Imprisoned in a rock-solid misdiagnosis

Hundreds of boys were caught in a nightmare of destructive and unnecessary institutionalization

Today he'd get tutors, counseling, maybe speech therapy. In 1949, 7-year-old Freddie Boyce got locked away.

From the early 1900s well into the 1960s, Freddie and thousands of other so-called "feebleminded" children and adults were enrolled each year at the Walter E. Fernald State School outside Boston. Though some of them would today be considered mentally impaired, many others were simply abused or neglected children in state foster care.

Over the years, hundreds of "State Boys" were sent to Fernald on the basis of faulty IQ tests and a medical establishment that accorded these tests extraordinary power. The boys grew increasingly angry as contact with outside volunteers and exposure to television showed them how much like "normal" boys they were, and how little society recognized their desperate plight.

Complaints to school psychologists about the physical, sexual, and emotional battery they endured at the hands of Fernald staff seemed to go unheard. And so finally, the boys started to rebel. As teenagers, inspired by news accounts of the American civil rights movement, they repeatedly ran away, engaged in petty crime, and, in 1957, they rioted.

But perhaps the State Boys' greatest rebellion came years after they were released from the institution, undereducated and ill-prepared for adult life. In 1995, dozens of former state wards revisited a painful chapter of their pasts to speak publicly about the abuse they endured at Fernald, and to bring a successful lawsuit against a state that had used them as unwitting subjects in experiments involving radioactive oatmeal.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael D'Antonio tells much of this extraordinary story of the State Boys through the eyes of Freddie Boyce. Underfed and badly neglected as a young child, Freddie had never even used a crayon before an intelligence test damned him, a boy with a mild speech impediment, to 12 years of institutional care.

Throughout his life at Fernald, numerous teachers and psychologists questioned Freddie's diagnosis as a "moron" and recommended his placement with a foster or adoptive family. But after a runaway attempt during which he moved in with a friend and held down a full-time house-painting job for several weeks, Freddie was returned to the institution by police.

Exasperated, the 16-year-old boy asked a Fernald psychiatrist, "If you had a kid, and even if that kid were retarded, for real, would you put him in this place?"

The doctor sputtered, went silent, then demanded of an attendant, "What's this kid doing here?" Then he turned to Freddie. "I wouldn't put my child here," he said. "You're right. I wouldn't do it."

Nevertheless, it wasn't until Freddie was 19 that a panel of doctors, social workers, and psychologists reviewed his case and decided he could be paroled to the outside world. There he succeeded at a series of counter jobs at Boston drugstores and diners, and finally found one for which his ability to size people up, honed on the irascible Fernald staff, made him a perfect fit: as a carnival barker.

But for all his success on the road, and the courage he showed in speaking out and reuniting his fellow State Boys to sue for damages, Fred Boyce continues to feel that his years at Fernald robbed him of the chance to learn how to be part of a loving family.

"I accepted I have a life that's always going to have pieces missing," he told D'Antonio. "But I can't help but think that, without Fernald, I would have made a much bigger contribution."

D'Antonio's remarkable ability to reconstruct scenes through the eyes of young Freddie and his friends and his restrained and luminous writing would alone make this book worth reading. But his story also reaches back to show how the State Boys' abuse resulted from early 20th-century reformers' benevolent attempt to offer special training to the mentally retarded. D'Antonio's analysis of the dark, unintended consequences makes this not only a fascinating read, but a necessary one for anyone interested in how terrible harm can sometimes be born of a sincere desire to do good.

Mary Wiltenburg is on the Monitor's staff.

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