The Girls and Boys of Belchertown
A Social History of the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded
Published by: University of Massachusetts Press
The Girls and Boys of Belchertown offers the first detailed history of an American public institution for intellectually disabled persons. Robert Hornick recounts the story of the Belchertown State School in Belchertown, Massachusetts, from its beginnings in the 1920s to its closure in the 1990s following a scandalous exposé and unprecedented court case that put the institution under direct supervision of a federal judge. He draws on personal interviews, private letters, and other unpublished sources as well as local newspapers, long out-of-print materials, and government reports to re-create what it was like to live and work at the school. More broadly, he gauges the impact of changing social attitudes toward intellectual disability and examines the relationship that developed over time between the school and the town where it was located.
What emerges is a candid and complex portrait of the Belchertown State School that neither vilifies those in charge nor excuses the injustices perpetrated on its residents, but makes clear that despite the court-ordered reforms of its final decades, the institution needed to be closed.
"An important addition to scholarly literature, not only because it is an excellent history, but also because Hornick includes the perspectives of parents and relatives, state and institutional officials, direct-care workers, and the citizens of Belchertown, as well as the institution's residents themselves. I was particularly struck by the book's ending—an ending that gives two former residents of the Belchertown State School the 'final say.'—James W. Trent, author of Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States
"[Hornick] skillfully connects the demise of this particular institution to the attitudes and beliefs that informed broader 19th- and 20th-century U.S. public policies on the education and control of people who were variously labeled imbeciles, morons, and mentally retarded.. . . By unearthing obscure archival records and conducting interviews with now elderly Belchertown State School former residents and attendants, Hornick has made a substantive contribution to the field now called intellectual and developmental disabilities. He animates the historical facts with details that match my childhood memories: Elvis Presley's voice incongruously blaring from the loudspeakers of a carousel on the school's grounds, the intimidating granite steps of the administration building, the one-month waiting period before family could visit a newly admitted resident. . . . Belchertown State School is now closed, but its existence continues to affect the lives of countless individuals. Hornick's excellent and engaging history provides a welcomed context for the wide-reaching personal and policy impacts of the school."—Sharon Flanagan-Hyde, sister of former Belchertown State School resident
"Hornick is interested in telling the story of Belchertown State School from all perspectives, and he includes the experiences of direct-care workers, managers, state officials, town residents, patients themselves and parents. . . . The author also gauges the impact of changing social attitudes toward people with disabilities. Hornick notes that his book--including subtitle--uses terms that are considered offensive today but which were socially acceptable during much of the period his narrative covers."—The Hampshire Gazette
"[A]n almost charming account of an institution and set of events devoid of charm. . . . Hornick tells his story well. It's a good story, but why should sociologists care? First, the Belchertown State School, as an example of similar institutions, is a lesson in how good intentions go awry. . . .Second, Belchertown exemplifies how scandals operate. [A] scandal is often about publicizing already known but unnoticed facts and . . . reframing them as a violation of newly developing sets of standards. Third, although deviance has largely disappeared as a framework in sociology, there is still room for the study of stigma. . . . [M]ental retardation is a condition onto which, as Hornick shows, we have long read hopes and fears, prejudices and sympathies, ideas about what makes (and unmakes) humanity. [Mental retardation] fits remarkably well into the framework of stigmatization which examines how we make sense of difference. Hornick reminds us of the intellectual opportunity missed."—Contemporary Sociology