four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
12-Sept-Oct-2004
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0
A-StateBoysRebellionIn 1949, Freddie Boyce was shipped to the Walter E. Fernald School for the Feebleminded in Waltham, Massachusetts. Like other Progressive-era institutions, Fernald meant to save the American public—and its gene pool—from the "moron." State records later showed that Boyce, like many other orphans at Fernald, was normal, a mere victim of poverty, poor education, and abuse. But the State Boys fared no better at Fernald, where they faced sexual assault and forced lobotomies, shock therapy, and sterilization. "Keep in mind that we didn’t commit any crimes," an adult Bryce later said. "We were just seven-year-old orphans." The children repeatedly asserted their normalcy, culminating in a ward takeover in 1957 and eventual freedom.

D’Antonio weaves together the story of a group of State Boys and the history of eugenics and human intelligence policies in the mid-20th century. He follows Boyce’s life through the 1990s, when the press discovered that many State Boys had been fed radioactive oatmeal as part of a Cold War experiment underwritten by MIT and Quaker Oats. Led by Boyce, former State Boys sued and won a multimillion-dollar settlement. Nonetheless, "[t]hese guys had their lives ruined because people where trying to do good," a legal researcher said. "That may be the scariest thing about it."
Simon & Schuster. 308 pages. $25. ISBN: 0743245121

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"It is a vivid, careful, and ultimately momentous piece of journalism, the kind that can set a country back on the right path. … [D’Antonio] never loses sight of the genuinely sacred piece of this deeply disturbing history: the lives of innocent children, and their treatment by arrogant leaders who even now debate the wisdom of closing the Fernald facility and offering an apology to these boys, now men in their latter years ..." Thomas J. Cottle

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"D’Antonio’s revelations, culled from dozens of survivors, recently released documents and pit-bull reporting, would have been a book in itself. … [he] shows not only how systemic the abuses were (there were more than 100 such state-run asylums), but also, for added horror, he reveals how the national philosophy directly contributed to the Nazis’ genetic ideology behind the Holocaust." Neal Karlen

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"D’Antonio’s narrative strikes an admirable balance between the larger social context and scientific theories. … The openness and honesty of Fred Boyce and his classmates concerning their experiences at Fernald, as rendered here, is a significant contribution in itself, filling in a missing piece of our experience and memory." Anthony Walton

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]his book has great value because it is a powerful cautionary tale. Stephen Jay Gould’s classic Mismeasure of Man warned that pseudoscience and half-digested scientific knowledge posed great dangers if used to address social and political problems. … In moving and eloquent detail, Michael D’Antonio shows what happens to people when public policy enacts bad science." E. Anthony Rotundo

Hartford Courant 3 of 5 Stars
"The State Boys Rebellion is not a history of eugenics and barely touches on the fascinating and controversial story about the use and misuse of intelligence tests. Instead, it is a straight narrative, mostly told by through the stories of the boys themselves." Bill Hathaway

Critical Summary

DreamWorks Pictures recently purchased the film rights to State Boys Rebellion, the retelling of one of America’s most shameful episodes in history. Fernald was no anomaly. Similar institutions, fostering more than 250,000 mostly normal (if unprivileged) children, survived through the 1970s. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist D’Antonio, author of acclaimed books including Atomic Harvest, recounts this heartbreaking story through archival research and interviews with former State Boys and Fernald administrators.

D’Antonio generally strikes a fair balance between the State Boys’ stories and the larger context that produced "the moron as a public danger"—the Progressive-era reforms that posited "subnormal" children as subspecies and the gross misuse of intelligence and radiation testing during the Cold War. "Most troubling" of all, D’Antonio writes, "is that it all began with a grand desire to do good." As he shows in simple, effective prose, this "good" had vast consequences, ranging from the inhumane treatment of the individual to Nazi ideology. State Boys is, The Washington Post notes, a "crusading book" and "powerful cautionary tale." At heart, it’s also something more: a courageous tale of children asserting their humanity and changing their fate through small acts of resistance.