbage there and the rats came.
When we visited my Aunt Celie, (a newspaper editor) we could stand in her back yard and see the mountain hanging precariously over the town . My aunt lived near the mills.
Johnny and I worked on the slagheap after it covered our woods and waterfall. We would chip away the slag from chunks of metal and then take our wagon to the junkyard to be weighed. Johnny brought his bow and arrow to keep the rats away. On a good day, (8:00 am to 4:00 pm) we could make $4.00. Everyone thought that Johnny and I were the twins. My twin Jackie (a head taller) didn’t care for woods, making stilts, or fishing in the creek. As for slag, forget it. Jackie was more into playing house and dressing up.
Then one day the good news came (I was nine – Johnny was seven) we got the news that we were moving to the mountains. My dad had gotten a job as an electrician, at the Joy, (they made mining machinery) in a small town, far removed from belching mills or mountains of ash. We really moved there to be closer to my brother Jerry (older) who was autistic.
After his last series of vaccine shots, he disappeared into a black hole. He sang and danced and then he was silent. Noise bothered him. You couldn’t cry in our house. My sister Jackie did – she lacked any sensitivity to my brother. One day he threw a tobacco can at her. It hit the bridge of her nose. Blood covered the walls. That’s when it was decided that an institution was the only answer. This from the relatives.
The small town that we moved to was magical. There were sweeping parks, creeks to fish in, Indian burial grounds, and forts. The institution was about 20 miles outside of town. You traveled over the river and winding mountain roads to reach its Gothic forbidding grounds.
Almost every weekend I would travel to the institution with my parents. I had thought when they drove him away one day (I was nine) that he was going to a school that would take care of him. I imagined that once he was gone that we would become a ‘normal’ family. We wouldn’t have to worry about noise, or crying, or relatives coming to the house, like black crows on a clothesline, whispering about how he was ‘crazy’. The neighbors wouldn’t tell me that my brother was ‘a cretin ‘ because of ‘the sins of my parents’. Not that I knew what the hell sin was?
My parents never took my brother and sister to this place – only me. They wanted somebody to care for Jerry after they died (I was chosen). They needn’t have worried – I wouldn’t have forgotten him. I spent many an hour with him in his bedroom (before he went away) – where he spit on toys and listened to music. He never went outside after Eddie Perry (big bully) crushed his hand with a brick. Even though I was a midget kid, I went up to Eddy, doubled my fist, and smashed him in the face. It broke his nose. Eddy wasn’t king of the hill after that. Sometimes violence rears its ugly head despite the best of intentions. I only regret that I wasn’t stronger. He ruined my brother’s enjoyment of being outside in the dirt pile.
People shouldn’t lie to their kids about a handicapped child in the family. My mother told me that Jerry was a gift from God. I didn’t think that God was putting various disabilities on certain people just for fun or to make life interesting for people? People are always blaming God for someone flawed, terribly injured, or killed in war. As I saw it, most maladies came about through man’s pollution of the environment, contaminated (mercury) vaccines, accidents, or the greed of generational war. Even so, – people such as my brother – are gifts. It’s up to the individual to discover this gift in another. Without the challenges of serving those in distress, maimed, or mentally challenged, how would we ever grow spiritually; in the gifts of kindness, compassion, patience, and the giving of ourselves? How would we develop the skill needed to hear the cry of the voiceless?
My parents (best of intentions) never should have exposed me to the traumas of visiting an institution at such a young and vulnerable age. They should have arranged for me to meet them in the small restaurant downtown where they brought Jerry to eat. Children are not psychologically developed enough to grasp the horrors of caged people (this goes for prisons also).Childhood is a small fragment of time – it needs to be protected.
I can still remember the first time I visited this place. There were bars on the windows. Nude men (it was summer) like rabid animals, were climbing on the bars, and screeching the most inhuman of sounds. I couldn’t believe that my brother was locked up in the bowels of such a place. They (staff) would NEVER let you go beyond the visitors’ room when you went to visit. You would wait until they brought your relative out all dressed up. I remember looking at those locked doors and wondering just what lay behind them? I knew my parents didn’t want my brother to be in that place but poverty didn’t have the choice of a special hospital, such as the private facility, where the Kennedy family put their daughter.
