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The voice of a lost generation
Freddie Boyce survived neglect at Fernald, radiation experiments, and told the story
By Scott Allen, Globe Staff May 1, 2006
In August 1941, Mina Boyce, a 21-year-old widow and an alcoholic, handed her baby over to state social workers, setting little Freddie Boyce on the miserable road to the ''Water E. Fernald School for the Feebleminded."
Over the next seven years, Freddie lived in seven foster homes and then was locked behind the iron gates of Fernald, an institution for people with mental retardation. There he would stay until his ''parole" 11 years later.
The injustice, similar to the fate of thousands of children unlucky enough to fall into government custody before 1960, might have been forgotten, but Boyce never accepted the idea that he was ''feebleminded." Decades later, when documents revealed that he and other children had been subjected to unethical radiation experiments while at Fernald, Boyce seized his chance: He rounded up his friends from Fernald, filed a lawsuit, and exposed a dark chapter of American history.
''We didn't commit any crimes. We were just 7-year-old orphans," declared the traveling carnival barker at a packed Washington D.C. hearing in 1994. Though he was testifying about being fed radioactive oatmeal, Boyce was really talking about being locked away for years without education, without love, without hope.
Freddie found hundreds of other boys and girls much like him among the 2,000-plus residents at Fernald -- mostly ''problem" children who were being warehoused at the 19th-century brick campus along with people with genuine mental retardation. All of them suffered in an environment that offered little education, required menial labor such as picking beans and mopping bathroom floors, and permitted outsiders to visit mainly on ''company Sundays."
Freddie couldn't understand why he was being held -- ''There ain't nothing wrong with me," he would tell attendants -- to no avail. When, in 1960, the Fernald staff finally agreed with Boyce's claim that he was safe to leave the school, he couldn't read or write -- and no one apologized.
Well, you know what? No one apologized to the "people with genuine mental retardation" either. You know, the poor "really" feebleminded kids who were subject to the same brutal conditions as the kids who were mistakenly mislabeled? The ones who were also victims, who also had committed no crimes, who were also abused, neglected, and shunned.
Every time I read one of these stories, in which we are supposed to feel horror and pity for the poor mis-diagnosed child who was placed by mistake into a hellhole, I cannot help but feel frustrating anger that no one seems to care about the ones who were actually diagnosed correctly!
I guess it seems all right to society that the real feebleminded ones were mistreated. It's only when a non-feebleminded person is mistreated that it appears to matter.
Apparently the "hundreds" who were found among the "2000-plus" are more deserving of empathy than the "thousands" treated just as poorly.
Aren't they all just as deserving of our concerned horror?