Buster Scruggs, Babies in Jars, and the Dignity of Frederick Boyce

The Coen brothers are geniuses. Their latest effort, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is an anthology of tales set in the Old West that is violent, funny, even profound. It gripped me from the first frame. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone says, “The gallows humor of their fatalistic Ballad allows the filmmakers to do what they do best: laugh in the face of death.”

It is cold laughter, indeed! There are three segments that filled my veins with ice. One of them is “Meal Ticket,” the story of a freak show huckster (Liam Neeson) who sets up his wagon in frontier towns. His attraction is a limbless orator, the “Wingless Thrush.” Neeson props the young man’s torso on a chair, where he proceeds to recite passages that include Shelley’s Ozymandias, the Declaration of Independence, and the Gettysburg Address. It is haunting to hear his eloquence, to watch his rouged cheeks and expressive eyes in the flickering gaslight. It is even more vexing to witness his abject dependence on his handler, a drunk whose only motive is profit. Eventually, the crowds thin. What happens next is not only tragic, but entirely believable.

Why did this affect me so deeply? Partly because I have a son whose disability may be different (intellectual), but who could have been born in a crueler era. The fight for “handicapped” civil rights has been long and tortuous. I recently read The Story of Intellectual Disability: An Evaluation of Meaning, Understanding, and Public Perspective, by Michael L. Wehmeyer. With penetrating scholarship and a journalist’s ear for storytelling, Wehmeyer chronicles how intellectually disabled people have been treated throughout history, including:

  • The practice of infanticide, even in “enlightened Athens,” where “defective” children were left in jars near temples in case someone took pity and adopted them.
  • The demeaning theories of both scientists and theologians, who regarded these “idiots, morons, and imbeciles” as part animal or part demon.
  • Nazi concentration camps for flawed children who were ripped from their families, gassed, then incinerated.
  • Mass incarceration and virtual slavery in “institutions for the feeble-minded.”
  • Forced sterilization as a standard practice in many parts of the U.S. until the 1970s.
  • Substandard education and crippling segregation.

Wehmeyer also highlights individuals who championed the cause of dignity for themselves and others.

One of them is Frederick Boyce. In 1942, at age seven, Boyce was confined to the Fernald State School in Waltham, Massachusetts, an institution for “idiots.” He was given mandatory labor, received scant education, and was housed in a dilapidated dormitory ruled by a harsh attendant. Because he was well-behaved, he and a few other boys were invited to join the Science Club, where Quaker Oats and MIT researchers secretly served radioactive oatmeal as part of a study on calcium absorption.

Even with those atrocities, the worst, according to Boyce, was the indignity of being labeled a “moron,” a term that stuck with him as he struggled to find employment after discharge. Finally, he began working at carnivals and fairs, operating games of chance. He bought his own booth and traveled the amusement circuit all his life.

In 2004, Boyce and six other Fernald alumni petitioned Massachusetts Governor, Mitt Romney, to expunge the word moron from their records. They also wanted a formal apology.

In May of 2005, at the age of 63, Boyce received a letter from the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation stating that he “was not mentally retarded.”

He died of colon cancer three days later.

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