Raised in the Catholic Church, I was convinced that if only we could get Jerry to one of those miracle places (Fatima – Lourdes ), he’d become normal. For years I’d pray that he’d get well and then one day I stopped. I then started praying (after visiting the institution) that he would die. I couldn’t imagine him being imprisoned in such a place his whole life? Then one day he did die. He died from abuse and neglect. He died from indifference. He died because some people should never be employed to care for helpless, voiceless, crippled people. It was a dreary winter day when they buried him in the institution’s potter’s field. There was a blizzard. In the end, it was only my parents and myself who stood there listening to the forever prayers of the dead.
I was freezing and I was angry. Still a kid, I remember my own prayers. I said (to myself)….”So what was this all about? Why didn’t you (God) take him sooner – instead of him having to suffer all these years? I just want to know – just let me know if he’s safe and happy now.” The priest droned on and on. He handed the crucifix off the cheap gray cloth box to my dad. The snow was getting deeper. I wondered how we’d get out of that desolate place. Five, ten, and then fifteen minutes passed. In all that time, not one drop of snow fell where the crucifix had lain. All that was visible was a stark gray cloth cross. It was enough for me. My parents died a few years after my brother. For years, my mother had battled for the rights and protections of the institutionalized. I think she felt powerless, because, while she knew what was happening behind locked doors, from my brother’s physical condition, she couldn’t prove it.
And then one day I went to work in this institution. It came about by an accident of sorts. My friend and I were running a Dairy Store. She was the manager and I the assistant. We were cooks, clerks, and janitors. We were fired when we went on strike (signs and all) for better wages for the employees. We were told by the old timers in town that management never strikes for the workers. Huh!
Kathleen wasn’t too keen on going to the institution to work – she was afraid. I promised her that if it didn’t work out in a few weeks we’d quit. She was assigned to a woman’s building, and I, to the same building where my brother had lived and died! Kathleen’s husband, who worked as a supervisor, figured it out once. I could have been assigned to one of 700 different places – but I ended up where I had visited as a child! It was 6:30 am (first day of work) when I was led behind the locked doors that I had wondered about as a child? I was appalled.
Nude men lay in the hallways, the place reeked of urine. The employees screamed and cursed at the residents. I almost quit that first day. Then I remembered that my brother never had a choice of leaving. He had been kept in restraints a great deal of the time which caused his arms to become deformed. This was done because there was never enough staff. Residents sat on hard benches or rocked back and forth. There was little to no interaction or stimulation.
The worst thing was observing the abuse. Staff (mostly male) would kick, slap and throw residents down the stairs. My first inclination was to report these assaults – but I waited. I took the time to learn all the regulations, policies, and laws pertaining to those in institutions. I wanted to have my arguments based on documentation rather than emotion. I noted than whenever politicians were brought around for a visit everything was shined up and the residents dressed in clean clothes. Then one summer day, I arrived at worked (2:30pm) . The staff (all male) were standing around the desk smoking and telling lewd jokes. I went to find the residents. They were all (approx 30) laying in the cavernous bathroom (open toilets).
They were nude and covered with feces and flies. Some were eating out of the toilets (nobody had taken them to the dining hall). I just cried. Then I cleaned them up and wrote a long detailed (3 pages) report in the logbook on what I’d found. This was NEVER done! Usually the Log read, “Found the cottage in good order all residents accounted for.” When the supervisor came around to sign the book, he had a fit. He told me I couldn’t write something like that because the employees would be upset. I told him I hadn’t come there to please the employees and that since a Log book was an official document it couldn’t be altered.
That was the start of a three-year battle. The proverbial crap hit the fan. They tried to kill me – and went on strike to get me fired. They refused to talk to me. They and got together to falsely charge me with abuse. On and on it went. I was made to take a lie detector test (the abusers refused). I won every court battle. The small town paper was filled with venom and charges against me. When they tried (administration) to remove me, I called every major newspaper – TV station in the state. When a helicopter arrived from the nearest city (100 miles away) with reporters they stated, “Ms Moriarty we’ve been to the institution. They tell us you’re a trouble maker and a rabble rouser.”
I replied, “If reporting patients being thrown down stairs, held under water, kicked, not clothed, not fed, allowed to die tied to a toilet, and not being given proper medical care, makes me a ‘trouble maker’ – YES that’s exactly what I am. I will continue to be one until somebody in this state pays attention and does something.” that was on every news station in the state.
It worked. An investigation was started from the state level. The superintendent, who once called me to his office, and told me he’d destroy me, was fired. So were numerous other people. Meantime, I had gotten the residents new clothes, furnishings (instead of benches). I painted murals on the depressing bile green walls (fishing ports – lake pictures) and brought music in to cheer the place up. The nurse and her husband, the dentist, were fired. They had worked there for years and years. They cleaned up on lucrative salaries and lived an elegant lifestyle with their two fat sons. I reported her for the death of Felix who died tied (her orders) to a toilet.
And then things changed. People noted that I hadn’t gotten myself killed and hadn’t quit. They slowly (at first) started to come forth and report all the abuses they’d witnessed. They weren’t afraid any longer. Late at night, reading my mother’s diaries, I saw that she mistakenly assumed, that she was the person meant to reveal the hidden atrocities taking place. She wasn’t – all along, it was my job – assigned to me as a child. I now knew why I had visited the place throughout my childhood. I finally had the answer that I asked at my brother’s grave, “What was this all about?”
God had waited for over a hundred years for someone to speak up for those without a voice. He just needed somebody to rise above their personal fears and believe. It’s hard to explain. Once you are totally committed that something is worth dying for – there’s nothing that stands in your way. I knew that I was totally in the right! You don’t go harming helpless period!
Many of the institutions are closed now. America hasn’t dealt with those most in need. Parents are left begging for non-existent help. Programs are being cut. Many of the terribly handicapped, have been shuffled off to nursing homes, where they languish and die.
I remember one night walking though the corridor from one area to another. It was late and I was tired. I thought to myself of what the walls had witnessed down through the decades? Just then, I heard a moaning. I turned and saw these gray faces/hands reaching out. It was a living wall of faceless memories. I heard the words, “Write so the world will know.” People think that people in institutions are without personalities or don’t respond to love. This is such a lie.
It just takes some time and ingenuity to reach such people. They were so abused for years, that at first, they afraid of touch. Andrew liked for me to tousle his hair and kiss his cheek. John was harder. He was deaf, blind, and severely retarded. I thought about how hard it would be for someone to not know where they were or feel any love. He used to sit in fetal position. Then I had the idea of wrapping him tightly in a summer blanket (like you do a newborn). That made him smile – he felt secure. Donny loved music. He chewed his wrists raw! Once I put socks on his hands that stopped. And so it went. Everybody responds to touch and love.
And so now, I write. I live far from the small town of magic that my brother Johnny and I so enjoyed. Johnny is dead now. We had planned to visit the places where we fished and hiked last summer. Now I sometimes visit the Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont. It’s a magical place of giant puppets & political theater. It keeps a remembrance, through art, of the grave injustices of man’s inhumanity to man. It speaks for the voiceless. Mine is its own story – but basically, we can see through the memory glass, that our lives are covered in ash – garbage – and unconscionable pollution. I wasn’t shocked at the pictures of torture – minus the dogs, I’d seen similar incidents at the institution.
Shocking to me was to live in a town, where seemingly ‘normal’ people, could go to work, and commit such heinous acts on helpless people. They once mocked me and said, “Those people don’t feel anything.” Isn’t that what we’re witnessing today? The greatest sin is not to hate – but indifference. My life is just a microcosm of the whole. FEAR immobilizes many today – just as it did with the people employed at the institution. The INSTITUTION today is just on a grander scale – global.